Women On Screen: Roles for Women
Perils of Pauline poster
A poster for The Perils of Pauline, 1914.
The development of the star system inadvertently led many actresses to be typecast in specific roles or types of films. One of the earliest examples is serials. Serials were recurring films that featured the same character moving through a continuing storyline. Serials popularized the cliffhanger, hoping to guarantee that audience members would come back to the theater the next week to see the resolution. The films “offered female audiences ongoing narratives that contravened classical plot structures and promoted unique modes of ongoing, intertextual, even desperate, enjoyment that challenged typical viewing habits.”15 According to historian Shelly Stamp, serials “marked the first sustained, deliberate attempt to cultivate (and cater to) female patronage on a national scale. Serials celebrated cinema’s potential to nurture a female fan base.”16 In the early days of film, women frequently starred in and remained the top draws in the action serials even when male stars began to dominate the genre in the 1930s. 

Perils of Pauline still shot
Pearl White, being pulled from a manhole, starred in 224 films from 1910 to 1924, including
15 episodes from the popular silent series "The Perils of Pauline."
Courtesy of Indiana University.
The most popular serial was The Perils of Pauline, (see video below) starring Pearl White.  The Perils of Pauline ran for twenty episodes in 1914. Pearl White did many of her own stunts in this film series and one of the most famous “perils” that she found herself in was being tied to the train tracks in front of an oncoming train, a plot device that was subsequently recreated in many different films. She continued on to star in other serials such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915). The character of Pauline perfectly typifies the serial heroine: a “plucky” young woman “cast adrift from conventional family relationships” so that she was free to experience her many adventures, using her “unrivaled strength,” “bravado,” and intelligence to navigate various crises.17

Serial heroines appealed to turn-of-the-century female film audiences because the young working women empathized with the characters on screen who, cast adrift from their families, navigated the new industrial and urban world.18 Though the serials implied that only women without familial ties could move through the urban world, they also provided examples of women eventually achieving the domestic ideal despite their supposedly unorthodox adventures. Despite their bravado, serial heroines always eventually ended their adventures by surrendering their freedom to marriage or a return to family. These heroines therefore modeled the traits necessary for young working women to survive in the new working world of the city, but also demonstrated that a woman’s main goal remained finding a husband and entering the domestic sphere.19 Though the films depicted female liberation, they ultimately reinforced that all film heroines and therefore all working girls eventually had to settle down and marry. Serial films ostensibly permitted women freedom and adventure as long as they did not upset the predetermined social order that dictated they eventually accept and even embrace patriarchy and the domestic ideal.

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