The Birth of Film: Women as Audience
Exterior of the Knickerbocker Theatere
A movie etiquette card from 1912 reminding women of the proper behaviors
in the public sphere.
Library of Congress.
While these new additions to movie theaters promoted the attendance of women at movies and helped legitimize theaters as a safe social space for women, the promotion of self-display backfired on many theater owners. Women did not just passively receive the expectations and behaviors that theater owners had dictated. While they did sometimes adopt prescribed behavior, they often took trends to their own extremes. While theater owners succeeded in making movie theaters a safe place of hetero-social interaction, many women became more interested in displaying themselves than watching the movie. They often talked loudly through screenings and wore clothing that was equally distracting. The large and ostentatious hats that they often refused to remove were the most notable, especially since the hats often blocked other patrons’ view of the screen. While women had learned to be active participants in the social aspects of movie-going, they had not yet learned accepted theater etiquette that stipulated they be passive viewers of the films they had ostensibly come to see.6 It is important to remember, however, that the focus on disruptive women that occurred in the press did not indicate that the majority of women were acting or dressing ostentatiously. Whatever the balance of truth, an examination of these sources does reveal that men were concerned about how women behaved in these newly created and accessible public spaces.

Interior of the Knickerbocker Theatere
Interior of the Knickerbocker Theatere in Washington, DC from October 1917.
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-npcc-30825.
Though the changes theater owners made to their businesses began to alter negative perceptions of movie going, the presence of women at films, especially in a hetero-social setting, still made many people nervous. The phenomenon of young working girls moving around large urban centers unescorted and interacting with strange males was still new, engendering fears that women would be assaulted or kidnapped as they moved through public leisure spaces like movie theaters. Ironically, films often attempted to deal with these fears, most notably through the popular and sensational “white slave genre,” which consisted of movies that depicted young white women being kidnapped and abused by evil city dwellers (usually immigrants).

The sensationalistic films proved to be incredibly popular despite or perhaps because of their racy subject matter. They caused quite a panic among social reformers, even though various studies proved their subject matter came almost completely out of rumor and speculation. Interestingly, women lined up to see the films in droves, proving that female audiences remained interested in bawdy films despite perceived social norms that viewed this interest as inappropriate. Historians Janet Staiger and Shelly Stamp speculate that sensational films, like white slave films, appealed to women so much not only because of their ability to titillate, but because of their voyeuristic qualities: while women gained increasing mobility in public spaces, large parts of the city remained inaccessible to them. White slave films and others like them allowed women to see these forbidden parts of the city, which gave them an increased sense of mobility, even if they themselves hadn’t moved through the public spaces they saw on screen.