The Birth of Film: Women as Audience
Norma Talmadge
Actress Norma Talmadge embodied the flapper look of the 1920s.
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-35550.
All of these complicated factors surrounding white slave films forced a dialogue about what was appropriate for women to watch, and in what ways it was acceptable to depict women on film. These films are also an excellent example of the ways in which film, from its very inception, became a tool to explore a nation’s anxiety about increasing urbanization and industrialization and what these changes meant for rapidly mutating social and gender mores.

The films also revealed an interesting dichotomy between what was deemed acceptable for women to watch and what they actually did watch. White slave films were “seedy,” but they gave female audiences a safe way to see dark parts of the city that they never would have viewed otherwise. In this way films protected women’s physical persons from harm, while allowing them freedom of movement through voyeurism.

Movies and film-going had repercussions beyond the large cities where they were initially shot and shown. Silent movies reached every little town in the nation during the 1920s, deeply changing the way that previously isolated people looked at the world. Film scholars have also argued that movies were greatly responsible for the changed values that characterized the Roaring Twenties. It is true that after almost a century of struggle, women won the vote in 1920, however, political reforms went hand in hand with social changes of the era, encapsulated in the development of the image of the young, urban, independent “New Woman.” Hollywood had a great deal to do with the shaping and spread of the image of the New Woman. Young women especially were fascinated by the appearance and lives of movie stars, and they emulated these models to a degree never seen before. In response to what women saw on movie screens, they cut their hair, raised their skirts, drove cars, smoked cigarettes, profoundly changing Americans’ ideas of what constituted acceptable female behavior.