- Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld
For feminist scholars, comedy has long been a fraught and polarizing topic. Citing theories of the comic that position laughter as a form of ridicule and social control, many have critiqued humor for its patriarchal oppression and violence toward women. At the same time, others have attempted to rescue comedy, arguing for its potential to upset social hierarchy and lampoon the status quo. This is why, as Maggie Hennefeld argues in Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, a large portion of female slapstick films from the 1890s-1910s has been left unexamined. That they do not fit easily into either side of the above opposition has resulted in their relative absence from many feminist histories of comedy or early cinema. In her book, Hennefeld's goal is not to label her objects as exclusively feminist or anti-feminist, but rather to "inherit the 'bad objects' along with the 'good' ones" (17), and embrace their uneven, conflicting relationships to feminism as a reflection of the era's own messy transitions. Throughout her study, she demonstrates how female slapstick correlates in complex ways to the socio-economic shifts of industrialization, the political upheavals of the early suffrage movement, and the industrial changes of early cinema.
Specters is divided into three sections that take the reader on a roughly chronological journey through an archive of female slapstick films. Part I provides a theoretical and methodological foundation for the rest of the study, addressing why this style of comedy appealed to early screen audiences and the role that it played in cinema's development. In Chapter 1, "Early Cinema and the Comedy of Female Catastrophy," for instance, Hennefeld draws connections between the comedienne's violent eruption in films such as Mary Jane's Mishap and the hazards of female life at the turn of the century. She examines the condescension and levity with which contemporary newspapers reported on women who suffered injuries (often fatal) while laboring in factories or in domestic settings, and argues that the tone of such press coverage set a precedent for the films' comedic rendering of women's pain. Throughout the chapter, Hennefeld uses popular print and visual culture to explain how exploding female bodies helped audiences work through social anxieties over new technology, the domestic role of women, and the ethnic heterogeneity introduced by immigration and labor conditions. Especially interesting is Hennefeld's theorization of female spectators, who comprised a significant part of the early film audience and were thus asked to witness– and take pleasure in–their own annihilation. Employing the theoretical perspectives of Ralph Ellison and others, Hennefeld describes how a certain double identification is necessary for a viewer to take pleasure in seeing herself abused on screen. But such pleasure has a subversive edge: as Ellison has claimed, the laughter of the oppressed has the capacity to confound the dominant group, and therefore poses a threat to those in power.
Part II takes up films of the transitional period (1907-1915) and contends that their representation of women's bodies offered a corporeal metaphor for film's evolution in response to industrial and cultural pressures. In Chapter 4, "The Geopolitics of Transitional Film Comedy," Hennefeld uses Louis Althusser's theory of overdetermination to explore how different production companies' treatment of female corporeality represents differences in cultural expectation, audience, and economic competition. Through a comparison of films from the American studio Vitagraph and the French studio Pathé, Hennefeld argues that censorship and new standards of [End Page 65] propriety in the U.S. shaped Vitagraph's films, which favored female dismemberment as its key visual trick and grew increasingly rigid in its narrative distinction between reality and fantasy. For Hennefeld, the brittleness of women's bodies reflected the company's precarious position in a society suddenly concerned with social uplift. Pathé's position as a global competitor similarly influenced its representation of women. As Hennefeld argues, its "fluid geopolitical and financial positioning" (121) can be read in the company's metamorphosing...