- Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film by Alicia Malone
Alicia Malone. Coral Gables: Mango Publishing, 2017, 242 pp.
Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film presents its subject as a series of narrative snapshots of notable women working in front of and behind the cameras in Hollywood that, taken cumulatively, speak to the barriers that women have overcome and those that they still face in the film industry. Author Alicia Malone opens the book by explaining that the initial motivation for this book came from her desire as a young woman to read more about women working in film. That said, Malone does not aim for an exhaustive record of women working in film but instead has handpicked several notable figures from each era to examine, and in discussing their experiences, she highlights issues facing women in the industry at those respective times, drawing on research on women in film. The resulting critical biographical sketches are written so as to be read separately or in whatever order readers might choose, depending on their specific interests. However a reader approaches the book, Malone’s aim is to have the reader join with her “in keeping the pressure on Hollywood to let more women in” (15).
Malone contrasts the hopeful beginnings of the film industry, where women were featured not just in front of the camera but behind it, with “the 1930’s onward, [when] Hollywood became a boys’ club” (21). This change, Malone explains, left women to try to recapture the accomplishments that they had enjoyed in Hollywood nearly a hundred years ago. Given the erasure of much of women’s early achievements in Hollywood, Malone revisits Hollywood’s androcentric history to reestablish women’s contributions. Malone revisits Hollywood successes by women and problematizes their stories by acknowledging the sexism, racism, abuse, and addictions the women struggled with and also by noting that those who succeeded carried the bittersweet knowledge that they had broken through when so many other women had not.
Part 1 of the book is the largest of Malone’s three sections and contains six subsections. The first of these subsections, “The First Pioneers (1890s–1920s),” comments on women’s early involvement across the burgeoning film industry. Figures profiled include Mary Pickford (businessperson), Alice Guy Blanché (first female filmmaker), Lois Webber (social issues director), Margaret Booth (first film editor), Frances Marion (writing), and Helen Holmes (action hero). Malone puts the power that women such as these wielded in perspective by noting, “And much of this happened before ladies could even vote” (21). The end of this period signaled a steep decline in opportunities for women in the industry.
The second and third subsections, “Struggling in the System (1930s)” and “Waging Their Own War (1940s),” track women’s film industry struggles during the Great Depression and World War II. Malone explores how 1930s filmmakers such as Dorothy Asner advanced women’s stories while figures such as Mae West, Hattie McDaniel, and Anna Mae Wong earned successes with strings attached, as the production code and racial/gender politics delineated the boundaries of their public—and in some cases, private—lives. Malone introduces the 1940s by citing how the iconic image of Rosie butted up against the silver screen pinup. Malone’s profiles of Hedy Lamarr, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth surpass the manufactured sex goddess images to feature the women as inventor, contract law pioneer, and poster child for Hollywood’s sexual exploitation of women and girls, respectively. Malone [End Page 92] describes Hayworth as a “perfect pin-up girl of the 1940s,” referencing her screen illusion that hid how she was “abused and manipulated through her entire life” (83).
Subsection four, “The Dream Factory (1950s),” and subsection five, “New Hollywood (1960s and 1970s),” see the nation return from war and women return to traditional roles onscreen while signs of change and the stifling of change can be seen in the careers of Dorothy Dandridge, Marilyn Monroe, and Ida Lupino. Change would manifest in the...