- Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? by Jane M. Gaines
Jane M. Gaines. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2018, 328 pp.
In 1925 there were more women working as directors in the film industry than there are now. And yet there has been little scholarship on those women until recently, and the average filmgoer remains under the impression that women never have had a huge presence behind the camera in American cinema or anywhere in the world. Acknowledging the active participation of women in the silent film industry at its inception, however, creates a tension between feminist scholarship, historical records, and our understanding of gender discrimination in Hollywood. One might get the impression from the title of Jane M. Gaines’s new book, Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries?, that an answer to that question lies within the book’s pages. But rather than answering the question, Gaines ponders the complexities of the question itself.
From the outset, Gaines makes clear her intentions, and anyone looking for a textbook about the numerous women who did, in fact, work in the film industry during the silent era will need to go elsewhere. Pink-Slipped is not really a history book so much as it is a philosophical exploration of history, archival film sources, and scholarship that leads us deeper down the rabbit hole and asks us to ponder not only the question in the book’s subtitle but also the larger question of how we can, in the present, ever understand the present of people in the past.
Although one hopes that any ethical historian would attempt to put aside his or her contemporary viewpoint in favor of objectively looking at the facts and evidence of past realities, Gaines rightly posits that this is an impossible task. This being the case, she takes issue with the scholarship of feminist film scholars in the 1970s. Gaines wonders why these scholars put forth the notion that there were no women participating in the nascent film industry of the early twentieth century when the evidence of their active role in shaping the industry was easily found in archives and in the evidence from the entertainment press of the past. Could it be that political and/or philosophical perspectives overshadowed historical research and integrity? Perhaps, Gaines argues, but most likely this issue resulted from the central difficulties of leaving aside one’s own present perspective on the past in favor of understanding the then-present realities of women who lived in the past, as well as those women’s conceptions of what their futures were. [End Page 94]
Gaines also recognizes how feminist scholarship over the past few decades has in a way reversed the original contention. With new evidence uncovered, including actual film prints, interviews, and so on, we are now in a place where some scholars promote a significance to women filmmakers of the past that may actually be exaggerated. The word “may” is important here, since Gaines does not directly contradict either of these competing narratives about women in film history; she only questions them.
She also uses examples to illustrate the problems of historiography when working with film in particular. Chapter 3 is devoted to a discussion of Alice Guy Blaché’s The Cabbage Fairy, which has been used as an example in recent years of how innovative Blaché was and of her proper place in the history of film development. However, as Gaines aptly demonstrates, Blaché’s own recollections of the film (recounted in her memoir), a publicity photo, the film print, and the actual content of that film conflict with each other and with the newly constructed narratives about The Cabbage Fairy as the “first fiction film.” The actual film that we now think is The Cabbage Fairy (even that is debatable) was discovered only in the late 1990s, after Blaché had been elevated through historical research that showed just how involved she was in making films at Gaumont in the first few years of motion pictures. When the film was discovered, rather...