#MeToo on the 1930s silver screen

WTOP | 3/3/2018 | The Associated Press
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(THE CONVERSATION) Time’s 2017 Person of the Year was “The Silence Breakers,” a growing contingent of women who have been speaking out about sexual harassment by men in positions of power.

But the sexual exploitation of women is hardly something new. As Time observed, the #MeToo movement “has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.”

Order - Course - Fall - Women - Films

In order to prepare for a course I’ll be teaching next fall about working women in 1920s and 1930s films, I’ve been watching a lot of movies from the period. And I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how much casual sexual harassment – a term that wouldn’t exist until decades later – was depicted on screen during those years.

In recent months, we’ve seen the exploitative behavior of powerful men exposed. But these movies from the 1930s show how far back these perverse values go, and how integral they were to Hollywood’s imagining of women’s lives.

Motion - Picture - Association - America - Production

In 1934, the Motion Picture Association of America adopted a Production Code that suppressed representations of sex and violence.

In the years before the code began to be enforced, filmmakers frequently depicted sexual coercion on the big screen.

Films - Place - Milieu - Class - Women

Many of these films took place in a Depression-era urban milieu. They featured unmarried, working class women struggling to pay the rent, mend their worn out stockings, and decide between dinner or carfare. And in movies from “Millie” (1931) to “The Week-End Marriage” (1932) there’s a familiar pattern of sexual aggression towards these women.

A male shop owner, business executive, restaurant patron or department store customer promises a woman resources – nice clothes, a fancy apartment, career advancement – or marriage (once their wives divorce them, of course). In exchange, they want sex. Maybe it’s just for a weekend; maybe it’s for longer.

Men - Promises - Marriage - Job - Life

When the men get what they want, their initial promises – marriage, a better job, a life...
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