The Flapper Film

The Flapper Film as the epitome of Jazz Age’s turning point in American female subjectivity: women’s identification, economic power and sexuality.

 

The cinematic apparatus is the reflexion of its contemporary time, and in what I am concerned, of femininity. The Jazz Age and the Flapper Film are particularly interesting in studying the shift from a Victorian self-abnegated femininity to a more modern femininity, closer to the one we know today. As cinema became a more and more influential culture media, correlated with this radical shifting femininity epitomized by the sexually-liberated, short-dressed and short-hair-cut flapper, the question is whether Hollywood shaped this femininity to emerge or it was inspired by women of the twenties themselves or were they both shaping and expanding each other’s phenomenon. How does the Flapper film expresses women’s ambivalent behaviours in this time of temporal freedom and folly but still largely conservative? Is the Flapper film really a liberator or does it underlie new forms of constraints, like self-commodification and self-objectification? My aim is to discuss the “links between cinema, mass consumer culture, and construction of gender.”[1]

I shall discuss the Flapper Film within a historical and economical context. I will demonstrate how it is influential on the culture and therefore subjectivity and sexuality. Lastly, I will study how female subjectivity is submitted to contradictions due to a shifting representation of women from the Victorian mother and wife to the modern flapper.

 

First, I must inscribe the Flapper Film within the historical and economical context of the twenties. Known as the “Roaring Twenties,” those years were a time of emancipation for women yet still anchored in the Victorian mentality. After the Great War, women, drawing on their experience of working instead of men, had gained independence (by 1929, nearly eleven million women were working outside the home, compared to seven million in 1919).[2] The American economy recovered from war and recession. The country was therefore ready for change and break with the past. Along with the twenties’ prosperity was the development of the film industry and Hollywood, which were always seeking broader audiences. As Marsha Orgeron points out, “with increasing numbers of women entering the job market and becoming wage earners, women were being taken seriously as economic forces, particularly, it seems, by the movie industry.”[3]

This decade is characterized by prosperity, materialism, crazes, jazz and flappers.[4] In the nineteenth century the term “flapper” referred to a prostitute but in the twenties it evoked the young fashionable women wearing lipstick and smoking cigarettes, and this figure was largely spread in the Twenties’ films. The flapper film par excellence, which illustrates this image of a fashionable, seductive and playful girl, is It (Clarence Badger, 1927), starring the “super-flapper-of-them-all”[5] Clara Bow. “It” refers to that “something special” which makes a girl stand out, and also to sex, giving the film an erotic dimension. Clara Bow impersonates the It-Girl and was a source of identification for the 1920s New Women. As she played an impertinent yet witty and charming shop girl, the targeted audience, urban working young women, Clara Bow was easily and pleasantly identifiable. Through the medium of fan magazines and advertising, the female spectator could appropriate to herself what made Clara Bow, like her red hair. “Details about her hair color, favourite perfume, and so on also served to make Bow an imitable commodity, as is evident in the increase of the henna sales in the late 1920s. not only were the details of the star’s life made public, they ‘belonged’ to the public and were made […] purchasable.”[6] Hollywood stars were already a strong vehicle for advertising. The star persona is therefore a successful-selling label thanks to the fascination they generate. According to Miriam Hansen, “the cinema generated a metadiscourse of consumption… a phantasmagoric environment in which boundaries between ‘looking’ and ‘having’ were blurred [thanks to]”[7] the stimulation of new needs and new desires through visual fascination, [turned itself] into a commodity.” What is on screen appears to be “real” for uninitiated spectator of the Twenties, this “realness of the illusion” had a strong resonance. A “reality” where everything is possible “Betty Lou is the ideal consumer: she sees, she wants, and, in the end, she gets.”

So, are the flappers that special? Clara Bow certainly is, but this frenetic copying of look-personality can be seen as a mindless fashion-following rather than a deep identity expression. As Miriam Hansen says, “the cinema became a powerful vehicle for reproducing spectators as consumers, an apparatus for binding desire and subjectivity in consumerists forms of social identity.”[8] Identity is consequently purchasable, through commodities (fashion, make-up…).

In a Marxist approach, arts are primarily “justifications for the capitalist social order.”[9] For Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, “subjective identity is conferred upon the individual via external signifying practices.”[10] In other words, media influence how people see themselves, or how “an individual can become captivated by an image with which they identify.” 26 As I mentioned earlier, the twenties are known for their crazes and their frenetic consumption. Flappers were a craze. Thus, if subjectivity is influenced by images, produced by the culture industry (cinema), does it mean that identities – here, the female identity – is a product like another and is shaped according to what pleases the economy?

Max Horkheimer speaks of “the culture industry”: “Culture had replaced religion as the new opium of the masses in framing a subtle order of conformism” and has become a “neutral entertainment (…) eviscerating all sense of critique and critical energy.”[11] Culture mirrors capitalism, and the Frankfurt School takes jazz to exemplify that reflexivity:[12]

On the surface jazz appears to the very embodiment of spontaneity, innovation and improvisation. In reality, however, all such improvisation is ultimately fake: it is always structured around certain musical motifs that govern its rhythms and repetitions […]: it is always so many variations on one theme.

According to that view, there is no such thing as individuality, but “pseudoindividuality”, where everything is copied with slight differences. The Flapper would be a commercial construction like another. However, even though I think capitalism had (and has) a direct influence on women’s representation and perception of themselves, I do believe that the Flapper expressed part of women’s subjectivity of the time, not only influenced by economics.

 

 

As I said earlier, the female audience was targeted by the film industry: “A Photoplay article from 1924 suggests that the American film audience was 75 percent women while Moving Picture World article of 1927 cites women’s 83 per cent majority at the movies.”[13] However the film industry’s female targeting was not to American society liking because as in It, female erotic powers were displayed, and more importantly, women’s active desire and seeking for sexual pleasure, not only for procreating purposes was expressed and the film industry was blamed for it.[14]  The contemporary sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross “declared that the movies were making young women (and men) more ‘sex-wise, sex-excited, and sex-absorbed than … any generation of which we have acknowledge.”[15] Indeed, cinema is the most sensuous art that has been created, and above all, as I mentioned earlier, the most illusionist of them. Moreover, Clara Bow was known for “embodiment of kinaesthetic,”[16] that is to say her dancing, slapstick skills, realised through her body. All along the film, Clara Bow conveys an incredible energy, for she almost never stops moving, making her more of a tomboyish and bubbly girl than a dangerous and solemn vamp, rending her erotic power more accessible.

The New Woman of the Twenties was considered a threat because she was acquiring gradually the control of her sexuality. Their sexual demands were more and more legitimised thanks to “the advent of reliable birth control, the childless ‘companionate’ model of marriage, and a new sexual consciousness linked to Freudianism”[17] Acquiring equality in sexuality is disturbing for patriarchal ideology because patriarchy is based, obviously, on sexual division, based on the superiority of masculinity, based on penis superiority. By putting the two sexes (and sexualities) on the same equality level, patriarchy is challenged at its foundation, as evidenced by this quote:[18]

By actively seeking sexual pleasure, American women of the 1920s were widely believed to be usurping a male prerogative more powerful and precious than the vote. In response, countless doctors, psychologists, anthropologists, and social commentators accused American women of destroying the norms of heterosexual relations, eroding the boundaries between the sexes, and sending American masculinity into rapid decline. Universal suffrage and female employment were not cited as the chief culprits in these distressing trends; women’s assertion of their right to seek sexual gratification was.

During the twenties, slight shifts occurred in courtship rules. Women, thanks to their economic independence, felt authorised to be less passive in flirting and to express more clearly their desires and choices. Even though the patriarchal frame remained, a frail breach was opened: “In the 1920s […] American ideals of femininity changed in profound ways. The structures of American society remained patriarchal, but they were not impervious to change.”[19] Of course, Betty Lou incarnates an exaggerated illustration of that shift; she set her eyes on Waltham and since then she was determined to get him and her determination paid off. As a matter of fact, she was active and Waltham passive; Betty Lou is a “caricature of the New Woman: desiring to near animalistic proportions,”[20] a consumer in every sense of the word.

Clara Bow was definitely a model for the Twenties’ women. Through her persona, on-screen and off-scree, they could live their dreams and phantasies they could not achieve in a conservative society. They were stuck between that freer ideal and “the sexual strictures of the dominant culture”: “ Clara Bow […] provided an opportunity for women to fantasize about engaging in rule-shattering behaviour, to identify with a fantastical sexual identity that was simply impossible […] for the vast majority of women.”[21]

As a matter of fact, Clara Bow-Betty Lou in It has the manly power to be in charge of the gaze, and when she is being-looked-at, it is because she decided to be looked-at. “Betty Lou (…) controls the gaze through the knowledge of her sexual attractiveness, which enables her to eventually gain social status.”[22] Indeed, her mischievous personality doubled with her sex-appeal makes her irresistible. Her seductive power is illustrated when Waltham is about to take her back to land because he believes she is the mother of an illegitimate baby, and therefore depraved (fig. 1), her lascivious posture and look troubles him – the effect is accentuated by the shots/reverse shots – (fig. 2, 3) and makes him renounce (fig. 4, 5, 6). Here, Betty Lou’s happiness depends only on her looks more than her wit. The film is also about live beyond social boundaries, pleasing the targeted audience, “working girls with sufficient wages but even bigger dreams. These ‘New Women,’ as they were called (…) challenged gendered social divisions with their behaviour, alerting the world to their ‘newness’ through bold visual statements in the form of shorter haircuts and skirt length.”[23] Flappers would defy conventions, traditions, expressing their modernity through their clothes and behaviours.

All in all this liberation of women’s behaviours and bodies was exhibited and enhanced by the film industry, so much so “Hollywood emerged in the American consciousness as the major source of imagery and energy for the sexual revolution.” But is the new exhibition of women’s bodies a sexual revolution or new form of burden, imposed by men or women themselves?

 

 

 

(1)    (2)

 

(3)    (4)

 

(5)    (6)

 

The women’s progressive appropriation of their sexuality had to be counteracted by giving boundaries to women’s bodies by patriarchy but also by women themselves. The changes as regards sexuality, expressed in the flapper film had a direct impact on women’s subjectivity, because the flapper film unifies “the complexities of the relationships between the female spectator and the female star, and of women’s experience of modern life.”[24] I do believe that women have a masochistic tendency induced by patriarchal society. “Doane has suggested that the coercive power of consumerism inevitably makes the woman into a passive subject whose desire is reduced to a narcissistic and/or masochistic position of self-commodification. (…)”[25]If we take a phallocentric point of view, everything revolves around the man, who is the reference. Therefore, the woman can only “exist” either by being a mother or an object of desire (the flapper). But this would be too simplistic.

Both expressions of repression and resistance were expressed through the stars’ personas and fan magazines, in response to women’s’ unease about a life ruled by paradoxes, especially in a mores-changing society: “women not only experienced the misfit of the female spectator in relation to patriarchal positions of subjectivity but also developed imaginative strategies in response to it.”[26] As Orgeron explains, contemplating stars is also a way to contemplate oneself thanks to identification. There is a masochistic pleasure of admiring a “better” subject/object than what/who we are, because the lack is filled by this perfected, yet identifiable figure: “the interplay between individual lack and ideal objects of desire that are created by the perfect images of stardom.” [27]

However women were not just comparing (copying, despising, admiring…) themselves in relation to those images of femininity. They would also play with the parts they were offered for their own womanhood, “a playful masquerade [many women of the twenties] were engaged in an attempt to resituate themselves in relation to changing concepts of female social and sexual identity.”[28] In other words, copying a star’s looks or features, or following trends was a way of performing femininity, wear a mask to slalom between the codes of the seductive flapper to the Victorian proprieties. Films could express that ambivalence, which in everyday-life was limited to appearance and clothing rather than act. Contradictions and limits in eroticism display are shown in It. After Betty-Lou slapped Waltham the night before because he kissed her, she comes to him to excuse herself “I am sorry – but a girl has to do that. You know how these things are!” (1) This sentence, emphasized by the word “has” in italic summarize all the contradictions of the flapper, the necessity to play a role in seduction and in gender performance framed by social conventions. Yet her seductive posture, lying down on her boss/date’s desk tells the exact opposite (2).

Fan magazines epitomize those paradoxes and demonstrate “the interrelatedness of movie and other consumer cultures.”[29] For example, the erotical emancipation of Clara Bow’s characters were praised yet her life was blamed because of numerous sex scandals, associated with her film persona and a said-to-be rapacious and compulsive sexuality. Her private life and sex scandals were largely forwarded by the press, illustrating a new consumption good: the gossip. Contrary to the nineteenth century, gossiping was assumed without complexes“This tacit and reciprocal encouragement of publicity stood in direct contrast to the late-nineteeth-century belief that curiosity about the personal affairs of others –even public figures – was crude and improper. But by the 1920s, curiosity had been institutionalized and in effect normalized”[30]

 

(1)     (2)

 

 

 

 

 

To conclude, I inscribed the Flapper film withing the context of the Roaring Twenties, a time characterized by materialism and changing mores, notably as regards women. I explained the impact of economics and industry in shaping women’s identity to create new needs and consumption. However the Flapper character was indeed a symptom of a changing female identity and subjectivity, towards modernity but still tied to traditional values, as exemplified by Betty Lou, who navigates between boundaries a femininity made of contradictions, seduction and craftiness. Even though the Flapper films did not reflect the reality of most American women, it did give a glimpse to another form of womanhood, with its flaws and increasing sex-objectification, but at least with some semblance of a choice and freedom. As Marsha Orgeron writes about Clara Bow, she “became a symbol of all the behavioural possibilities opened up by women’s postsuffrage liberation, for this was an era dominated by prosperity and gaiety, particularly in the cinema’s depiction of the contemporary world.”[31]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Daly, Glyn. “Marxism.” In The Routledge Companion to Critical Studies, edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, 68-87. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Jones, Huw. “Theory, History and Context.” In The Routledge Companion to Critical Studies, edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, 22-34. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Landay, Lori. “The Flapper Film: Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age.” In A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra 221-250. Durham and London: Durham University Press, 2002.

Orgeron, Marsha. “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom and Consumer Culture.” In Cinema Journal 42, no. 4 (Summer 2003): 76-97.

Palmer, Niall. The Twenties in America: Politics and History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Studlar, Gaylyn. “The Perils of Pleasure? Fan Magazine Discourse as Woman’s Commodified Culture in the 1920s.” In Silent Film edited by Richard Abel. 263-297. London: Athlone, 1996.

 

Filmography

 

It. Clarence Badger. 1927; Image Entertainment, 2004. DVD.

 

 

[1] Lori Landay, “The Flapper Film: Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham and London: Durham University Press, 2002): 221.

[2] Niall Palmer, The Twenties in America: Politics and History, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006):  124.

[3] Marsha Orgeron, “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom and Consumer Culture,” in Cinema Journal 42, no. 4 (Summer 2003): 81.

[4] Palmer, 1-2.

[5] Landay, 240.

[6] Orgeron, 77.

[7] Orgeron, 84.

[8] Orgeron, 78.

[9] Huw Jones, “Theory, History and Context,” in The Routledge Companion to Critical Studies, 2nd edition, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 25.

[10] Jones, 27.

[11] Glyn Daly, “Marxism,” in The Routledge Companion to Critical Studies, 2nd edition, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 74.

[12] Daly, 74-75.

[13] Gaylyn Studlar, “The Perils of Pleasure? Fan Magazine Discourse as Woman’s Commodified Culture in the 1920s,” in Richard Abel (ed.) Silent Film (London: Athlone, 1996), 263.

[14] Studlar, 274.

[15] Studlar, 274.

[16] Landay, 240.

[17] Studlar, 272.

[18] Studlar, 272.

[19] Studlar, 269.

[20] Orgeron, 87.

[21] Orgeron, 89.

[22] Orgeron, 93.

[23] Orgeron, 80.

[24] Landay, 224.

[25] Studlar, 292.

[26] Orgeron, 79.

[27] Orgeron, 79.

[28] Studlar, 272.

[29] Studlar, 275.

[30] Studlar, 275.

[31] Orgeron, 80.

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