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Established film histories discuss the burgeoning movie culture of the 1910s and 1920s in relation to female fans. Many trailblazing scholars, including Shelley Stamp, have discussed how the increasing feminization of cinemagoing in that time period intersected with wider shifts relating to urbanisation and modes of courtship. Heightened visibility of women in the public sphere fed into the debates on cinemas as threatening spaces. Numerous contemporary commentators saw dimly lit auditoria as places where young women and men can mingle or – worse even – engage in low level sexual activity.
While these notions have been investigated in the context of mainstream American culture, little attention has been paid to the way in which they played out in African American discourse. In other words, when film historians speak of women, what they really talk about are white women. By examining articles from black press, I aim to close this gap. In arguing that modes of historical spectatorship are complicated by the notions of race, class and gender, I aim to expose the peculiarities of black girls’ engagement with cinema in a geographically specific setting. African Americans operated in a racially prejudiced environment, which effectively structured their experience of commercialised leisure. Black intellectuals also encouraged youngsters to act respectably to ‘uplift the race’ as a whole.
Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls. Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)
Hilary Hallett, Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013)
Diana Anselmo, “Screen Struck: The Invention of the Movie Girl Fan,” Cinema Journal, vol. 55, no. 1 (Fall 2015): 1- 28
Allyson Nadia Field, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 231
Agata Frymus is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University, Belgium. Her research, which concentrates on racial politics during the silent film era, has been published in Early Popular Visual Culture; Historical Journal of Radio, Film and TV and Cinema Journal (forthcoming). Her upcoming book, Damsels and Divas (Rutgers University Press) explores the images of European stars in silent Hollywood.
So much of what we know about the reception of early US cinema is gleaned through the pages of film magazines or the published impressions of screen personalities. I set to excavate unknown accounts of film spectatorship through an examination of personal fan materials: movie scrapbooks, fan mail, and college memory books. I am particularly interested in film artifacts crafted by US- and foreign-born girls coming of age in the 1910s. Described as the original “adolescents” and “movie fans” by early twentieth-century journalists and psychologists, these girls’ personal repositories not only helps us track the cultural formation of queer (i.e. non-heterosexual, homoerotic, gender nonconforming, criminal, neuro-divergent) communities at a time female political activism and same-sex desire were openly pathologized, but also help historicize the diversity of responses to the first movie personalities—from aspirational consumption to social disenfranchisement, homoerotic longing and heteronormative entrapment. Suicide letters penned by movie-loving immigrant girls, for example, capture eugenicist discourses proliferating in the US, whose insidious glass-ceilings drove many foreign-born working girls to crime, incarceration, and death. Likewise, girls’ fan collages of actresses in drag and self- produced snapshots cross-dressing and kissing each other reveal an undocumented history of everyday queer life.
I will use this unknown archives a springboard to discuss the merits and difficulties of researching early film reception through first-person materials, the centrality of young female audiences to the formation of a profitable US star system, the role of “alternative” online archives (e.g. ebay, ancestry.com) in early film research, and the practical applications this type of historiographic work can have when teaching early cinema to a diverse body of students.
Diana W. Anselmo is an Assistant Professor of Film & Media History at Georgia State University. Her research on girl audiences has received grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the International Association for Media and History, among others. Her work has appeared on Cinema Journal, Screen, Camera Obscura, Feminist Media Histories, and Film History. She is currently revising a book on queer female reception in early Hollywood, under contract with the University of California Press.
The Universal studio’s most popular film of 1916 was Lois Weber’s _Where Are My Children?_ A controversial film that promoted birth control but condemned abortion, _WAMC_ played in dozens of countries and was a true worldwide hit. Though the movie was hugely successful on a macro level—critics around the globe praised it and hundreds of thousands of people saw it—its influence on a micro level is still largely unknown. In other words, we know very little about the affect _WAMC_ might have had on individual moviegoers or small groups of them. As a start toward addressing this informational gap, my proposed paper will examine the film’s impact on two representative audience members who attended exhibitions of _WAMC_ in Pocatello, Idaho: 27-year-old Lizzie Borgeson, and an anonymous young woman living in Pocatello with her husband and two small children. The basis for my paper is a 1921 journalistic piece by Borgeson, who was a neighbor of the anonymous woman noted above. In this essay, Borgeson described how the women met, their burgeoning friendship, and their highly differing reactions to _Where Are My Children?_ The essay focuses on a notable evening in 1916 when the women had a serious discussion about the film. Borgeson, a Mormon, approved of the film for its connection to her religious beliefs (e.g., the existence of souls prior to birth), whereas the other woman revealed that she herself had had an abortion several months earlier and that _WAMC_ had caused her to reflect deeply on that difficult and painful decision. Drawing upon this brief memoir and other historical sources, my proposed presentation will provide insight into the influence that an exceptionally famous film had on several young female audience members more than one hundred years ago.
Borgeson White, Lizzie O. “The War in Heaven.” _The Relief Society Magazine: Organ of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints_, January 1921.
Norden, Martin F. “The International Marketing and Reception of _Where Are My Children?_” Paper presented at the Women and the Silent Screen Congress, Pittsburgh PA, September 2015.
Norden, Martin F., ed. _Lois Weber: Interviews_. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019.
_R. L. Polk & Co’s Pocatello City and Bannock County Directory-1917, Vol. X_. Salt Lake City: R. L. Polk & Co., 1916.
Martin F. Norden teaches film history as Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. He has more than one hundred scholarly film publications to his credit and has presented his research at dozens of conferences across North America and Europe. He is the editor of _Lois Weber: Interviews_ (2019).
Throughout modern Japanese history, cinema audiences have continually acted and been imagined as social subjects, or, more specifically, the individual and collective units of humans associated with discursive terms such as ‘minshū’ (the people), ‘kokumin’ (the national populace), ‘tōa minzoku’ (the East Asian race), ‘taishū’ (the masses) and ‘shimin’ (citizens). This paper explores a new approach to cinema history by taking a case study of the Japanese historical connections between cinema audiences and social subjects. There are three theoretical key points in this approach. First is to analyze cinema audiences in terms not simply of their relationship with the onscreen image or viewing conditions, but of the discursive creation and circulation of historically constituted social subjects. This enables us to illuminate the complexity of cinema audiences from a far-reaching socio-historical perspective beyond the screen-spectator relationship. The second point is to conceptualize cinema audiences and the social subjects they feed into as simultaneously ‘subject’ (who is implicated, defined and normalized by discourses of power) and ‘agent’ (who deviates from such discursive implication, definition, and normalization). And, the last theoretical point is the concept of historical contingency, defined as social subjects who have never objectively, neutrally, or rationally existed, but have always been embedded in each historical context in which a variety of discursive, institutional, transmedial and personal factors arise and interlink with each other more or less unintentionally. I explicate this approach by building on theories on contingency developed by Michel Foucault, Ernesto Laclau, Niklas Luhmann, Judith Butler and Chantal Mouffe. In short, while exemplifying such a unique case as Japanese cinema history, this paper aims to bring an innovative perspective to approaching cinema audiences and by extension the social history of cinema and media.
Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London and New York: Verso, 1990); Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” in Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York and London: Routledge, 1992); Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London and New York: Verson, 1993); Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994).
Hideaki Fujiki is professor in cinema studies, Nagoya University. His publications include Making Personas: Transnational Film Stardom in Modern Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), Making Audiences: A Social History of Cinema and Media (University of Nagoya Press, 2019) and The Japanese Cinema Book co-edited with Alastair Phillips (BFI, 2020).
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