“Women talk.”

Jess Molyneux 

It’s not the only example of casual gender stereotyping in F.R.I.E.N.D.S which makes re-watching your favourite teenage TV show a revealing and uncomfortable experience. Ross is annoyed at Chandler for spilling the beans to his girlfriend Janice (who in turn spills them to Ross’s girlfriend Rachel) on his secret ‘hug and roll’ technique. And in his frustration, he seizes on the cultural trope of ‘gossipy women’ for blame.

There are quite a few of these intriguingly pervasive, and more intriguingly unfounded, myths about female speech floating around. Here we’re dealing with the idea of women who just can’t stop themselves sharing, which isn’t too far from that stereotype of ‘the loud mouth’, the fishwife, that inane, mundane female babbler. There’s this perception that little girls are chatterboxes and continue to be so into womanhood. Looking into the actual research in this area, though, is confounding because the linguistic reality is so at odds with our cultural perceptions.

In a study by linguist Marjorie Swacker, both men and women were asked to describe the events in a picture, and while female participants managed it in an average of just over three minutes, their male counterparts took over thirteen. Spender did a similar experiment, this time in an online environment with higher stakes: the topic in discussion was men’s literature. Over the course of 5 weeks, men contributed around 70% of the total words in the discussion. There were two days in that whole period where women said more than men – and on both of these days male participants actually complained about being drowned out. Woman don’t talk more than men. (Recognising, of course, that we can never really say ‘what women do’ and ‘what men do’ without generalising and homogenising, but speaking in terms of tracked trends.) But they do talk more than silence, and plenty of female linguists have come to the conclusion that that’s what we must be measuring women against whilst this myth continues to pervade.

We also have this idea that what women talk about is different from what men do. Words like ‘gossip’ are gendered, and we tend to assume that female conversation revolves around feelings, people, and other small-talk, rather than ‘things’ and politics. We might consider, if this is true, what it has to do with how gendered roles influence the conversation at our disposal, or we might think about how ridiculous it is to have an idea of what ‘female conversation’ looks like that could possibly come close to capturing the content of every woman-to-woman conversation in all the contexts of all the conversations taking place right now and throughout history.

Finally, we still like to believe certain things about the way women speak. Ever since linguist Robin Lakoff published her list of ‘women’s language’ features (based purely on anecdotal evidence) the linguistic community has, like the general one, had a script from which it assumes women will speak, and according to which it can judge and analyse their deviance from the male norm. Women, as propounded by Lakoff and the cultural consciousness from which her ideas sprung, use more empty adjectives, more super polite forms, more hedging, more conditional constructions. In short, fewer of the features that we would traditionally see as ‘powerful’.

But let’s think about what the reality might be. Some amazing studies by feminist linguists like Pamela Fishmann and Victoria DeFranscisco have shown us pretty damningly that it is women who ‘do the conversational shitwork’. That they’re certainly not the ones who are responsible for the majority of delayed, minimal, or absent responses. That they’re likely to ask more questions, to use more attention beginnings (‘Guess what?’, ’This is interesting…’), and more facilitative tag questions (‘wasn’t it?’, ‘wouldn’t you say?’) in order to engage their conversational partner. Male ‘statements’, by the by, which tended to be speaker-focussed and require far less conversational effort than women’s questions, were still, in the studies, two times more likely to elicit a response. This speaks volumes for the way we value the contributions of one gender in conversation.

In short, women have been proven to work harder to facilitate conversation than men, not least because it is expected of them, because it is viewed as part of ‘gender activity’. Those ‘powerless’ features that are supposedly characteristic of women, those maybes and coulds and don’t-you-thinks, might be better described as co-operative, considerate, facilitative, listener-oriented. Maybe it seems like women talk more because they’re the ones, as Fishmann puts it, who are doing ‘the active maintenance and continuation work’ in most of our conversations.

Maybe we’d do better to see ‘women’s talk’ as a valuable form of social interaction, and a necessary one when we think about the intersections between conversation and mental health. Maybe there’s something incredibly productive about talking, something uniquely important about natter. Maybe we’d do better to start celebrating and encouraging those voices which are keeping our conversations going.

Image source: Canva

Little Miss Chatterbox

Lucy Bell 

When I was little, I was often, affectionately (I think anyway), referred to as “Little Miss Chatterbox”. As far as I can recall, this was not used as an insult, or as a way to tell me essentially to shut up – it was just a way to describe me. So when, exactly, did I go from being the chatty one to being the loud one? When does talking become something that can be used against us, become more of an insult than simply a personality trait?

Not so long ago, when involved in a discussion with someone at school over America’s gun legislation, rather than present a reasoned argument to counter mine, the person I was debating it with referred to me as “hysterical” and “screeching”. I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I was furious. He may have been somewhat correct – I was becoming frustrated with the discussion, and it was something I was passionately sure of my opinion upon. Yet why should this be something I should be ashamed of? Why should this be something that can be used against me? I have never heard the words “hysterical” or “screeching” used to refer to a male, so why is it that this is how arguments against women can be won: by attacking their way of argument rather than the argument itself?

Now, studying at Cambridge, I think I probably remain the loud one. In the first few weeks, it was something I was incredibly conscious of. I know that I have a tendency to talk someone’s ear off, particularly if I’m meeting an abundance of new people and I’m a bit nervous (Fresher’s Week in a nutshell.) However I’m also pretty vocal in supervisions. In my eyes, this wasn’t something I expected to be an issue – yet I quickly noticed the pointed glances or rolling eyes when I chipped in again, or stopped to ask a question. Before long, I noticed that I began to censor myself – I tried to speak less, or to wait longer before answering, leaving, more than once, some uncomfortably long silences. But about halfway through term, as I began to become more confident in my surroundings, I started to question my new behaviour. I came to the realisation that if I wasn’t going to be myself here, If I wasn’t going to work hard and offer my opinions in my supervisions, thereby making the most out of them, then I was doing myself a disservice.

Maybe I do just talk too much sometimes. I know I probably do, and I certainly am making more of an effort to talk less, and listen more. (Burr’s line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton comes to mind: ‘Talk less, smile more’ – yet Hamilton’s response to this is ‘You can’t be serious?’) But I don’t think that being the loud one is something I should be ashamed of or try to change. If that’s how people are going to see me, I may as well make the most of it. Because being loud doesn’t have to be synonymous with being obnoxious, or being rude. To me, it means having the confidence (or getting there) to share my opinions, and to challenge others on theirs; to ask the question when I don’t understand something, and to answer it if I do. So if I have learnt anything in my journey to Cambridge and my first term here, it’s to embrace, and utilise, being the loud one.

Some of our favourite art by women

Cambridge Girl Talk committee (cover art by Anna Curzon Price)

Inspired by the amazing women’s art in the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Fitz, the inspiring New Hall Collection talk given by Katy Hessel (founder of the Instagram account, @thegreatwomenartists) on women artists 1550-1945, and especially by the announcement of our exciting upcoming art exhibition in Murray Edwards bar (the location of many of the best pieces by women in the world), the Cambridge Girl Talk committee decided to collate some of our favourite art by women. Here are our selections and what we have to say about them.

Bea on Alice Palser’s figures:

Alice Palser, who sadly passed away in 2015, was an extraordinarily talented artist who trained at the Slade school of art then went on to teach in schools in Suffolk. Amongst watercolour and oil paintings, she crafted figures of African women, using clay and resin, inspired by her childhood in Africa. These women sit or stand tall with disproportionately long bodies and longer feet.

Growing up, I didn’t see the appeal of her sculptures that my parents would be tempted into buying each time we ‘nipped in to’ Craftco, an independent art shop in Southwold. I have since grown particularly fond of them. They are simple but not understated and hold their own in our sitting room amongst bright coloured walls and furniture. Her work is clever and poignant and she imparted a sort of strength into her figures. They feel like a physical representation of powerful women and, particularly to me, of the inspiring women in my family.

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Image source: thestudio-gallery

Blanca chose the 1801 Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers:

I had seen this portrait before as a child in the Met and in passing on art journals and collages. I remember always being pacified by the glow and calm in this woman’s private space, with the subtle determination in her somewhat innocent look.

However I only found out its turbulent history at Katy Hessel’s 20th October talk on women artists. For a long time this painting was attributed to Villers’ mentor and contemporary, Jacques-Louis David, and was only recognised as Villers’ work in 1995 when Margaret Oppenheimer convincingly proved that it was by her, and was maybe even a self-portrait.

This story infuriates me as it is just one of many examples of the tendency for historical narratives to write over women, and of the general lack of women artists displayed in major galleries. Yet the conclusion also gives me hope for women’s power in supporting each other, and for the history and future of women’s art – this piece is wonderful in its luminosity and its beautiful strength.


Image source: Wikipedia

Julia on why she identifies with 1979 Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman:

I chose this work by Sherman because there was something about the way in which the girl was looking out at an uncertain, unclear landscape, which I immediately related to. A moment of change is being represented here, and for me, that moment of change seems to be the time in which we, as girls slowly turning into women, become aware of our bodies and presence. We grow confident with ourselves as we change or we attempt to shroud parts of our form. The thoughtful way in which the woman in the photograph is standing, her hands drawn back in a reserved manner and her head turned towards the darkness, surveying it, pervades a curiosity without any inclination to follow the white line on the tarmac as it snakes into greyness. What I like about this is that it focuses not only on the comprehension that girls standing on that brink of change understand that their bodies will change and the way that they are viewed will alter as time goes on, but it puts a greater emphasis on that individual girl’s very thought process. It is not her body which is the focus but rather her head as the viewers imagine what she is projecting in her mind on to that landscape. It reminds us of what we hoped and feared for, and still do, in those periods of transition. Sherman allows us to stand in her place, for it is a photograph of the artist herself, for a second and imagine with her what lies beyond- our experiences are linked to hers for that short snippet of time.


Image source: The Tate

Anna writing about Mie Olise:

Mie Olise combines sculpture, monumental painting, abstract impressions of places and drawings on site. A lot of her work is based on her visits to failed utopian spaces – such as The Pyramid in Russia. She makes the process of how we carve out inhabitable spaces for ourselves and create domestic environments look magical. And she does this by creating work on the monumental scale which is normally associated with male artists such as the American Abstract expressionists.

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Keeping an eye on the depths (2009) – source: http://mieolise.com/paintings/

Phoebe and Work in Progress by Jann Howarth:

American pop artist Jann Haworth’s accreditation has waned over time, likely due to her decision to focus on her family instead of her art – a decision every woman is entitled to. Her most famous work, however, is incredibly famous, being the sleeve art and album cover for the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). The artwork is often solely attributed to her husband, Peter Blake, despite it being a collaborative design. Haworth, however, has continued to re-examine and rework the piece. In 2005 she redesigned the piece as a mural in Salt Lake City, changing the crowd to include 50% women and racial diversity. Then, on the dawn of what was supposed to be the election of the first female President of the United States, Haworth created another re-working of the collage that depicts 180 women who have shaped the world through a variety of fields – ‘Work in Progress’. (She says she’s far more proud of her redesigns, and no longer listens to the Beatles.)

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Image source: Deseret News

And lastly, Alicia chose a video work by Martha Rosler!

Martha Rosler is an eminent artist and theorist, as well as a leading voice within feminist critical discourse. In her renowned video work Semiotics of the Kitchen Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularized by Julia Child in the 1960s. Standing in a kitchen, she goes through the alphabet from A to Z, assigning a letter to the various tools associated with women’s domesticity and work. Wielding knives, a nutcracker, and a rolling pin, as she goes along her gestures sharply punctuate the rage and frustration of oppressive women’s roles. The violent gestures demonstrated by Rosler link to the sense of pent up anger and frustration felt by women trapped in constrictive and gendered roles and can also be seen as relating to domestic abuse.  Rosler was interested in the dichotomy between public and private video and confronts the public image of the happy and fulfilled housewife with this video. Her violent persona serves as a foil to the false nature of TV cooking programmes such as Julia Childs. Instead Rosler reveals the real experience of many women in the role of housewife, voicing the frustrations of confinement and the experience of domestic abuse.

The women who worked for peace

Rachel Cox 

100 years ago from last Sunday, an armistice was signed, bringing the First World War to an end. In the years which followed, conferences and treaties were drawn up to agree on the terms of peace. The process was dominated largely by men – all the representatives at the Paris Peace Conference were male, whilst the ‘Big Three’, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, pushed for their countries’ interests as the settlements dragged on. But there were women too, working tirelessly to create a peaceful world in the years after WW1. Their work has had a much longer-lasting impact, yet their names are seldom mentioned when the end of the war is discussed.

One such woman was Dr Harriette Chick. While those at the Paris Peace Conference were arguing over territory and reparations, Harriette was more concerned about the terrible living conditions and food shortages in the collapsing Austrian Empire and the devastating effect this was having on the health of Austrian children. With a team of female scientists, Harriette began investigating the relationship between the poor nutrition these children were receiving and the symptoms they displayed. She discovered that nutritional deficiency was one of the main causes of rickets, allowing her to develop cures for this and other diseases in the form of vitamin supplements. Harriette not only managed to save hundreds of children that she encountered in Austria, but also made discoveries that continue to be used in modern medicine.


Dr Harriette Chick – source: foodheroesandheroines

Concerns about starvation and disease among the children of Austria and Germany were shared by Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb. Outraged that the British naval blockade was still causing food shortages in Austria and Germany even after the armistice had been signed, Eglantyne joined the Fight the Famine Council, which had been set up in 1919 and aimed to force the British Government to end the blockade. Her actions while campaigning for this cause led to her arrest, but while on trial, the judge was so moved by her case that he voluntarily paid the fine that was to be her punishment. The sisters took this money and put it towards a new fundraising project, which they called the “Save the Children Fund”. This time, their efforts had greater success and attracted much support from the British Public. By the end of 1920, Save the Children had raised an equivalent of £8,000,000 in today’s money. The sisters continued to fight for the rights of those affected by war throughout their lives. Dorothy campaigned for the protection of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, while Eglantyne presented the Declaration of the Rights of the Child at the 1924 League of Nations convention. This declaration led to the creation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which organisations such as UNICEF continue to use as the basis of their work. The Save the Children organisation also continued to grow, and remains one of the most major organisations that provide aid to children affected by war in areas such as Syria and Iraq.


Eglantyne Jebb at her Save the Children desk, 1921 – source: The History Girls 

At the same time, another non-profit organisation was being created by a group of women who hoped to prevent future wars by studying the causes of previous conflicts. Jane Addams, Marian Cripps and Margaret E. Dungan founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1919. These women argued that the lack of female politicians at this time meant women’s voices were overlooked, and so they had no opportunity to prevent war. They saw the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as overly harsh, and feared it would cause more conflict rather than maintain peace, so began campaigning for international peace initiatives such as global disarmament and an end to economic imperialism. At the time, the WILPF was often criticised as being ‘unpatriotic’, and the women involved were deemed too politically active and, as a result, ‘unfeminine’. However, Jane was not deterred and continued to travel to war-torn areas and meet with world leaders and soldiers. In 1931, she finally received recognition for her work, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first American Woman to be awarded one. Remaining devoted to her cause, she donated her prize money to the WILPF. The organisation went on to work closely with the United Nations, and to this day remains one of the few societies to have special consultative relations with the UN.


Mary McDowell and Jane Adams at a peace protest, 1932 – source: world of faces

The names of these women are not brought up nearly as much as those of the men who led the official peace-making process, but their work to support those affected by war was arguably more successful and lasted longer than the settlement drawn up at the Paris Peace Conference. While the Big Three focused on maintaining their own country’s international prestige, these women set up organisations and made discoveries that continue to save lives every day. Perhaps it is time that their stories become better known, as they remind us that when faced with the difficult task of maintaining world peace, focusing on providing for the needs of vulnerable individuals can be far more beneficial than fighting for your own county’s superiority.

Hidden figures: in conversation with Rashidat, FLY Cambridge facilitator

Anna Curzon Price (based on her conversation with Rashidat Fredrika Animashaun)

Underlying my initial interpretation of “Hidden figures” (this week’s theme) was a pretty simplistic narrative. I knew the story I wanted to write: hidden figures need to be revealed – through inculcation into the mainstream, power structures are challenged and we move towards a less racist and less sexist society.

I wanted Rashidat to provide me with a few figures whom I could actually write about and lament unfairness of their erasure from history. But what actually ensued was a far more interesting discussion which complicates this narrative. Here are some thoughts which the conversation triggered.

This is a record of the pictures and themes which I – from my position as a white female in Cambridge – found most interesting from our discussion.

Clearly I am not making any claim of being in a position to be able to truthfully represent experiences which Rashidat was trying to convey to me. Instead, I hope to use this article to provoke thinking about the different things which hidden-ness and visibility do, the different ways in which power structures make visible and hide, and the way in which resistance, too, is dependent on the negotiation of visibility and invisibility.

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On copywriting, copying and writing

Eleanor Surbey 

One of the very first “grown-up” books I ever read was Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. My dad bought me a bargain-bin copy at Walmart one summer and explained to my pubescent self that “reading this book is a requirement for your cultural education. Although Harper Lee was friends with this guy Truman Capote and everyone thinks he wrote it.” At the time, I didn’t think much of this; looking back on it, however, it sends a clear message that many people think women can’t actually write. When I read further into it, I see that women’s authorship is so often questioned: rumor has it that Harper Lee, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, and even Courtney Love used ghostwriters, despite these claims repeatedly being refuted. Ironically, more often than not, women are the ghostwriters in some form or another, whether they use male-sounding names as pen names, extensively edit manuscripts, or write in their diaries only for those same entries to be reused by the men in their lives. The truth of the matter is that many great works of literature or film are actually the products of women writers and editors.

The examples are endless. Harper Lee actually attended every single Kansas interview Truman Capote conducted as part of his preparation for In Cold Blood, and wrote up her own summaries for him to use. Dan Brown’s wife did most of the research for The Da Vinci Code. Woman editors are to thank for films such as Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Star Wars, The Wolf of Wall Street, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and Lawrence of Arabia — the latter being one of seven films for which Barbara McLean was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Editing. Zelda Fitzgerald stated that large parts of This Side of Paradise reminded her of her missing diaries. And on top of repeatedly saving Lolita from the household fireplace, Vera Nabokov typed, proofread, edited, chauffeured, and cut up food for her husband Vladimir.

harper lee.jpeg

Truman Capote signing copies of “In Cold Blood” with Harper Lee in 1966. Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis, source: theguardian.com

Or take Sophia Tolstaya, wife of Leo, who transcribed War and Peace seven times and significantly edited it, all while in a state of permanent pregnancy (she gave birth to thirteen children), as well as nursing and managing her husband’s estate. She did the same for Anna Karenina, too, staying up well into the night with a magnifying glass to decipher her husbands scrawl. Sophia served as her husband’s muse and was the inspiration for many of his heroines, yet her own diaries are the depressing writings of a tired woman in a difficult and complex marriage. While she certainly respected and admired her husband, she also suffered extensive emotional pain as a result of her relationship with him. At nineteen, while pregnant for the first time, she wrote “I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman”; the diaries her husband kept and forced her to read, on the other hand, involved detailed accounts of affairs with serfs as well as the sentence “there is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” Sonya – as she was called – was not even allowed to see her husband, who had run away ten days earlier, on his deathbed, and was kept away from him by his circle of Tolstoyans, especially Vladimir Chertkov.

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Sophia and Leo Tolstoy at their home, Yasnaya Polyana. Photograph: Corbis/© Underwood & Underwood

Continuing in the vein of families, the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy is also one involving diaries. The precise nature of their relationship has been the subject of speculation for years — some scholars believe she is the basis for the Lucy poems and some, such as F.W. Bateson, go so far as to call it incestuous — but it was certainly a friendship that was born out of the shared state of being an orphan and living in poverty. The two actually lived together relatively happily, and continued to do so even after William married his wife Mary in 1802. Mary and Dorothy transcribed many of William’s poems, just like Tolstaya. And much like how Leo Tolstoy made his wife read his diaries, Dorothy too shared her poetic and carefully detailed writings with her brother. In one entry, she minutely and precisely described some daffodils she had seen while on a walk with him. In Dorothy’s words, “some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing;” in Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” published five years later, the daffodils lie “[b]eside the lake, beneath the trees, // Fluttering and dancing in the breeze // […] Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” Dorothy’s own poetic observations of a shared experience are pillaged and reused in a poem which, from the title, emphasizes the speaker’s solitude, and erases both Dorothy’s presence in the moment and her own literary talent.

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Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere Journal”, showing the description of daffodils at Ullswater. Copyright: The Wordsworth Trust

It is at this point that I start to wonder how it is that so often parts of women’s diaries ended up in their male companions’ writings, how it is that women are so often accused of using ghostwriters, and, especially, why it is that women are so often delegated the role of editor. It would be simplistic to reduce the situation to “men who can’t come up with their own ideas make women do all the hard labor,” but sometimes it does feel as if women are delegated the task of changing and rethinking, of rephrasing, with little to no recognition. I can’t help but draw the parallel between these editors and the women in my life, who almost always seem to do a lot of the emotional labor in their relationships with men. “I devote so much love and care to him, and his heart is so icy,” could have easily been said by me or one of my friends over buttery dinner, and yet it comes from another of Tolstaya’s diary entries. The universal feeling of being looked over is echoed in these women’s roles as editors, as writers and as “ghostwriters.” But their indelible presence in great works of literature, looming and ghostly, is, at the very least, a bit of consolation — as long as it is not kept secret.

“A thing happened to me that usually happens to men!” – the un-hidden women in pre-code film

Madeleine Pulman-Jones

In 1931, in a back-lot-oriental apartment in Paris, Russian flyer Alexis (Ramon Novarro) declares to glamorously mysterious spy, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), “I love you as one adores sacred things.” A routine compliment in melodramatic Hollywood parlance, but Mata Hari’s response is perhaps less commonplace. “What sacred things?” she asks. “God… country… honour… you,” he replies. “I come last?” she pushes, “You come first. Before anything.” He replies. He shows her his apartment, including the candle he keeps burning day and night in front of an orthodox icon. Before he can make love to her, Mata Hari asks that all the lights in the apartment be put out, insisting that he blow out the candle in front of the icon before she will let him come near her. The light of the candle casts dancing shadows across his youthful face in high-contrast black and white, “forgive me,” he whispers, and blows out the candle.


(Source – http://www.garboforever.com/Film-25.htm

Two years later in a back-lot-bohemian Parisian apartment in early 1933, friends George (a youthful Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March), a painter and playwright respectively, receive a visit from Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a young commercial artist they met on the train. She is the epitome of what came to define the heroines of Screwball Comedy in 1930s Hollywood. She is petite, blonde, striking, viciously witty and independent. They are both smitten with her and have been pursuing her independently for days. What differentiates this scene from a million other love-triangle scenes in Classical Hollywood cinema, is that Gilda has not come to choose between her two suiters, but to inform them that she has decided that she wants both of them. The following rapport ensues:

GILDA: A thing happened to me that usually happens to men! You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of… interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. It’s perfectly alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out –

TOMMY: But which chapeau do you want Madame?

GILDA: Both.

The scenes from Mata Hari, dir. George Fitzmaurice, and Design for Living, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, respectively, exemplify the sensibility of what has come to be known as “Pre-Code Hollywood.” In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code or the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known in reference to Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was enforced. The end of the 1920s had presented the already audacious films of the silent era with a new toy – sound, and a new purpose – the Great Depression. The freedom given to directors and scriptwriters by witty and suggestive dialogue opened up new possibilities for the humour and subversion that depression audiences craved. That censorship would be enforced to tame these films was almost inevitable, and what was clearly so shocking at the time was the agency and sexual status being afforded to women in these films. The code aimed to censor and restrict “indecency” in Hollywood cinema. Among the things banned or advised against in the code were any form of nudity, interracial and extra-marital relationships. In short, it was implicit in the new dictates of the code that the sexual freedoms of women be suppressed onscreen. The prelapsarian freedoms of pre-Hays Hollywood as detailed above were over.

It often strikes modern viewers as strange that the female protagonists of Hollywood films made pre-1934 are more empowered than many of their modern-day counterparts. The fierce independence of wartime heroines played by stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn are cemented in Hollywood’s collective consciousness, but their earlier incarnations who championed a more subversive form of female empowerment were denied a place in Hollywood legend.

The two women in the aforementioned films embody the two main categories into which women fell in pre-code films. Garbo’s performance as Mata Hari is emblematic of a host of other characters, many of which played by Garbo herself, who revel in opulence and use their mystery and sexual status to manipulate men. Garbo’s Mata Hari is in many ways the archetypal “vamp.” By contrast, Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda is an independent “modern” woman who uses her wit and intelligence to subvert gender norms. Hopkins’ Gilda is the epitome of the then nascent screwball heroine. In examining these two archetypes I might as well have chosen Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) as my vamp, or Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934) as my screwball heroine. The performances in question, though particularly shocking and evocative, are not what is essential to this study in general. What makes watching pre-code cinema today so surprising is that these archetypes which ought to restrict the portrayal of rounded, real women, often engender multi-faceted and complex portraits of women.


Mata Hari, set in Paris in the middle of the first world war, follows Mata Hari, a spy and mistress to Russian General Serge Shubin, as she falls in love with Alexis Rosanoff, Russian pilot from whom she then is asked to steal government information. When Shubin finds out that she is about to leave him for a younger man, he calls the head of the French spy bureau to inform on her, but she shoots him before he can mention the pilot’s name so as to save him from disgrace. She is eventually executed by firing squad for murder and treason. The film, at face value a superficial Hollywood melodrama, features expressionistic lighting and futuristic costumes almost worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, what is still more modern than its expressionistic lighting and avant-garde costumes is its depiction of female empowerment.

Though the narrative remains traditional in the sense that it culminates in the reformation of Mata Hari and her execution for treason, she is always in control of her interactions with men. Empowered and unafraid to fight for what she wants, Fitzmaurice never portrays Garbo’s Mata Hari as anything less than fully in control of her self-presentation and her emotions. As in many Hollywood films, pre or post-code, the female protagonist is punished at the end of the film for her earlier transgressions. Looking at this ending within the film’s historical context, this is unsurprising. However, the presentation of Mata Hari’s subversion is apparent less in details of plot and more in visual representation. The way in which Mata Hari’s head, sheathed in a gold headdress, glimmers like the head of the Virgin Mary as she lies beneath the icon in Rosanoff’s room. The powerful simplicity of her black gown and sleeked back hair before her execution. These images are not those of a submissive, traditionally feminine heroine. Coupled with Garbo’s natural magnetism and androgynous beauty, Mata Hari lies firmly outside the confines of the traditionally feminine object of the male gaze. Less than five years later, the sexual liberties of Fitzmaurice’s Mata Hari would be unimaginable.


More light hearted yet in many ways more shocking is Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. Adapted by Ben Hecht from the Noël Coward play of the same name, Design for Living’s story of a ménage a trois was deemed so scandalous that it was banned in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays code, and was only made widely accessible when it was released on DVD in a Gary Cooper box-set in 2005. One could easily make an argument for Ernst Lubitch being the premier filmmaker of 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. Having emigrated from Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, Lubitsch made a name for himself making sophisticated comedies. He was revered to such a degree that his subtle style became known “The Lubitsch Touch.” Though he made what are arguably his two most brilliant films after the code, Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1941), Design for Living is his most daring and exciting film, and quite possibly the most subversive of the era.

Making a film about a ménage a trois alone would have been shocking, but what is so unusual about the film is the agency it affords its female protagonist. It is Gilda who proposes she live with Tommy and George, just as it is Gilda who sets up the ground rules for their life together, “no sex – it’s a gentleman’s agreement!” she exclaims as the three shake hands. Of course this agreement doesn’t last for long. Gilda ends up flitting from one man to the other, unable to make up her mind about who she loves best, destroying the boys’ friendship in the process. Ultimately they reunite as a trio, with George and Tommy rescuing her from the boring husband she married in an attempt to forget them. The final shot of the film of three of them sitting together in the back of a taxi cab has become somewhat iconic – first Gilda kisses George, then Tommy, then they shake hands again on their “gentleman’s agreement,” fade to black.

On the surface, Gilda’s intellectual status compared to the boys is more conventional. In the same scene in which Gilda suggests the three of them live together, she declares that she is going to devote herself to the improvement of their work, she says:

“We’re going to concentrate on work. Your work. My work doesn’t count. I think both you boys have a great deal of talent, but too much ego. You spend one day working, and a whole month bragging. Gentlemen, there are going to be a few changes. I’m going to jump up and down on your ego. I’m going to criticize your work with a baseball bat. I’ll tell you everyday how bad your stuff is till you get something good, and if it’s good, I’m going to tell you it’s rotten till you get something better. I’m going to be a mother of the arts.”

While declaring that her work “doesn’t count,” she simultaneously asserts her own intellectual prowess and her confidence in her judgement, embracing maternal patronage as a source of empowerment. Perhaps this is all we could hope to expect from a film of the period, but at any rate, Gilda’s prioritisation of the boys’ work is not simply submissive. Just as Mata Hari’s independence and power shines through the oppressive Hollywood tropes of exoticism and sexism, Gilda’s intelligence and intellect is covertly expressed through humour and glamour.


We cannot say with the certainty of a Hollywood “fade-to-black” that women were uniformly and consistently portrayed as liberated in pre-code Hollywood. What we can do is identify a kind of proto-feminism in this bubble of cinema history and an exciting subversion that allowed for the portrayal of more rounded women. These women, unlike those of today’s Hollywood output, were not hampered by years of censorship and societal pressures – cinema was a blank canvas for the 30s’ “new woman.” Whether or not we can wholeheartedly endorse these films as feminist, their female protagonists are tantalizingly glamourous and empowered in a way we, unfortunately, are not accustomed to watching in today’s mainstream cinema.

(Image sources: http://www.doctormacro.com/index.html