#MeToo, social media, and classic Hollywood feminism

The media has exploded in the last couple weeks in response to the Harvey Weistein controversy. In an interview with BBC Newsnight, actress Emma Thompson was able to break down the ‘endemic’ problem the film industry has with men in positions of power taking advantage of the women who work with them.

“This man is at the top of a very particular iceberg… he’s the top of the ladder of a system of harrassment and belittling and bullying and interference, and what my mother would have referred to in the olden days as ‘pestering.’ ‘Is he pestering you?’ It’s the word we used to use in the olden days, if you recall. This has been part of our world, women’s world, since time immemorial.”

When asked if there were other men in the industry like Weinstein, Thompson replies

“Of course. Many. Maybe not to that degree. Do they all have to be as bad as him to make it count? Does it only count if you really have done it to load and loads and loads of women? Or does it count if you do it to one woman, once? I think the latter.”

When asked if she could foresee any change in Hollywood in the near future, Thompson had this to say:

“No. No I can’t. But I do see and hear a lot of voices, and I do want to add mine to theirs and say that Hollywood can, and must, change.”

In response to the Weinstein controversy, women around the world responded with the #MeToo campaign, sharing their personal stories of sexual abuse and harassment.  Social media has exploded with this conversation, and it makes sense to me that Emma Thompson should mention adding her own voice to the thousands online in calling for a stop to this behaviour in a video that I first saw in my Facebook feed. Web 2.0 has provided the ideal platform for marginalised groups, like minorities and women, to speak out without fearing censure from historically male-dominated industries like publishing and traditional news media. Hashtags like #ThisGirlCan, #EverydaySexism, #LikeAGirl, and #AskHerMore are encouraging the public to engage more deeply in these social issues so that we can come together to find solutions.

The #MeToo conversation got me thinking about my favourite classic film stars from the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood. What stories could Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Mae West, and even Shirley Temple add to the discussion? What would their characters contribute? Because not only was sexism rampant behind the scenes throughout Hollywood’s history, but it also plays a major role in the films the studios were churning out. These narratives have supplied Western society with a plethora of excuses for sexually predatory behaviour.

As an avid fan of old movies, I have often had to question how I can still enjoy classic film without subscribing to out-dated thought patterns often presented in those stories. How can I be a fan of a film star who is constantly cast in roles in which extreme femininity is glorified and any feminist tendencies repressed? How can I appreciate a star’s wit and glamour without adopting the highly sexualised lens through which the director has framed her physically?

I don’t really have answers to these questions, but for my upcoming PhD project with the University of Hull, I hope to turn to social media to discuss these issues as they apply to the six actresses I mentioned above. I have chosen to focus on sound films made before World War II because I am fascinated by the burst of freedom and independence American women celebrated in the decades following the 19th Amendment. The women I have chosen to study in depth each represent a different type of American woman, with her own unique strengths and weaknesses.