Stickel on Gaines, 'Pink-Slipped: What Happened to the Women in the Silent Film Industries?'

Author: 
Jane M. Gaines
Reviewer: 
Marisa Stickel

Jane M. Gaines. Pink-Slipped: What Happened to the Women in the Silent Film Industries? Women and Film History International Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018. Illustrations. 328 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08343-3; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04181-5.

Reviewed by Marisa Stickel (University of Tennessee) Published on Jhistory (October, 2018) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52744

In Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries?, Jane M. Gaines delves into the history of early cinema, hoping to discover answers about the roles women played in silent films. Focusing on the women who were present in the US silent film industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she posits the question: “What happened?” While this question initially frames Gaines’s argument, it is actually not her primary focus. Rather, Gaines is more concerned about what history is and how its dominant narrative erases and marginalizes, cultivating an exclusive narrative that shapes our present perception of culture and history. Attempting to grapple with the presence and subsequent absence of women in the silent film industry, Gaines postulates how interpretations of history have erased narratives and happenings, which she claims has perpetuated a cycle of exclusion for the women who were heavily involved in the industry.

Moreover, Gaines traces the erasure of women in cinema to 1970s feminism, explaining that feminist academics of the time were “looking everywhere for women except where they could be found—in the archives” (p. 7). Gaines suggests that the anti-historicism of second-wave feminists led to the underwriting of important women’s narratives from the past. She insists that 1970s feminism is “inseparable from the question of ‘what happened’ to the research on these women” (p. 11). Positioning her argument to begin here, amid the agenda of 1970s feminism and the perception of the historical past, Gaines determines how a historiographical approach can pose limitations to how scholars interpret the past.

Throughout Pink-Slipped, Gaines explores the intricacies of past and present, knowing and not knowing, in conjunction with how “history” is perceived and conceptualized. She opens her text by describing a lecture Gertrude Stein presented at the University of Chicago in 1934, where Stein emphasized how “she [did] not know how the historian ‘who really knows’ can write about past events” (p. 1). By beginning her book with a reflective anecdote on Stein’s interpretation of history, Gaines positions her work as an evaluation of “historical contradictions” within the historical past—or the years 1895-1925. Additionally, her research on the role of women within the silent film industry immediately becomes an illustration for these contradictions in history. Examining the connections between history and theory, Gaines points to the “‘historical turn’ in film and media studies,”[1] while also discussing how the relationship between contemporary issues and historical events allows for a more objective understanding of the past.

Containing eight chapters, Pink-Slipped begins in chapter 1 by asking what happened to women in the silent film industry in the United States. Although Gaines postulates this question at the start of her text, she refuses to answer it herself and instead asks her readers to “answer” the “what happened” (p. 13). In chapters 2 and 3, Gaines suggests that past and present are fluid terms, and a historiographic, feminist approach is necessary, because history is constantly in motion, and “we in the present are what was formerly the future of the women who helped to start the worldwide film industries” (p. 13). Moving into chapter 3, Gaines questions whether or not Alice Guy Blaché made La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896, reinforcing her discussion of past and present fluidity, and showing how contemporary perceptions of women in cinema attempt to erase a historical narrative that the film itself evidences.

Evaluating the significance of archival research in chapter 4, Gaines proposes that “the convictions of empirical knowing return in the film archivist’s discourse on analog and digital restoration practices” (p. 14). She insists that a “print of the film” or the “35mm motion picture film” is itself an artifact, but with the transition to digitization, the legitimacy of film’s classification as “artifact” is called into question (p. 71). Thus, Gaines’s discussion in this chapter reinforces her understanding of past and present as overlapping. For instance, using Heideggerian philosophy, she says artifacts are “objectively present yet somehow past” (p. 72). More specifically, by positioning the “print of the film” as “objectively present,” Gaines describes how film restoration care actually completely alters the original film itself. Using Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916) as an example, Gaines shares how the digital erasure of raindrops in a particular close-up frame within the film is like “reaching back in time” and restoring the archival object to something “it had never been” (p. 93).

Continuing the discussion of Weber’s Shoes in chapter 5, Gaines demonstrates how the film as a melodrama “borrows the uncertainties of time to posit the consequences of a wrong choice” (p. 97). She furthers her investigation by forming connections between the narrative structure of the melodrama genre and the passage of time, saying, “for what once was and will never be again” (p. 101). By evaluating the role of melodrama and its conceptualization of time, she positions this discussion as a comparison to “historical time” (p. 101), emphasizing her analysis of past and present. In chapter 6, Gaines furthers her evaluation of what she terms the “location-in-time quandary” (p. 113), creating connections between historiography and feminist theory. It is within this chapter that she finally explicitly explores the problem with 1970s feminism and its anti-historicism. In her final two chapters and conclusion, Gaines explores the jobs and roles women had in cinema, before moving to discuss the accomplishments of women in silent film. Her concluding chapter emphasizes how feminism should be about not limiting what women “can’t imagine,” but rather intersecting history and theory alongside a feminist utopian legacy. Her concluding thoughts reaffirm the unanswerable “what happened” question.

Although Gaines asks “what happened” to the women in the silent film industry, she simultaneously defers the question while insisting it is unanswerable. Oscillating between past and present, history and theory, she continues to occupy a liminal place with her research, never fully fleshing out her own interpretation and assertions about a historiographical, feminist approach to women in the silent film industry. While Gaines’s research is undeniably intellectually complex and rich, she does not establish the connections between contemporary fabrications of history and the historical past. Likewise, she concentrates too much energy on prescribing the faulty inaccuracies of history, preventing her from focusing her attentions on feminism, women’s accomplishments, or the negligence of feminist scholars. Her argument tends to be concentrated on historical interpretations of how dominant narratives problematize present versions of past events, yet Gaines does not seem to address how marginalization or anti-historicism reconceptualize perceptions of historical reality.

Overall, Pink-Slipped is complex and well researched. However, Gaines’s failure to make connections between feminist theory, dominant narratives, and the historical past inhibits the text from fully achieving a successful argument. She seems to be stuck in evaluating the problems with historical accuracy and objectivity, despite the fact that she initially sets out to discuss how current perceptions of cinematic history are often jaded or misguided by interpretation. Without establishing the connections between the historical past and the continuation of sexism in marginalizing women in the present, Gaines’s argument seems to be missing something in both scope and clarity.

Note

[1]. Alison Butler, “Feminist Perspectives in Film Studies,” in The Sage Handbook of Film Studies, ed. James Donald and Michael Renov (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008), 397-399.

Citation: Marisa Stickel. Review of Gaines, Jane M., Pink-Slipped: What Happened to the Women in the Silent Film Industries?. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52744

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