Old Hollywood, New Feminist

Jennie Langley, class of 2015

I am not an Old Hollywood expert. I don’t have a degree in film history, and I can’t rattle off dates and names of every movie to come off of the MGM assembly line between 1935 and 1960. I am not well-versed on the pros and cons of the studio system, the Hayes code, or contract laws. What I am is a recovering Old Hollywood addict who spent nearly every waking hour of her young, nerdy life glued to a television tuned to TCM.

What I do know is what Hollywood means to me. I can’t tell you what exactly Bette Davis means to the world, but I can tell you that she taught me how to walk like a real dame. She taught me how to scare the hell out of a man and how to rock some red lipstick while doing so. What I do know is that the pantheon of demi-goddesses that shone off the screen of Hollywood’s golden age taught several generations of American women how to be who they are.

The women of old Hollywood were at turns sweet, loving, and kind, and at others stoic, arrogant, and determined. They could be anywhere on the spectrum of human experience, and they did it with style. Bette Davis could be a domineering matriarch, a neglected daughter, a repressed spinster, or a mass-murdering psychopath, and you still kind of wanted to be her. These women could do anything: Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Deborah Kerr, Katharine Hepburn. If any of these names don’t ring a bell for you, do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself. You may learn a thing or two.

Watching these actresses bring so many strong, empowered female characters to life at two A.M. on a school night, I learned that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and no one had a right to tell me otherwise. I had not yet really discovered my feminist identity, but watching these movies surely opened the floodgates for my feminist awakening. At this point, all I knew was that if Greta Garbo could be the androgynous, cross-dressing Queen Christina of Sweden who gave up everything for love, I could pretty much do as I pleased.

The Salemite asks its readers: What does Hollywood mean to you?

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