Popcorn Venus
Analyzing the fantasy

by E. Ann Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 21-22
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Marjorie Rosen, POPCORN VENUS: WOMEN, MOVIES, & THE AMERICAN DREAM. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. 416 pp., $9.95.

Marjorie Rosen’s book is one of three recently published works on women in film.(1) All three are important in terms of breaking new ground and opening up a previously neglected perspective on film. Earlier studies of women in film were written by men and totally lacked a feminist perspective. The emphasis was either on sex (e.g., Alexander Walker’s Sex in the Movies) or on stars (e.g., Edgar Morin’s The Stars).(2) While the focus was workable, the authors were not sensitive to the implications of the images of women. Nearly all books on film have been written by men, and film criticism, like other areas of study, has been heavily male oriented.(3)

It was, then, high time that women involved film began to look at films from a feminist point of view. Already in 1970, women in other fields were running courses on women’s issues and writing about their research. Presumably because so few women are teaching film in universities, work on women in film was left mainly to the critics. Molly Haskell began to include a feminist perspective in some of her reviews, and other women began considering the female role in analyzing films.(4) But there was no sustained, scholarly work in the area as was being started in literature, history, psychology, etc.

Rosen’s book is a first step in the right direction. She has done the basic spade work for future studies. She has slogged through endless reels of film from the 1900s to the present, carefully documenting significant and insignificant films from all periods. Her index lists hundreds of titles, and there is also an impressive bibliography about women, including articles from popular magazines and newspapers relevant to film images or to the position of women in society at various times. She manages to give a brief description of each film’s plot, and to capture in succinct phrases the essence of its style, tone, and attitude toward women. Her descriptions of individual stars are particularly vivid. Here, for example, is how she portrays Theda Bara:

“With her waist-length black hair, her darkly kohled eyes and crude exotic make-up, Theda Bara embodied still primitive notions of depravity and wanton lust. She postured triumphantly as the poor male on whom she drew a bead was driven to drink, ruin, slavery ...” (5)

Mary Pickford’s contrasting eternal-little-girl image is captured in one sentence:

“With her thick golden curls, her cherubic body and pretty face, she was, from the beginning, the incarnation of angelic sweetness and childlike innocence” (37).

Much further on, Audrey Hepburn’s ambivalent image is presented equally vividly:

“Hepburn simply out-dazzled by the sheer force of her piquant joie de vivre and the apposite way she was put together. Perhaps it was the unusual combination of a narrow, bony body which she carried like a queen and an elfin face whose doe eyes contradicted by the strength of intelligence in the look, the irregular nose and wide mouth whose smile was at once sensuous, mischievous and absolutely sincere.” (285)

Rosen’s lively style is ultimately responsible for the ease with which the book moves along. Her wit, irony and humor keep the reader interested. There is information about stars’ lives, their relationships with directors, their attitudes to their careers. Often, a well chosen quotation expresses more than a page of prose could have done. For example, Zanuck’s influence on the kind of sex in Twentieth Century films is conveyed in two apt quotations about his own sex life.(6) The text throughout is punctuated with thoughtfully chosen remarks by stars, directors, and producers, and with quotations from popular magazines about what women are or should be.(7)

Rosen’s main principle of organization is ultimately simply chronological. After an opening section dealing with Victorian sensibility and the early days of film, Rosen proceeds to divide the book into sections covering each decade from the Twenties to the Sixties and Seventies. She manages to find quite distinct images from decade to decade, although of course in some periods there are contradictory images, reflecting a society in transition or a crisis producing the need for certain fantasies. Rosen attempts to account for the changes in female images in terms of women’s place in society at any one time. Her success at this is uneven. For some reason, her focus is more political in the early sections and more sexual towards the end. At times, her theme seems to be the changing image of women as sexual objects, while at other times she stresses the relation between strides women have made politically and socially, and the images in films. The best sections for me are those on the Thirties and on the Sixties and Seventies, although the focus in each is quite different.

In the section on the Thirties, Rosen shows well the discrepancy between the images of women on the screen and the reality of their lives off screen. On screen, women were shown succeeding through wit in a series of comedies and gutsy dramas where they played “detectives, spies, con artists, private secretaries, molls, and especially reporters and editors” (134). But, Rosen says, this was a

“distortion of the truth of women’s social role. In the name of escapism, films were guilty of extravagant misrepresentations, exuding a sense of well-being to the nation in general and women in particular. In fact, precisely the opposite was true” (134).

And Rosen goes on to document employment figures revealing the backlash against what women had achieved in the Twenties. Paradoxically, of course, the image of women was comparatively strong in the Thirties, but Rosen suggests,

“Perhaps because the Depression was treating its women so cruelly, the screen could afford to offer comfort in some small way” (138).

But sexism was still evident alongside the independent surface women were allowed to have. The ultimate motivation for daring actions and confrontations had to be loyalty to the male master. All in all, Rosen concludes that Thirties movies “by refusing to show existing conditions ..., packaged a lie insulating females from the facts of their social and economic undermining” (146).

This last statement is crucial. Unfortunately, this, and many other similar comments in the book, are not followed up by exploration and analysis of why Hollywood producers did not show existing conditions, or of why sexism in film continued in one form or another from decade to decade. Her insights remain undeveloped and are so unobtrusively stated that hasty readers could pass them over. Rosen so excels at vivid portrayals of stars and directors, and at descriptions of films themselves that these catch our attention and remain in our mind. Since the critical and analytical statements are not made the center of most of the discussion and are not fully explored, they fade into the background.

The same kind of thing happens in section six on the Sixties and Seventies, which is also a good study. The focus here is on the new sexuality and morality of the era as it is expressed in films. Rosen has good points. She notes the connection between sex and violence, and its link with the growth of female autonomy. She notes the growing images of androgyny and grotesques. She sees that, for some reason, European filmmakers present women more fully and attempt to explore their problems as if they were human beings rather than the cardboard stereotypes that still predominate in U.S. films. She is good on the new Law-and-Order breed of heroes in recent U.S. films, from which women have been exorcised. But all these points are made in the form of questions, and again are left unexplored. For instance, Rosen ends a chapter with this interesting thought:

“If the sexual cornucopia released in the sixties has truly contributed to our alienation and impotence, if our emotions live in vacuums and our libidos can only be resuscitated through violence, pornography, or freaky sex, what’s left? Is there any hope for intimacy in movies? In life?” (343).

Rosen’s insight is correct and important, but it’s necessary to go on and show why at this historical moment in a highly developed, technological society, our social relations are in such a pathetic state. Obviously, the state of affairs has everything to do with the kind of system we live. It’s a system that virtually thrives on people’s alienation from their work, from their community, from their social/ professional group, from their families and from themselves.

Again, Rosen raises pertinent questions about the differences between European female images and U.S. ones. She asks,

“Why, generally, do European actresses present multiple-dimensioned personalities   while our American stars flatten out like un-corrugated cardboard? Isn't American society more flexible in allowing women alternatives to traditional role playing and life styles? How does one account for the discrepancies in cultural associations, myths, and movie images?” (352).

But again, there is no attempt to answer the crucial questions she raises. She allows herself simply to observe that Americans “caricature screen heroines” , and passes on to examples of European images.

Style almost compensates for the lack of any sustained theoretical underpinning within which Rosen might have placed the discoveries that she has made. For Rosen does express a clear attitude to what she is discussing through her tone, her use of language and sentence structure. Much of the prose contains disjointed phrases, incomplete sentences, exclamations, or asides that say more than might be possible in a well reasoned way. For example, the following passage captures the typical U.S. female image neatly:

“We overplay. Overdress. A floozy dress or tight pants tell the whole story. Or a platinum wig. Or spectacles or cleavage. Our women slide into easy character niches (tomboy Debbie, volatile Liz, kooky Liza)” (352).

We are constantly aware of an alert, perceptive, judging intelligence behind the material, keenly aware of the trivial nature of the commercial films under discussion, of the obvious and nearly ridiculous sexism at work, of male directors’ pathetic needs to undercut women through the decades. Rosen is at her best when capturing the nuances of sensibilities underlying women’s depiction in films. She understands how the mass media works, and she is sensitive to the impact of images propagated through film, women’s magazines and television. She can sense an era’s tone and mood, and is thus able to show what women were responding to at any one time, while knowing enough about women’s reality to see the needs being exploited. The book’s last sections are perhaps the best because here Rosen could rely on her own experiences growing up in the Fifties and living in the Sixties and Seventies. In earlier sections she obviously had to rely on available documents and imagine the rest for herself. Nevertheless, even there she manages to sense what probably were the dominant trends of fashion, morality, and style, and to see how the movies expressed the era’s consciousness or how directors used trends for their own profit.

However, since Rosen is in fact dealing mainly with the commercial entertainment film, it would have been logical to address the vexed question of the relation between mass culture, commercial art, and ideology. The questions she raises approach these issues, but one does not have the sense that she is totally aware of the implications of her insights.

For example, in the preface Rosen asks rhetorically whether art reflects life or life art? She answers both questions affirmatively, because in the first case

“films have been a mirror held up to society’s porous face. They therefore reflect the changing societal image of women—which, until recently, has not been taken seriously enough.”

But life also reflects art

“because of the magnetism of the movies—because their glamour and intensity and ‘entertainment’ are so distracting and seemingly innocuous—women accept their morality or values” (13).

But Rosen does not go on to explore the extremely complicated nature of this vicious cycle, or begin to analyze the function mass entertainment serves in our system. The opening chapters show that Rosen sees film as a powerful escapist form for the mass of people in the United States. But typically she arrives at crucial questions in the course of discussion instead of starting out with the questions and aiming to answer them. In chapter 2, Rosen states that women were in urgent need of escape and “brought to early picture shows their empty lives, waiting to be filled by any distraction” (25). She then notes that movies had a much greater impact on audiences than the stage had, and proceeds to ask,

“Why, if art is so directly reflective and thus familiar, is it in this medium so powerful? Which is strongest—the reality out of which the illusion is created, the celluloid illusion itself, or the need for illusion? Do we hold the mirror up and dive in? And if we do, what are the consequences? And what are the responsibilities of the illusion makers?” (26).

These are all vital questions, but Rosen leaves them hanging there while she returns to her chronological sequence, detailing reactions to the first movies.

In chapter 22, Rosen returns to the questions about popular culture and life to which she seems genuinely interested in finding an answer, but perhaps did not know where to research. (Her bibliography conspicuously lacks references to people who have written about mass culture and society, e. g., from England, Denys Thompson, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Hall and Whannel; or in the United States, Paul Lazarfeldt, Bernard Rosenberg, David Manning White, Nicholas Johnson, Diana Trilling.) She again asks:

“Is life reflecting ‘art’ ? Or ‘art’ life? Feeding each other, inextricably intertwined, our mores are changing so rapidly that we can hardly fix where one begins and the other leaves off” (333).

But the comment is a separate paragraph, and remains an isolated thought within the main discussion, rather than becoming the topic under consideration.

I am not suggesting that Marjorie Rosen should have written a different book. I am truly grateful for the one we have. I consider it a major piece of work in terms of laying out what exists and pointing the way to the central issues that need exploration. Rosen understands clearly in her last chapter that women now must undertake the challenge of “utilizing feminine resources” and “reinterpreting the American Dream.” (8) Women have, of course, already begun to respond to the challenge and are making films both reflecting and building toward a new consciousness. But much more work needs to be done on detailing our history in film and understanding the function that history served in terms of internalizing male ways of seeing us, and in broader terms of the kind of system we live in.

Sexism is an essential part of capitalism (that is not, of course, to say that sexism does not exist under other systems), and we need to understand how it functions within our system if we are to combat it effectively. A study of women in film is an excellent way to focus on connections between sexism and U.S. ideology as reflected in the commercial film. Without fully intending to, Marjorie Rosen has in fact given us a wealth of material about how sexism works in popular culture. Women critics now have the responsibility of exploring the issues she raises in depth. As feminists undertaking serious film study, we will also have to develop a critical methodology appropriate for our perspective. Or at the very least, be aware of the methodological questions that our approach raises. With the three books on women in film solidly behind us, we should be able to evaluate limitations of the approaches and develop ones that would lead us deeper into the way sexism functions in art and in our society.


1. The others are Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and Joan Mellen, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film.

2. See also: Stark Young on “Greta Garbo” in American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane, ed. Stanley Kauffmann with Bruce Henstell (N.Y., 1972); Parker Tyler, Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (esp. “The Awful Fate of the Sex Goddess” ) (N.Y., 1969); I. and E. Cameron, Dames (N.Y., 1969)

3. Film seems to have been more heavily male dominated than any other of the liberal arts fields. This must be partly due to the technological aspects of the form, but the entire Hollywood production scene, with its hierarchical arrangement and elitism was especially chauvinistic. Until recently, it was rare to find a female director (cf. Rosen’s “Epilogue,” ) and in criticism there are no major works by women (Lotte Eisner comes closest, and she, of course, is from Europe).

4. For example, Molly Haskell, The Cinema of Howard Hawks,” Intellectual Digest, April, 1972, 56-58; Joyce Rheuben, “Joseph Von Sternberg: Scientist Versus Vamp, “ Sight and Sound, Winter, 1972-73. Sandra Shevey early on had a short feminist review of current films in the New York Times, May 24, 1970, 2:13. Outside of the established national media, feminist film criticism appeared in the underground press and the feminist press from about 1969 on, and the first issue of Women and Film was published in early 1972.

5. Popcorn Venus, p. 60, All further quotes from Rosen’s book will be indicated by page numbers following the quote.

6. See pp. 269-270. Especially revealing is Genevieve Gilles’ comment:

“He is so intelligent, but he is like a child. He is in his car with a chauffeur and we'll pass a girl and he will say, ‘Look at that!’ Onassis is like that, too. Darryl has a book with all the girls’ names in it, and if he likes one, he puts stars next to her name. Four stars! Five stars!”

7. See the exchange between Louis B. Meyer and Stroheim, pp. 68-69; Griffith’s romantic speech on love, pp. 57-58; selections from 1920’s Photoplay on Women’s Colleges and on what makes women attractive to men, pp. 80-81; the attitudes Mayer and Thalberg had toward women, pp. 144-145; Dr. Maxwell Malty’s prescriptions for beauty in the Literary Digest in 1936, p. 181, etc.

8. Rosen’s book was, of course, written before the new women’s films had been made. It badly needs a revised final chapter to deal adequately with what women have been doing in the past two years. A film like Nelly Kaplan’s A VERY CURIOUS GIRL needs discussing, a as well as work by new young filmmakers like Joyce Chopra, Julia Reichert, Sheila Paige, Ariel Dougherty, and Mary Feldhaus Weber. Rosen’s “Epilogue” on female directors and script writers might have been expanded to deal with the contemporary U.S. and European scene.