Writing less knowingly

review by Rox Samer

Gaines, Jane M. Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2018. 328 pg. $29.95

Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? poses its research question in its title. What author Jane M. Gaines means by this question, however, is in fact manifold. Given recent feminist scholarship documenting the many silent-era women working as actors, writers, directors, producers, often holding two or more of these positions across their careers or even at once, Gaines asks where they all went. What happened to make the numbers of women working in Hollywood as well as other silent film industries decrease in the 1920s, never again to reach the same heights? In a time when who is behind the camera, as well as in front of it, is of paramount concern as the gendered culture of film production is under scrutiny, a careful theorization of women’s contributions to the medium during its formative years is  welcome. By asking what happened to these women, Gaines is exploring more than how this earlier era came to an end; she is also asking when we knew as much and how. These questions have their own feminist stakes, as their answers account for how the study of gender and film developed the way it did in the 1970s and 80s.  As a historian of feminist media of the 1970s myself, I find the exploration of these questions to be the book’s most powerful contribution.

Pink-Slipped centers the challenges of writing about gender and film historically. Gender, once an unthinkable framework for scholarly study, as Gaines points out, has become a primary lens for film and media studies analysis. But by its very nature gender is constantly in flux, both as lived and as an analytical framework. Reading Gaines’ book encourages us all to think more carefully about for whom (including which gendered subjects) and for when (including which gendered present and future) we write. Gaines’ own study of how the history of silent-era film women was written, including by whom, at what time, and with access to which resources, pushes all readers to reflect on the history of cinema and media studies with both critical exactitude and generosity.

While 1970s feminist film scholars looked back over film history to the emergence of the medium and establishment of various film industries and found few women there (Alice Guy Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Louis Weber), today feminist film scholars are finding there were more women working in film in the 1900s, 1910s, and early 1920s than during any period since. Gaines chronicles the debate about exact numbers of women and dates of contributions, but she also contends that women now appear to have contributed substantial labor to silent film production. Women wrote scripts, worked as “joiners” and “cutters” in editing rooms, and served as stenographers and secretaries. Many women worked in various positions over the course of their careers, and as film production was still in the process of standardizing its labor, the responsibilities of any of their given positions were relatively fluid.

How did 1970s feminist film scholars miss these below-the-line women workers? Gaines, herself a formative contributor to feminist film studies, explains that this oversight was a result of how feminist scholars imagined their historical subjects and the kinds of women they were looking for. Film studies, then taking flight from literature, could find no cinematic equivalents to Jane Austen or George Eliot. Gaines argues that in looking for feminist precursors—rebellious and independent larger-than-life auteurs, who could serve as beacons of strength and resistance—she and her colleagues missed the film workers who kept the fledgling ship of film production running and brought their perspectives as women to the stories being told and their telling.[1] As a result, feminist film studies turned to the more theoretically productive “absence” of women, which produced the now canonical theories of Woman as a sign of non-male other and object of the male gaze.

Erin Hill’s Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production (2016), shows that women’s names were to be found in silent-era film credits and she documents and theorizes their labor. Such a study, Gaines contends, is indicative of what newer generations of feminist film scholars are seeking. Less committed to finding strong leaders and more curious about changes in historical discourse with regard to gender inside and outside the film industry, younger feminist film scholars have studied the gendered labor of female studio employees (Erin Hill), the feminist antics of slapstick comediennes (Maggie Hennefeld), and the plentiful cross-dressing of silent-era actresses on screen and off (Laura Horak).[2] These scholarly studies were published at virtually the same time that filmmaker Su Friedrich was researching women film editors and launching a website profiling their work (“Edited By”, http://womenfilmeditors.princeton.edu) and that Hollywood was making a film about NASA black women computers (Hidden Figures)— the 1950s and 60s mathematical equivalent of a secretary.[3] Gaines claims, following Joan Scott, that historical subjects are written so as to be “meaningful” for the present: “Try as we might to dispassionately explain their times,” Gaines writes, “we will still speak of them through our moment.”[4] If women who were unimaginable to 1970s feminist film scholars were written out of the historical records, they are being written back in as they become imaginable to younger generations.

Su Friedrich’s Edited By website and film profiles the contributions of women editors over the years.

For Gaines, acknowledging these changes opens up a space of generative thinking between generations: how did early film women imagine they could change the world, how could 1970s feminist film scholars not imagine them imagining as much, and what has changed so that we are now able to begin to imagine their imagining? This in turn provokes Gaines to ask what it might be that we cannot imagine in our present—what is currently unthinkable but may too someday come to be thinkable re: gender, media, and history? How to study that which is “beyond current comprehension”? Or, perhaps more aptly, how to do feminist historiography in manner that not only creates room for but invites the presently unthinkable?

Gaines makes the compelling contention that historians should write less knowingly. The philosophical questions she poses are not rhetorical. Instead, she advocates for approaches to feminist historiography that leave the productiveness of such questions’ hugeness intact while offering concrete solutions that tether a particular feminist study in time. While the historian is always looking elsewhere, it is the historiographer’s job to remember to locate the historian in time—to theorize that present from which they write even as they acknowledge their future readers will be of different presents themselves. The feminist historian/ historiographer, Gaines argues, should acknowledge their own desires for their historical subjects, but they also ought to resist paradigm-altering claims that are only likely to be overturned, proved obsolete, as new forms of evidence become available and new methods of analysis are employed. Digital technologies, the data they make available, and the digital-humanities approaches that scholars bring to them make a case in point for Gaines. She wonders if silent film scholars working with digital materials may have gotten ahead of the evidence. When it comes to matters of restoration and recovery, the part digital/part photochemical films that result both are and are not the motion pictures they once were. Louis Webber’s Shoes (1916), for example, is “all of the following: the film original material, the archival object, ‘the work,’ and…one copy as well as all of the copies of the material that constitutes ‘the film.’”[6] How to write about such a “film” and keep these complexities at hand?

Meanwhile, what exactly does digitizing the records of silent film production enable? More searchable access to data such as digitized payroll records, for example, affirms for Gaines the theory that the management system that would eventually squeeze out women from the top ironically relied on women as stenographers, accountants, payroll clerks, and secretaries, their job classifications aligning with lower weekly pay.[7] Digital archives’ keyword searches also reveal that more women were categorized as “producers” than “directors,” data thus having the potential to guide the researcher in new directions.[8] But Gaines also questions what gets lost in the enumeration of women’s contributions to silent film production. If we cannot know women’s agency or aspirations from counting things, how much more do we really know about what “happened” to them? Furthermore, data is quite often already algorithmically programmed, meaning issues common to the organization of analog archives, which often lead some women’s histories to becoming more accessible than others’, can also be found in the digital.[9] Ultimately, it is Gaines’ position that whatever methods historiographers use, they keep the unknowable, unthinkable, and unsayable in mind as they research and write.

Embracing historical research as “an interminable, never-ending project,”’[10] Gaines offers readers a revitalization of historical time by way of film melodrama theory. “[W]hile the historian deals with the dilemmas of temporal imbalance and irreversibility by writing around them,” Gaines explains, “melodrama uses them to its own hyperbolic ends.”[11] The past is now a former present which anticipated a future; the present a former future, now passing and becoming a past for a future present; and the future a future present, Gaines explains, building upon the philosophical insights of Gilles Deleuze and Reinhart Koselleck. This causes researchers to operate in a constant state of temporal uncertainty.[12] But no one knows better the irreversibility of time and asymmetry of temporal modes than melodrama’s fallen woman, ostracized for having a (sexual) past and considered to have no future. Both the researcher and the fallen woman, faced with the fact that the past is both present and lost forever, experience what Gaines calls the “everyday uncertainties of historical time,” i.e. the “consequences of the shifting between modes of historical time,” major life choices guided and determined not only by what choice but when.[13] Historians, inclined to flatten out the wrinkles caused by the ever-shifting relations of past, present, and future, would do well, Gaines boldly claims, to learn from their dramatization in melodrama. Through melodrama the temporal anxiety of everyday life and philosophy’s paradox of temporal co-existence become crises with consequences-in-time.

Melodrama guides viewers from one “now” to another, and familial issues remain in constant tension, as past events cannot be revisited and future events remain inaccessible. This dramatization aids the historian in seeing the peculiarity of historical time, including that of its chance happenings, which cannot be made to follow from earlier events. Understanding melodrama brings to the fore the affective force of the historian’s location-in-time quandary as well as the historiographer’s problematic of historical time, whereby we can never return to a historical past but can only access it through our own and others’ writing of it.

Gaines repeatedly cautions against essentializing understandings of gender, rehearsing the main points of the now decades-long body of scholarship on the construction of gender and limits of “woman” as a conceptual category, and she makes a few nods to how transgender studies “troubles old gender categories.”[14] However, the potential productive tensions to be explored around a feminist historiographer’s use of “woman” and “women”—such as what these silent era film women might have meant by naming themselves “women” (if they did so) and what we mean by using such a designation now—remain largely out of frame. Gaines’ discussion of enumerating women of silent film history through new methods of data accumulation and analysis that make silent film workers’ names, positions, and pay searchable would be enriched by questioning what knowledge a name produces. Such epistemological questions would be in line with the study philosophically. When addressing transgender studies and the “demands” placed on “women” and “gender,” Gaines cites David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (2007) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Those anxious to extend Gaines’ thinking about gender, film history, and feminist historiography to the new lines of thought, heuristics, and methods of analysis offered by transgender studies, including transgender media studies, would be rewarded in consulting the recent scholarship of Laura Horak, Cáel M. Keegan, Quinlan Miller, and Eliza Steinbock.[15]

These recent trans approaches to the study and philosophy of film and media history would have been especially welcome in sections of Gaines’s book like “Gender Assignment: Why Not Men?,” where the troubling metaphors of gender transition common to 1970s and 80s feminist film theory resurface.[16] In this chapter, another entitled “The World Export of ‘The Voice of the Home,’” and the conclusion that follows, Gaines makes the compelling claim that one reason why women working in silent film industries may have been steadily replaced by men in the 1920s and 30s is that their “female perspectives” had over the course of the preceding decades become codified in U.S. genre film and the melodramatic mode in particular. They would continue to exist in the film industry when they were no longer there. Gaines contends, following Ann Snitow, that “women” became a “genre” or “fiction” into which men could step. Gaines is clear that she is speaking to gender’s functioning across specific historical and cultural contexts, rather than to the identities of individual film workers, but one wonders why she relies on vocabulary so central to trans experience, such as “gender reassignment,” when doing so:

“There is a better course—to find values located in conventions rather than inscribed in persons gendered one way or another, opening the door to seeing ‘female’ values as historically assigned to women rather than men. Since, in another ordering of world cultures, these values might well have been awarded to men, we cannot help but envision their gender reassignment. This is especially because someone needs to take on the emotional labor of ‘feeling more,’ and we’re right to keep asking why women are always tasked with it.”[17]

The neglect of the resonance today of such playful words and the return to “women” as social subjects at end of such a passage keep the cis woman as the focus of the study of gender and film. The opportunity to connect her at least theoretically to femmes of all genders (with regard to emotional labor) and trans subjects, many of whom experience gender reassignment as not only not metaphorical but as a stringent process of institutional management, is lost. Theories of trans as genre—including Keegan’s aforementioned work as well as Sandy Stone’s foundational essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” (1987)—are likewise absent.[18] Gaines is especially interested in questions of temporality and the relationship between whom historians write about and who they take themselves and their readers to be (one chapter is titled “Are They ‘Just Like Us’”), and her charge to theorize the differences between “their” dreams and aspirations and “ours” (as well as those of unknowable, unthinkable gendered futures) could be extended to the consideration of imagining not only present but future transfeminisms.

Laura Horak’s Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (2016) offers an approach to the study of gender and silent cinema that incorporates questions and methods of transgender studies. Quinlan Miller's Camp TV: Trans Gender Queer Sitcom History (2019) exemplifies how a historical production studies project might avoid cisnormative assumptions about the gender identities of performers, writers, and other media workers.

Pink-Slipped spans diverse subfields and theoretical areas of interest, and it is an immensely powerful and compelling a read. First and foremost among its audience are those scholars of silent cinema who, like Gaines, are thinking about the methods they bring to this era’s research and the historical paradigms by which we frame this era’s cinema. But it will also be of interest to scholars such as me, who, if not researching this same period’s history, are working through similar questions with regards to the theorization of historical writing and gender. Across the book Gaines engages deeply and meaningfully with the philosophical writing of Gilles Deleuze, Reinhart Koselleck, Michel Foucault, Joan Scott, and others on history, temporality, and historiography. Cinema and media studies scholars working with this theory would be encouraged to pick-up Pink-Slipped—and turn to “Introduction: What Gertrude Stein Wonders about Historians” and “Chapter 2: Where Was Antonia Dickson? The Peculiarity of Historical Time” in particular.

Pink-Slipped is not for the casual reader. Its prose demands sustained engagement. Sticking with the book till the end proves rewarding, especially moving through Gaines’ posing of huge epistemological and methodological questions to her ultimate proffering of the melodrama theory of historical time and its particular relevance to the study of women in silent film industries. If the “what happened” questions posed in the introduction remain unanswered, or unanswered in the ways one might have expected, their unanswerability has been explained and the theoretical journey their asking initiated completed—for now.  

Considering the centrality of gender as a framework to cinema and media studies and Pink-Slipped’s return to the discipline’s formative moment, Gaines’ book is a necessary read for any and all reflecting on where “we” have been and where “we” are going next.