Happy new year lovely folks!
I had an odd but ultimately lovely festive season of two halves: the first week was spent in isolation with Covid (mild cold, booster for the win!). I went with a Lockdown I vibe, wandering around in my PJs drinking gin and doing jigsaws. The second week, I was chucked headlong into the madness of family and a hoard of nieces and nephews I’m pretty sure replicate like Gremlins every time I head south. There was ice skating, a merry-go-round and my first London football game.
And now here we are in 2022 and the year of Fully Fifty-Fifty.
We may not know what the universe has in store for us on a global scale, but I’m bursting with plans for sharing the stories of the ladies of early Hollywood. I would love to launch the movie club soon: my idea is that we’ll get together on Zoom to stream a Pre Code movie or silent, and discuss! Let me know if you’re game (just hit reply!) and I’ll get organising.
On with this week’s post!
I have some mixed feelings when it comes to Mary Pickford.
Mary Pickford is one of those names that many people have heard of, even if they don’t know much about the silent era. And for anyone vaguely familiar with her, the image that probably springs to mind is of a cutesy wee girl shrieking for help in an overwrought melodrama. This isn’t entirely fair. It’s true that she didn’t ruffle any Victorian ideals of feminity, but she was rarely helpless on screen
As Kevin Brownlow puts it in The Parade’s Gone By:
Whenever a situation got out of hand, she would not submit to self-pity. She would storm off and do something about it, often with hilariously disastrous results.
He goes on
The ideal American girl is still the Mary Pickford character: extremely attractive, warm-hearted, generous, funny - but independent and fiery-tempered when the occasion demands.
We’re not loving the idea that the ideal American woman is ‘extremely attractive’, but for context, the book was written in 1968.
Mary Pickford’s characters were literally independent.
They were often orphans, and while she might be rewarded with a promise of romance at the end (in 1919’s Daddy Long Legs, for example) she was rarely married or otherwise romantically entangled on screen. I love this, not least as one of the — many! — problems we have today with female characters is that they are inevitably defined or given status from their relationship to a man.
Remember when Spectre came out a few years ago? There was a whole song and dance about how it featured “feminist” Bond girls who had wild and groundbreaking traits like “personalities.” While both characters were arguably steps in the right direction, they were, respectively, someone’s wife and someone’s daughter.
They may say that no man is an island, but in Hollywood, male characters get to be islands in their own right all the time. Female characters, on the other hand, not so much.
But Mary Pickford was. Molly Haskell, in From Reverence to Rape - the treatment of women in the movies, describes her on screen image:
Even at her most arch-angelic, Pickford was no American Cinderella or Snow White whose only claim to consequence was a tiny foot or a pretty face. She was a rebel, who, in the somewhat sentimental spirit of the prize puppy as underdog, championed the poor against the rich, the scruffy orphans against the prissy rich kids. She was a little girl with gumption and self-reliance who could get herself out of trouble as easily as into it.
And yet for all that, as Molly Haskell points out elsewhere, Mary Pickford films didn’t challenge Victorian morality. She embodied a child-like, virginal, innocent ideal of womanhood that by the early twenties, was already old-fashioned. On screen, Mary Pickford was entirely non-threatening to the sort of person easily spooked by the notion that women are autonomous beings. She didn’t even bob her hair until 1929 in case it upset her conservative fans.
And that’s where we come to my dilemma.
Bear with me here. I call it the Paris Hilton dilemma.
Do you remember, maybe fifteen years or so ago, when Paris Hilton was the big thing (pre Kardashians)? She was on a reality show with Nicole Richie and a staple of gossip magazines and whatnot. She generally appeared to be a baby-voiced, ditzy halfwit.
I came across an interview with her once, in which she said something along the lines of, do people not realise that’s just a character I put on for the show? I’m a businesswoman, a producer on the show, I’m basically laughing all the way to the bank that people think I’m stupid.
And I was like… huh.
Is it some kind of feminist gotcha to take advantage of the negative way society views women and turn it into cash —or is it deeply frustrating and disappointing for a woman to perpetuate the stereotype of women as ditzy halfwits just because she, individually, profits from it?
I lean towards the latter, and I have the same reservation with Mary Pickford.
Behind the scenes, Mary Pickford was a feared and respected producer who “took over the asylum” to essentially invent distribution. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she remained powerful in Hollywood even after her retirement from the screen (she was pivotal in launching the Screen Actors Guild), and she died still one of the richest women in America.
I can’t help feeling that was at least partly down to the fact that while she took no prisoners in real life, she carefully cultivated her on-screen and public image as a non-threatening girly-girl. Mabel Normand, in contrast, directly challenged old fashioned ideas of femininity by doing pratfalls in swimsuits — and she suffered for it as the heady early days gave way to the right-wing rise of the studio system.
It seems that Mary Pickford played all angles in the patriarchy’s game, and she won. I honestly can’t decide whether I admire or am disappointed by her for it.
What do you reckon? Was Mary Pickford a feminist icon — or a turncoat?!