Women in Between: Filmic Representations of Gender, Race, and Nation in Ramona (1910) and the Barrier (1917) during the Progressive Era

By Bregent-Heald, Dominique | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Women in Between: Filmic Representations of Gender, Race, and Nation in Ramona (1910) and the Barrier (1917) during the Progressive Era


Bregent-Heald, Dominique, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


Since the sixteenth century interracial couplings in the New World have created vibrant new communities. More than biological miscegenation, the mixture of European and indigenous peoples was an amalgamation of culture and tradition. Recently scholars have begun to explore the dynamics of racial and cultural mixture in the literature of the Americas. Comparative analyses of filmic representations of metissage and mestizaje, however, have been largely absent. (1) The film industry has regularly included characters with dual Native and European ancestry in its productions, particularly in films set in the border regions that the United States shares with Canada and Mexico. Typically these characters are the offspring of asymmetrical relationships between non-Native male protagonists and Indian or "half-breed" women. (2)

Whether set in the U.S.-Canadian or -Mexican borderlands and regardless of the actual proportion of Native blood, films referred to characters of mixed Native and European ancestry as "half-breeds," a term that privileges a binary racial merger and adherence to the one-drop rule. Moreover, the hegemonic film industry frequently coded "half-breeds" as "even more vicious and more dishonest, having inherited the worst traits of both Indian and Anglo," than full-blood Native peoples. (3) Filmic portrayals of mestizaje and metissage, however, were not always so cut and dried. Progressive-era films set in borderland regions expose the ambivalence of the nation-state concerning sexualized interracial mixing.

The following discussion compares the films Ramona (1910) and The Barrier (1917) to shed light on the complex discourses of gender, race, ethnicity, region, and nation in the early twentieth century. Both productions are picturizations of two bestselling place-based literary works that each feature female protagonists, Ramona and Necia, who are apparently the mixed-race daughters of Native women and Anglo-Saxon men. Both narratives unfold on the metaphoric and geographic edges of the United States. Ramona, set in Southern California, is based on Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel, while The Barrier is an adaptation of Rex Beach's Klondike-them ed novel published in 1908. (4)

From the mid-nineteenth century through the First World War the publishing industry frequently organized fiction around identifiable locales, which tended to concentrate on distant places and eras, branded to appeal to various market segments in search of authentic folkways. (5) In light of ongoing pressures to regulate and/or censor films, various U.S. film companies adapted these renowned literary works as part of a broader attempt to elevate the cultural legitimacy of the motion picture industry. An added benefit to this strategy was increased profits; picturizations of notable plays and novels appealed to a middle-class clientele without alienating working-class patronage. Most of these early productions were adaptations of well-known works of fiction that took place in North American settings.

Like the novels, the film versions of Ramona and The Barrier respectively portray the topographically and climatologically divergent borderlands of Southern California and the Yukon-Alaska frontier as places unique and rich in local color. In addition the temporal settings of these film adaptations are rooted in the historical period of civilizing frontier societies, as Anglo-American and -Canadian interests from the center consolidated their power in the periphery, thereby destroying the previous social orders established by Native and mixed-race communities as well as by the French and Spanish colonial regimes. At a time when physical boundaries between nations and peoples had become more precise, the marked presence of mixed-race peoples in borderland regions presented a more porous divide.

The novels and their film adaptations explore racial and gendered hierarchies within the Southland and Northland in differing ways. …

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