Tackling Universal Women as a Research Problem: What Historiographic Sources Do and Don't Tell Us about "Gender" in the Silent Motion Picture Studio

By Cooper, Mark Garrett | Framework, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Tackling Universal Women as a Research Problem: What Historiographic Sources Do and Don't Tell Us about "Gender" in the Silent Motion Picture Studio


Cooper, Mark Garrett, Framework


By way of introduction to Alas and Alack ( Joseph De Grasse, US, 1915), the conference organizers asked me to explain in fifteen minutes or less "what historiographic sources do and don't tell us about 'gender' in the silent motion picture studio." This irresistible prompt offers several intriguing puzzles. Is it well worth considering, for example, how exactly information becomes a "historiographic source." It is also clear that the silent motion picture studio merits renewed investigation. But one cannot speak of everything all at once. I take a clue from the quotation marks singling out "gender" and infer that this term is more vexed than the others, and therefore of greater interest. Without purporting to develop a major statement about "gender" in relatively few words, I can illustrate through my own research two points I take to be axiomatic. First, what sources tell us about "gender" is a function not of the sources themselves but of our methods of interpretation. As every English speaker knows, whether "man" means "male person" or "everyone" depends on how you read it. Second, gender presumes a conceptual relation: when a source tells us about "gender," it tells us that something or someone is "gendered" and also, if only by implication, that something or someone else is differently gendered. The list of possible something elses is very long, insofar as cultures use gender distinctions to classify and hierarchize not only persons and things but also places and practices. In illustrating these two axioms- that interpretive methods prepare us to detect gender and that gendered objects come in relational sets-I provide some concrete information about what I asked and learned about gender in the course of my research on the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in the 1910s.

To begin, then, with "gender." I think it safe to say that the quotation marks testify to three closely related problems. They indicate, first, that "gender" remains a theoretically contested term, pointing to a legacy of argument about the culture-nature distinction, about systems of cultural differences and the relations among them, about the relationship between performing a gender and being assigned one, and so on. The inverted commas also mark "gender" as a historically contingent category, such that sources of information from the past might change our sense of what gender is or does in a particular time and place. Finally, in acknowledging that "gender" is a contested and variable category, the punctuation around it addresses a community of interpreters for whom usage of the term continues to seem important despite, or perhaps because of, theoretical differences and differences of historical interpretation.1 To the theoretical and historiographical challenges inherent in the term, then, we may add the political matter of what we hope to gain from a history of gender in the silent motion picture studio. I think we might hope for an empowering understanding of institutions as historical actors capable of changing gendered practice.

The research on Universal reported in Universal Women did not find any major alternatives to a binary organization of gender into masculine and feminine terms.2 It did find a good deal of variation in what those terms might connote, in the intensity with which they were applied to persons and practices, and thus the degree to which they regulated who did what at the studio. Those variations in how gender norms regulated work, I show, were not mandated by particular individuals. Neither did they simply trickle down from "the culture" or "the industry." Rather, they resulted from cascades of decisions made by differently empowered constituents of the studio as an institution. My book explains what decisions led the studio to employ a relatively large number of women as directors from its beginnings in 1912 through 1919, and then why it reversed that practice, such that new additions to its directors' ranks would be men.

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