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Women Entertainers
in 20th Century America

June Sochen

The University Press of Kentucky



The subject of women & popular culture has interested me for many years. Before I became a historian of American women, I was a movie fan. In that lifelong capacity, I have been intrigued & enraptured by the portrayal of women in film. My admiration & enjoyment of the movies & of women stars in the movies have not abated. But during the last 25 years or more, I have also studied women’s lives & experiences in this century, often emphasizing the images of women in popular culture…

Women in popular culture is a large subject… As a social type, women entertainers were the first women in this century to be visible, successful, & independent. They lead lives atypical for American women as they spent their working days in the public eye instead of in the home or office. They earned fabulous sums of money: Eva Tanguay, the vaudevillian… earned more money than the president of the United States. While some thought that accomplishment was appropriate, others wondered. Fan magazines, a new phenomenon that accompanied the rise of entertainment, commented on the private lives of these women stars, noting their frequent marriages & romantic break-ups. No one considered the possibility that these women, while they lived dramatically different lives, shared the culture’s traditional view that all women should be wives & mothers. As the first group of women professionals, they were unwitting pioneers, forging new trails with few guideposts…

The analyst of women’s lives & roles in popular media must evaluate the multiple frames within which the star & her persona functions. In my view, women entertainers become multiple texts: biography is one text, the star’s work, be it films, television shows, or songs, is another. In addition, two contexts intersect with her bio & her work: the history & culture of the film, television, or musical genre in which she performs, & the society in which she lives. These four dimensions cannot be separated from each other. Knowing about a star’s life is critical to understanding her personality & the screen roles she is likely to play. Because much of popular culture is bound to past conventions, how a star adapts herself to the stereotypical roles available & how she makes them her own are part of the analysis. (Pages 1 – 3)


Within the confessional literature of the movie magazines are multiple layers of information. We recapitulate the history of show business through the biographies of stars such as Barbara Stanwyck & Joan Crawford, we learn how stressed movie stars cope with many demands, & we see how images are made & remade. In trying to explain themselves to their fans, the stars often explain themselves to themselves. They ordered their lives & created harmony out of chaos, rationality out of irrationality. In so doing, they glossed over failures, condensed despairing experiences, & always emerged with a happy ending.

But the most sustaining evidence of their testimonies & confessions is their lives, their continued presence on the screen, & their enduring impressions on our consciousness. Women movie stars as a group offer us an admirable portrait of interesting, independent women who coped with the dilemma of living full public & private lives long before most of us even articulated the problem. Unwittingly, perhaps, they have been the vanguard of the women’s movement. Their successes & failures, writ large because of their fame, offer is a looking glass into the false & true starts of women forging their own adult lives in modern America. (Pages 105 & 106)


Structural changes in how Americans amuse themselves contribute to the static quality of women’s images in popular culture. The segmentation of America has fractured the “woman’s audience” into smaller & smaller units. Women of all classes, races & ethnicities enjoyed a 1930s melodrama and laughed with Lucy & Ethel. Today, TV soap operas continue to attract women but in smaller numbers. The quantity of shows from which to choose is great. Spanish-speaking stations cater to their respective markets, & the proliferation of cable stations makes it difficult to create a shared cultural experience.

The cultural reason is as important as the economic one. The dearth of fantasy & dramatic roles for women is directly tied to the general fear &/or confusion about what women’s roles, dreams, & hopes should be at century’s end. Audience women today cannot watch a Joan Crawford overcome all odds & land a wealthy husband because that is no longer (or is it?) a woman’s central dream. However, on melodrama, which is confined largely to afternoon soap operas, the latest pathology is dramatized & trivialized. A variety of feminist messages no longer occupy the public mind: indeed feminists don’t always agree on one message. Therefore, it remains safer to take comfort in old formulas. An actress cannot find a movie or a television role that allows her to indulge in adventure/fantasy because these are still male territory. Sci-fi fantasy movies feature men & only men climb perilous mountains. Women continue to be rescued, but rarely do the rescuing. Pam Grier’s exploits in 1970s movies have few imitators at the end of the 1990s.

Women’s real lives are seen as too serious or too difficult to translate into either imaginative or dramatic scripts, & the only option, paradoxically, is to mock women’s situations. Roseanne may make fun of her difficult working-class life but she cannot dramatize it. For fear of touching an open wound, Hollywood television producers & moviemakers avoid dramas, fantasies, & adventures that feature women. Rather than cause controversy while opening a public debate, filmmakers & television writers avoid the subject altogether, just as they ignored women’s liberation issues in the 1970s. That is why women stars complain regularly about the few worthy roles available to them.

As I have argued throughout this book, the dominant formulas, be they melodrama, comedy, or the blues, have formed the outlines within which women entertainers perform. In the 20th century, some women stars, such as Lucy as the anarchic TV comic, have transformed the genre, & some, such as Mae West or Madonna, have operated on the margins building their celebrity from the outside in. But in all cases, they began with the familiar & shared the format to their personality & talent. If the times favored them, such as the 1970s did for the concert performers Janis Joplin & Bette Midler, they succeeded & built a following. If they appeared during a unique moment, such as Eva Tanguay did in vaudeville, they shone briefly but then lost their fame afterward. Enduring stars such as Dinah Shore & Mary Tyler Moore found their images to be comforting in both traditional & transitional periods.

Will women entertainers continue to find the times congenial to their various talents? Will more women scriptwriters, producers, directors, & editors emerge? Will the current few women producers & directors around display a feminist consciousness & change the direction of popular cultural treatments of women? Perhaps most important, will women in the audience demand newer & bolder images of women in films, in music, & on TV? Receiving an affirmative answer to all of these questions constitutes a major challenge.

In the late 1980s, women viewers insisted to CBS that their favorite women team of detectives, CAGNEY & LACEY remain on the air, & so they did for a few more years. Fans as consumers must join hands with like-minded creative types, male & female, to reshape programming or at least to open it to greater female talent, a mighty task. Given the durability of the old formulas, women entertainers will have to continue another long tradition: adaptability, survivability, & creativity in the face of formidable obstacles. The 20th century introduced memorable women entertainers to American audiences. Even a pessimist has to believe that the future will do no less. (Pages 209 & 210)



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JUNE SOCHEN is a professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. A cultural historian specializing in women's history, minority history, and entertainment history, she has published over a dozen books, many already available on Amazon.com, such as:
Cafeteria America:
New Identities in Contemporary American Life
Consecrate Every Day:
The Public Lives of Jewish American Women (1880 – 1980)
A Woman’s View of American History
Movers & Shakers:
American Women Thinkers & Activists (1900 – 1970)
The New Woman:
Feminism in Greenwich Village (1910 – 1920)
The Unbridgeable Gap:
Blacks & Their Quest for the American Dream (1900 - 1930)

Viewing American culture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has resulted in courses as well as public lectures that focus on Women in Popular Culture and U.S. Intellectual/Cultural History. She is currently conducting research on the growing-up experience in the second half of the 20th century and how it affects women's lives.

FF2 would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Sochen for allowing us to excerpt sections from FROM MAE TO MADONNA for our tribute to Women’s History Month. We urge each of you to follow the advice she offers at the end of her book: vote with your wallet! As audience members, every one of us has the right to demand “newer & bolder images of women in films, in music, & on TV”!