Sexual Identity, Gender Roles, and Feminism in Classic Movie Posters

Sexual Identity, Gender Roles, and Feminism in Classic Movie Posters June 2, 2019

Edited by Jose Morales

Taxi!. 1932. Ira M. Resnick Collection

New York City, New York  – Throughout the years, Hollywood films have influenced society’s perspective about gender roles and masculine and feminine stereotypes. These stereotypes have been heavily used in the marketing of movies, especially for those of the classical Hollywood era. Marketing posters from the mid-20th century were a visual representation of sexual identity, gender representation, and feminism, molding the public’s understanding of love, passion, and sex. Exploring these subjects is one of the goals behind the art exhibition, ‘What Price Hollywood’, now at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City until June 15th, 2019.

Film studios use body language as a way to place actors of both sexes in specifically defined couplings. However, throughout the years, discerning critics have challenged this practice. This led to some genres of film to allow for a more loose suggestion of female agency in movie poster art, and even the inclusion of queer perspectives.

As far back as the golden era of silent cinema, there were actors and producers who defied the preconceived understanding of gender. Mary Pickford was a pioneering Hollywood businesswoman, actress, and producer whose films portrayed dauntless heroines. This fearless persona was reflected in posters of her films and was part of her off-screen reputation. Actor Rudolph Valentino became one of the earliest targets of queerbaiting due to his sense of fashion, proud demeanor, and sexually active image in films.

Peter Pan. 1924. Ira M. Resnick Collection

‘What Price Hollywood’ at the MoMA also explores the fetishism applied to some American film genres, such as biker and Western films. The props, costumes, and scripts of these movies have long supported perceptions of strength, courage, and manhood while exploiting alternative, erotic subtexts. Many of the stars of these genres, such as Marlo Brando and James Dean, explored the intricacies of their gendered personas in films and promotional art.

The exhibition also explores the lack of black talent in classic Hollywood film posters. African American performers began traveling internationally in the late 1890s, searching for employment opportunities away from the racism in the United States. Posters exhibited in ‘What Price Hollywood’ include those for Papitou (Siren of the Tropics), starring the iconic Josephine Baker in her first of many films, and Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, recognized as one of the most important works from a black filmmaker working internationally in the 1970s.

The exhibition also allows guests the opportunity to explore sexual politics, with 20 films highlighting sexual identity and erotic imagery in films. – GM

The Lady Eve. 1941. Ira M. Resnick Collection
The Scarlet Empress. 1934. Ira M. Resnick Collection
Roaring Twenties. 1939. Ira M. Resnick Collection
What Price Hollywood? 1932. Ira M. Resnick Collection
Papitou (Siren of the Tropics). 1927. Ira M. Resnick Collection
Johanna Enlists. 1918. Ira M. Resnick Collection
Marked Woman. 1937. Ira M. Resnick Collection
Julius Caesar. 1953. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Images courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa)

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