Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Art & Art History
The 1950s are commonly regarded as a conservative and repressive era through the period’s entertainment, as reflected in situation comedies like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. However, the post-war era was not as chaste as it appeared on television. In the summer of 1953, Dr. Alfred Kinsey released Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, and in December of that year Playboy Magazine hit newsstands. Ten years later Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that played an important role in setting the second wave of American feminism into motion. Friedan’s research followed housewives from all backgrounds through the 1950s: some married right out of high school, many graduated from college before settling down, and others had completed graduate work. Friedan exposed what seemed to be a universal lack of fulfillment among the women.
The topic of gender and sexuality in classic Hollywood is defined by the work of Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” an essay which outlines her theory of the “male gaze.” According to Mulvey, the Hollywood narrative structure aligns viewers with the perspective of the male characters and pigeon holes the female characters as figures of erotic interest. While the foundational nature of Mulvey’s work is evident, I believe that the representation of gaze in Hollywood cinema, and thus male and female desire, became more complex throughout this period.
In the decade separating Kinsey’s report and Playboy Magazine from The Feminine Mystique, American society underwent substantial changes relating to female sexuality. An examination of films discussed in this thesis from Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) to Love with the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan, 1963), reveals how the status of women in America evolved. The second wave of American feminism did not begin in full force until after 1963, but through these films female characters begin to emerge from the narrative periphery and by the time Where the Boys Are (Henry Levin) was released in 1960, a literal “female gaze” enters the narrative structure of Hollywood films, granting the female characters more agency, and the power of the gaze over their male counterparts.
Pierce, Kimberly Christine, "Are You a Bad Girl?: The Evolution of Female Sexuality in Post-War Hollywood Cinema" (2010). Art History Theses & Dissertations. 2.