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Deviant Representations: Female Relationships, Film Censorship, and Hollywood Cinema, 1932-1945


This dissertation examines how the American film industry’s Production Code (its institution of self-imposed regulation) affected representations of female relationships between the 1930s and the 1940s. Focusing on relationships between black, white, and queer women, it argues that female relationships were important sites of resistance to the Code’s enforced racist and patriarchal ideology. Such relationships provide critical commentary on the era’s anxieties about female sexuality, miscegenation, women’s labor, and class precarity that often bypassed censorship’s awareness. “Deviance” in this project refers to women who in various forms do not fit within a socially acceptable definition of womanhood, whether it be along vectors of race, class, sexual orientation, or sexuality. It evokes the logic used by film censors to maintain a “moral” framework around right and wrong types of women. Engaging with the archives of film censorship and production, this dissertation asserts that while cross-racial and cross-sexual female relationships were on the one hand intended to distinguish “deviant” forms of femininity from images of heterosexual white women, on the other they could also produce their own resistance by providing incipient possibilities of female affinities across social boundaries. Looking at a variety of woman’s films within different genre conventions, including gold digger films, melodrama, horror, and film noir, it claims that in the face of censorship that attempted to regulate narratives about women, female relationships could be turned into conduits for a visual language of insurgence that bypassed the Code’s imperatives. It intervenes in traditional feminist film criticism’s accounts of the place of women in Classical Hollywood cinema, which argue that such films were ensconced in fundamentally patriarchal ideology that undermined bonding between women. It revises this consensus by considering productive moments of female relationships and demonstrate how they function in opposition to the Code’s language surrounding female representations.

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