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American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections

The Post-Studio Era

9 to 5 [movie poster]. 1982. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

From the late 1940s, Hollywood faced two threats to its hegemony: the court-ordered breakup of the studios' exhibition monopoly and the steady loss of audiences to television. With fewer ticket sales, the studios made fewer movies. By the 1960s, the studio system with its huge production facilities and long-term contract personnel came to an end. Films addressing women's concerns continued to be made, but they were often harder to fund, distribute, and exhibit within the changing Hollywood economy. When the eroding Production Code was replaced by the ratings system, however, filmmakers were given the freedom to treat social and political themes in more mature and original ways.

Depictions of Women

The Library's collections of American feature films received through copyright deposit are exceptionally strong for this period. Movies that could be classified as women's pictures—such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974, FGC 8517-8522), Norma Rae (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and The First Wives Club (1996)—are well represented in the division's holdings. Harkening back to the days of silent serials, women appropriated the role of action heroes in many contemporary films, among them Alien (1979), The Terminator (1984), and Thelma and Louise (1991), but more often they appeared as appendages to male stars. More recently, reboots of classic film franchises that feature an all-female cast such as Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016) and Ocean's 8 (2018) have placed women in dramatic and comedic action roles that were originally written for men.

Women's advances in contemporary America have not meant the end of their formulaic representations through blatant stereotypes in motion pictures. In Pretty Woman (1990), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the cliché of the "hooker with a heart of gold" has been a central characterization. Unlike those of previous generations of women from Lillian Gish to Katharine Hepburn, the careers of contemporary women stars suffer in comparison to their male counterparts'. Today's actresses are generally paid less, find fewer challenging roles, and find their lifespans as romantic leads fading long before those of such aging lotharios as Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.

Women Directors

With the breakdown of the studio system, however, women were able to forge careers as directors once again. Ranging from exploitation films to independent productions to Hollywood extravaganzas, the Library's holdings include works from such women feature film directors as Stephanie Rothman (b. 1936), Joan Micklin Silver (b. 1935), Joan Tewkesbury (b. 1936), Claudia Weill (b. 1947), Joyce Chopra (b. 1938), Amy Heckerling (b. 1954), Martha Coolidge (b. 1946), Barbra Streisand (b. 1942), Susan Seidelman (b. 1952), Penny Marshall (b. 1942), Nancy Savoca (b. 1959), Tamra Davis (n.d.), Penelope Spheeris (b. 1945), Julie Dash (b. 1952), Allison Anders (b. 1954), Nora Ephron (b. 1941), Jodie Foster (b. 1962), Mimi Leder (b. 1952), and Betty Thomas (b. 1947). Records for films by these directors are available in the Library's online catalog.

Documentary Filmmakers

Documentary filmmaking was and continues to be an important outlet for women directors.

  • Liane Brandon (b. 1939) explores the concepts of beauty and self-image in her film Betty Tells Her Story (1972, FBB 7142).
  • Barbara Kopple (b. 1946) spent four years in the coalfields of Kentucky covering the events surrounding a miner's strike in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, U.S.A (1976).
  • Director Lee Grant (b. 1927) documents the case of eight women in Willmar, Minnesota, who went on strike because of job discrimination in The Willmar 8 (1982, FDA 6917).
  • Greta Schiller (b. 1954) and Andrea Weiss (b. 1956) made International Sweethearts of Rhythm, America's Hottest All-Girl Band (1986), which examines the roles of women and minorities through the story of a multiracial all-girl band formed during World War II.

Spotlight: Lilli Vincenz

Lilli Vincenz is one of the pioneering activists of the gay civil rights movement and has been a prominent gay rights leader since the 1960s. In 2013, the Library acquired her collection of papers, photographs, 16-mm films and memorabilia that span a period of 50 years in the gay and lesbian civil-rights movement. During that time, Vincenz produced two significant short films that document two early events in the movement. These are “The Second Largest Minority” (7 min.), which documents the “Reminder Day Picket” at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, on the 4th of July in 1968; and “Gay and Proud,” (12 min.), of the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade held in New York City on June 28, 1970, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a watershed in the history of gay rights in America.