Gender and sexuality in early Australian silent film

The technological change wrought by the advent of ‘moving pictures’ in Australia was unprecedented in every way. Even in an age characterised by rapid industrialisation and technological innovation, the cinema revolutionised popular entertainment as a forum for artistic expression. Its universal appeal and wide boundaries of influence rendered the new medium unique in its ability to communicate ideas, shape moral values and encourage the development of a national identity through a depiction of distinctly Australian ‘characters’ and an Australian ‘way of life’.

Possum Paddock (1921)

Possum Paddock (1921)

Despite the inherent modernity of film as a medium and its potential for shaping the images of the future, early filmmakers appealed to audiences through familiar images of a ‘golden’ past. Thus, as cities grew larger and life rapidly became more urbanised, audiences were invited to retreat at the pictures to the nostalgic world of the struggling pioneer who overcame all odds and survived on the land.

The Australian ‘way of life’ depicted in silent films was inextricably tied to the bush and this was one of the most favourably remarked upon aspects of films such as The Woman SuffersA Girl of the Bush and Possum Paddock. Critics of these films hailed their local production, the ‘beauty of our great Australian Bush’, the realistic portrayal of life on an outback station and the ‘Australianness’ that was seen to permeate the films.

In its depictions of ‘true’ Australian life, silent film displayed a specific gender differentiation which prescribed certain codes of behaviour. Women in silent film were characterised by a moral code that governed their sexuality and determined their fate. The heroine, however strong or independent her character, had to be virtuous, sexually innocent and morally beyond reproach. Her virtue was typified particularly by a complete lack of enjoyment in seduction.

In fact, the heroine displayed some trepidation or fear before surrendering herself. If she fulfilled all these criteria, she was rewarded with marriage and could look forward to a life-time of happiness and fulfilment as a loving wife and mother. If however she had already ‘fallen’ and conceived a child outside the sanctity of marriage, she must inevitably suffer.

The Woman Suffers (1918)

The Woman Suffers (1918)

In spite of the villainy of the character who seduced her, the ‘fallen’ woman must endure despair, disgrace and ostracism leading, more often than not, to death whether accidental or through suicide. In this way, sex in silent film was violent – a form of control or an act of revenge. It determined the morality of a character and the fate that would befall her.

The sexual differentiation displayed by silent film was shaped by convention. Conventions of the society of the early twentieth century saw women’s sexuality purely within the bounds of motherhood and marriage. The increase in the use of birth control, a decline in the population and the continued practice of abortion and infanticide were seen as threatening the established traditional family structure.

The reaction of a conservative society in perceiving the increased control women were gaining over their sexuality by limiting their families was to elevate domesticity and maternal love to a universal ideal.

A Girl of the Bush, 1921

A Girl of the Bush, 1921

The theatrical convention of melodrama served as an ideal framework for the portrayal of a triumph of virtue. In dealing in the conditions of personal guilt and innocence, melodrama provided a means of depicting the world as morally legible. The virtuous heroine is rewarded with marriage while the ‘fallen’ woman suffers disgrace. As Christine Gledhill writes of the home , the family and the heroine: they were ‘animate images of a past social wellbeing as “moral touchstones” against which the instabilities of capitalist expansion and retraction could be judged’. 1 Furthermore, placed in a bush setting, the home the family and the heroine assumed an even greater purity – ‘the little bush girl’.

While it is not possible to know the depth of feeling in the community of the 1920s toward the depictions of Australian silent film, we do know of the general popularity of The Woman Suffers, A Girl of the Bush and Possum Paddock through their box office success. Critics of the day certainly responded wholeheartedly to the characterisations evident in the three films, often analysing the plot and its elements in the same terms as the film portrayal.

Critics described Lorna as the ‘bush maid’ in A Girl of the Bush and the villainous Ralph was described as a ‘betrayer’ and ‘deceiver’ in The Woman Suffers. Audience reception has been seen, not only to embrace the myths advanced by the films but to entrench them further in a rapidly industrialised society.

Future studies could cover a wider range of Australian silent and early ‘talkie’ films and document how the depiction of women and their sexuality was modified to keep pace with a changing society and how ‘popular’, critical and censorial audiences responded to this variation. Investigation of the content of silent films has been sadly neglected by historians. Any historical study of their significance, in conjunction with the society of which they were a product, remains overdue.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Christine Gledhill, ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’ in Gledhill (ed.), Home is where the Heart is: studies in melodrama and the womens film, BFI books, London, 1987, p21

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.