Slapstick comediennes in silent cinema

Women’s laughter and the feminist politics of gender in motion

Authored by: Margaret Hennefeld

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138924956
eBook ISBN: 9781315684062
Adobe ISBN: 9781317408055

10.4324/9781315684062.ch13

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Abstract

Perhaps no image caused early film spectators greater discomfort in the 1890s than the public eruption of female laughter: the convulsive explosion of ribs heaving in their tight corsets, loud ripples of vocal mirth issuing from the oral cavities, and, worst of all, the implication that inappropriate innuendos were not lost on female viewers. While many of these tense and uncomfortable visions of female laughter have been long since forgotten, they pose crucial historiographic challenges for feminist film scholars today, and remain broadly resonant and provocative reminders of the very deep-seated social anxieties about women’s relationship to laughter and comedy. As this chapter will explore, slapstick comediennes in early cinema both enacted and reflected heated cultural debates about the relationship between gender, comedic pleasure, and feminist social politics. From early 1900s trick films about exploding housemaids, to 19-teens knockabout comedies depicting domestic assault, to 1920s flapper films about commodity capitalism, silent movies featuring slapstick comediennes represent archival traces that reveal crucial formations of modern feminism and popular screen culture.

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