Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Lois Weber’s Uneasy Progressive Politics: The Articulation of Class and Gender in Where Are My Children?
Veronica Pravadelli

Last modified: 2010-05-12


After decades of oblivion the status of Lois Weber’s production has emerged as one of the most important in American cinema of the ‘10s. Indeed, recent historical research has made clear that by 1915 Weber had become a popular celebrity whose work was as distinctive as that of Griffith and De Mille. In her most famous and successful films, Weber tackled some of the controversial issues of the period which she treated in a moral fashion. Her cinema can perhaps be described as a mixture of realism, melodrama and propaganda. While she was famous for fostering female talents, Weber was also attentive to women’s issues. Where Are My Children? (1916) is the first of four films dealing with birth control while Shoes (1916), for example, deals with underpaid female labor. In both cases, as in other films, Weber’s social discourse develops along a dual axes, that of gender and class. Though she didn’t consider herself strictly a feminist, she thought of her work in line with that of activists and reformers, including feminists such as Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams. It is interesting to note that well before current debates around essentialism and anti-essentialism, Weber was well aware, like many feminists of the time, that women’s condition as gendered subjects was not unique and universal, but intimately related to their class.   

In this paper I will discuss Where Are My Children? in the attempt to unravel the film’s position vis-à-vis birth control and abortion. Recent research has focused on the film’s position in the debates over cinema’s role in society. Shelley Stamp has impeccably researched the film’s complex struggle with censorship and argued that Weber’s film is a perfect example for testing cinema’s status “when ideas about the educational role” it might play “clashed with its evolving role in the entertainment sphere”. While Stamp shows that the film was censored because its message appeared ambiguous and confusing, she strangely argues that the film makes a straightforward argument. While this somewhat makes her overall thesis somewhat problematic, I am interested in working on the convergence between different feminist positions on birth control, motherhood and femininity, and Weber’s formal articulation of such materials. While to my mind the film’s ambiguity stands, I would argue that it can be explained vis-à-vis competing discourses on women and sexuality of the time. In this context, the relation between gender and class is a fundamental tenet. In my discussion I will also refer to other Weber’s films, especially The Blot (1921), where the link between class and gender is equally important.  

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