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

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Female and Formal Ambiguity in the Serial Queen Melodrama: Fatal Testcase for Feminist Film Theory?
Jana Ostyn

Last modified: 2010-05-11


From 1908 till 1914, series and serials dominated the American and European film market. Despite their undeniable popularity at the time, film history and theory have traditionally overlooked these genres. Only recently scholars have taken up an interest in the serial film. While Abel (1984), Bowser (1990) and Dall’Asta (2009) gradually acknowledged the historical importance of both series and serials, Bean (1998) and Singer (2001) made the so-called serial queen melodrama the central subject of their more theoretical studies. At the heart of this research is the ambiguous portrayal of the serial queen, who finds herself constantly shifting on a scale of ‘empowerment’ and ‘imperilment’.

Up till now, studies of series and serials have been almost exclusively concerned with the representation of the female protagonists, paying almost no attention at all to industrial, intertextual or aesthetic aspects of these films. The serial film, however, proves to be an invaluable subject for filmhistorical research, since the genre is so closely linked to the main developments of the transitional era. The heydays of serial film (1908-1914) cover this period exactly and their serial form seems particularly fit to bridge the gap between the one-reelers of the early days and the features of the classical period. Moreover, the link between series and serials and the transitional era is reflected in the films’ suitability for the changing distribution and exhibition practices, their international and intertextual character, and – more visible – their formal heterogeneity. As Tom Gunnig points out, they ‘provide a glimpse of the labor of appropriation necessary to fashion a cinema of narrative integration out of the attractions of earlier film’ (1993: 119).

Like most serial genres, the serial queen melodrama is ambiguous in form. In this case, as explained before, the depiction of the female protagonists shares this dyadic quality. Due to a persistent lack of formal characterization, however, the relation between the two aspects is yet to be defined. Feminist theory provides a set of tools that enables us to link the formal anomalies and the disturbed images of the female, or, more specifically, to connect the constant disrupture of the narrative with the uncertain status of the serial queen. The serial queen melodrama is therefore a unique subject to test the validity of feminist theory when applied to silent cinema.

In my presentation, in short, I would like to present the existing discours on the serial queen melodrama, illustrate the formal ambiguity of the genre by pointing out the link between the serial film in general and the transitional era, and, ultimately, tie both elements together using concepts of feminist theory. Lastly, I will draw a short conclusion on the usefullness/uselessness of applying feminist theory to the serial queen melodrama and to silent cinema in general.

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