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

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School of Scandal: Alice Duer Miller, Scandal, and the New Woman
Anne Morey

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942) had a long career as screenwriter, beginning in 1918 with Less Than Kin and concluding posthumously in 1944 with White Cliffs of Dover.  In addition to being a committed suffrage campaigner and booster of women's higher education, Miller was also a novelist of note, having produced more than twenty works.  This paper examines three of her silent films (Are Parents People?, Her First Elopement, and Manslaughter) to argue that Miller saw scandal as simultaneously a tool to discipline young women and to give young women both the erotic freedom and knowledge (including self-knowledge) that might otherwise be denied them. 

 So, for example, in Are Parents People?, the heroine derails her parents' impending divorce by threatening to elope with an unsuitable young man, risking both her reputation and that of her preferred suitor.  In Her First Elopement, the heroine intervenes in another unsuitable match with the consequence that she is mistaken for a woman of ill repute, and the shift required to protect her reputation damages that of her suitor, such that she and he must elope for a second time because her father considers him an unacceptable mate.  In Manslaughter, the heroine declasses herself by killing a policeman and being sent to prison by the district attorney who loves her.  Only while she is intent upon revenge for what she considers his unwarrantable sexual mastery does she realize that she loves him.  All three narratives explore the lives of girls or women who long for escape from their social and sexual preceptors (parents, school mistresses, guardians, even the law); all three heroines experience humiliation associated with this desire for escape, although this humiliation is redeemed by later sexual fulfillment. 

 While offering close readings of these three films, the paper will argue that Miller was one of a number of successful women of her generation who worked hard to develop a new erotics, suitable to the rising generation of New Women, that simultaneously emphasized women's intellectual equality with men while also attempting to locate areas in which sexual difference remained (and remained a source of erotic satisfaction to women).  Miller created intelligent, headstrong heroines as a kind of laboratory for the exploration of the relationship between social mores and women's capacity for action, with scandal as the hinge.


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