From Mae to Madonna

From Mae to Madonna: Women Entertainers in Twentieth-Century America

June Sochen
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130js79
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  • Book Info
    From Mae to Madonna
    Book Description:

    Entertainers were the first group of successful women to capture the public eye, taking to the stage in vaudeville and film and redefining their place in society. June Sochen introduces the white, African American, and Latina women who danced on Broadway, fell on bananas in silent films, and wisecracked in smoky clubs, as well as the modern icons of today's movies and popular music. Sochen considers such women as Mae West, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Lucille Ball, and Mary Tyler Moore to discover what show business did for them and what they did for the world of entertainment. She uses the life of 30s and 40s Latina star Lupe Velez as a case study of the roles available to Latinas in popular culture. She then contrasts her story with that of the African American action star Pam Grier to demonstrate the old and new ways minority women are portrayed in popular culture.From Mae to Madonnaplaces each woman within the context of her time and talks about her relationship with dominant female stereotypes. Sochen discusses women's roles as Mary, Eve, and Lilith and asks thought-provoking questions. Why did the Depression give women movie stars so many important roles while the so-called feminist 1970s did not? Why has television been a congenial venue for women comics while film has not? In examining how entertainers worked within or transformed particular genres and how their personal and public lives affected their careers,From Mae to Madonnacasts the spotlight on a series of remarkable women and their dramatic effect on America's popular culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4980-6
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    The subject of women and popular culture has interested me for many years. Before I became a historian of American women, I was a movie fan. In that lifelong capacity, I have been intrigued and enraptured by the portrayal of women in film. My admiration and enjoyment of the movies and of women stars in the movies have not abated. But during the last twenty-five years or more, I have also studied women’s lives and experiences in this century, often emphasizing the images of women in popular culture. In 1973, my sister Joyce Schrager and I gave a slide lecture...

  6. 1 Black Women Vaudevillians
    (pp. 23-40)

    By the 1880s, show business had a history, one that largely excluded women. Young boys played the female parts in many nineteenth-century theatricals, and respectable women, white and African American, avoided the stage as an unladylike place to be. But in the late nineteenth century, things changed. Popular culture joined with the new and growing cities and increasing industrialization to become big business. Commercial entertainments had already existed, but most people amused themselves in informal, free, and communally developed leisure activities. The newly discovered profit-making potential of show business transformed popular culture into for-profit entrepreneurial businesses that conveniently forgot or...

  7. 2 Bawdy Women Entertainers
    (pp. 41-60)

    While African American women entertainers were gaining a foothold in vaudeville and mainstream theatrical stages, a new outlet appeared for black and white entertainers in the second decade of the twentieth century: the intimate nightclub. In a living room setting, women and men comics and singers told off-color jokes and sang songs with sexual lyrics. The audience was smaller and self-selected; everyone knew what to expect in this smaller environment, and moralists could easily avoid this more risqué experience. City dwellers, who considered themselves sophisticated and forward looking, could have an evening of relaxation in the nightclub. This new setting...

  8. 3 Entertainer as Reformer
    (pp. 61-76)

    So far we have looked at the lives and careers of women performers in the first third of this century whose material and style challenged dominant cultural values in either of two ways: As black or white Eves, they were sexual women who were bold enough to discuss the forbidden subject in public, and as black women vaudevillians, they were outside the mainstream. Mae West epitomized the outrageous Eve, and she did it in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in the movies. Her fame has endured throughout the century and therefore kept the converstion on the subject of sex alive longer...

  9. 4 Women Movie Stars as Role Models
    (pp. 77-106)

    By the 1930s, the dominant medium of popular entertainment was sound movies. No one anticipated the spectacular success of moving pictures. During the depression years, fully half the population went to the movies every week; sixty million people found escape, relief, pleasure, and interest in the darkened theater of their neighborhood or in the more ornate theater in the downtown district of their city. Audiences gathered to watch their favorite star perform, and in the 1930s, there were as many women stars as men stars. In sharp contrast to the movies since the 1960s, when action adventures have dominated and...

  10. 5 Child Stars
    (pp. 107-122)

    To the surprise of many, child stars prospered in 1930s Hollywood. Despite (or perhaps because of) the insecurities of the Depression, Americans eagerly went to the movies to see six-year-olds and ten-year-olds sing, dance, and act their way across the screen. The fact that adults had not figured out how to solve the most knotty problems facing them made them anxious to escape into the child’s fantasy world where all came out all right in the end. Fathers and mothers took their families to the children’s movies and, by many accounts, seemed to love watching children as the stars of...

  11. 6 Minority Women in Popular Culture
    (pp. 123-140)

    Stereotypes are familiar features of popular culture. Performers are labeled according to the color of their skin, their ethnic background, or their occupation. In a sense, the triad of images assigned to women, of Mary; Eve, and Lilith, is one form of stereotyping. Women performers offer viewers only a few different but predictable varieties. The very definition of a stereotype is that individuals are more often portrayed as a group member than as a unique individual. Gangsters always appear as crude and cruel, and they always behave callously; mothers sacrifice themselves to their families (until very recently); and children on...

  12. 7 Women Comics
    (pp. 141-164)

    For the first time in entertainment history, funny women became accepted performers on twentieth-century stages. Privately, women have laughed and caused others to laugh throughout history, but publicly, humor was men’s domain. As Mae West and other bawdy women entertainers effectively demonstrated, women have senses of humor. During the nineteenth century, women wrote humorous prose and poetry, and though many were popular at the time, their reputations did not survive in the way that Mark Twain’s did.¹ Western culture, until recently, has ignored women comics preferring to imagine women as humorless and incapable of creating or understanding humor.

    In this...

  13. 8 Change within Continuity
    (pp. 165-182)

    In the post–World War II period, women’s lives changed dramatically. For women entertainers, it was a particularly perilous time; they had to preserve the old images while struggling with the new realities. The wartime Rosie the Riveter continued to work in large numbers in peacetime, and the percentage of American households with two-income earners continued to grow. Mothers, particularly those with older children, entered the workforce in the 1950s, and the momentum increased in the sixties and since. In the 1990s, married women with very young children are working, a relatively new phenomenon. The reality for most American women...

  14. Epilogue: Where Are We Now?
    (pp. 183-210)

    Americans are accused of being ignorant of their history, but entertainers, fans, and the reporters who cover them are often extremely aware of past performers in their field, historical examples of excellence, and noted award winners. Bette Midler named her daughter Sophie in loving memory of Sophie Tucker, whose routines she cheerfully uses, while rocker Janis Joplin openly acknowledged her debt to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Tina Turner is often called the “Mae West of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The TV character Murphy Brown adores Aretha Franklin’s singing and fractures “A Natural Woman” in her ardent desire to imitate her....

  15. Notes
    (pp. 211-220)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-224)
  17. Index
    (pp. 225-240)