Were there, or were there not, women working behind the camera in the silent film industry? The question is heavily debated: some say that the silent film industry was the best time for women working in the film industry, with others disagreeing, considering their role to be marginal. Pink Slipped: What Happened to Women in Silent Film, the new book by Jane Gaines, opens with this question — but it does not seek to answer it. Instead, Pink Slipped is concerned with the bigger question of what history is, and what we can know about it.
Starting with feminist film research of the ’70s, which sought out women in film history, Gaines questions bias and motive. The result is succinct and illuminating. Discussions of how researchers looked to relate contemporary issues to historical ones lead to a more objective appraisal of that history. The example of Alice Guy-Blaché, credited frequently with having made the first narrative film, The Cabbage Fairy, is a fascinatingly deep look at how history is represented.
Providing evidence that what is often labeled as The Cabbage Fairy is actually a later, different cabbage-based short, Gaines suggests that Guy-Blaché’s film may not have been made as early as believed. Utilizing interviews with the director, where she seems to avoid questions of dates, mixes up details, and is adamant over the importance of her film rather than the concrete facts of it, Gaines unveils both historical information as well as her point surrounding the fluidity of past in the present. The Cabbage Fairy is the perfect example of Gaines’ thesis: history is re-written (by others, who mislabel the film, or by Guy-Blaché, who misremembers details), and so the consideration of it as “fact” becomes tricky under the layers of interpretation that mask it. Though academic, Gaines provides an accessible style in her examination of feminist questions of film. But what seems missing is the counter-point.
When looking to how history is represented and navigated, with mindfulness of biases and prejudices, Gaines seems to overlook why we record a history saturated by the present. Looking largely to feminist scholarship, she questions considerations which rely on heavy interpretation of facts, and how contemporary societal sexism, particularly within the film industry, can mis-direct historical reality. Certain things are diminished, others given more importance: if women are marginalized now, we see them as marginalized in the same way then. What is unspoken is the need to do this kind of critical research. The way women have been erased in film, now or in the past, is being fought, as the interpretation of history is not solely the domain of the marginalized, but part of myth-making for the dominant class. Perhaps the reinsertion of women to stake a claim in film history (or the denial of women, to emphasize the industry’s misogyny) distorts facts, but they reveal much about the conditions of women in cinema, today at least — and there is value in this..
Gaines’ focus is on American and European early and silent film, despite her nondescript title suggesting no local specificity, and her lack of intersectional critique echoes through her book. Unfortunately, what is clear is that in a discussion of biases in research, she is not addressing her own. Very rarely (and fairly shallowly) examining the place of women who were not white, rich, or American, she picks the history apart, but does not expand upon it. Despite a rigorous challenge of history that is masked by politics and presumptions, Gaines seems unaware of the lack of scope here, which undercuts her argument further.
Perhaps Gaines assumes an educated reader, who is well-enough versed in feminism to not question the lack of inclusion, or to not be put off by somewhat one-sided critiques of feminist scholarship. But in a book about how interpretations alter history, it seems that Gaines falls into the traps she identifies when she challenges the interpretation of women in film. Despite her research and refreshing skepticism, Pink Slipped is missing something.