The American Historian

Reviews

Jane M. Gaines. Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Review by Pete Smith, Mississippi State University

In Pink-Slipped, Jane M. Gaines, professor of film at Columbia University, examines the historical record, using a feminist theoretical lens, to investigate the work of women producers, writers, directors, and players of the international silent film industry. In doing so, she instructs historians and feminists to take nothing for granted, as she offers an honest critique of traditional historiography and feminist thought. She explains, “because the larger project is to use theories of history to trouble assumptions about history, the concept, which entails scrutinizing historiographic methods and admitting its shortcomings” (p. 5).

In glancing at the title of her book, readers might assume that Gaines will provide them with some answer(s) to a common question that historians often chase: “What Happened To…?” Gaines’s response is to not answer the question—at least not directly. Instead, she dives deeply into the intersection between feminism and historical research, methodology and philosophy, arriving at a number of questions that challenge both fields: “Does anyone really know…?” “What happened to the woman’s viewpoint?” and, among others, “What might have happened?”

Pink-Slipped, as a result, is not for the traditional historian—or at least not for the traditional historian who insists that theory has no place in the room. Moreover, the narrative of the book doesn’t follow the traditional, or linear, path of many historical works concerned with women’s lives—commonly known as the “cradle to casket” genre. Gaines offers in its place an intellectual and philosophical history of women in the silent film industry that challenges readers to contemplate the limitations of both historiography and feminist theory, while reminding us that history and theory need not be estranged one from the other (as one early subtitle suggests).

The first chapter weighs in on the competing narratives that have existed in relation to the contributions of women to the silent film industry—and the problems with both. These “diverging accounts” exist, says Gaines, because existing historical research, at different points in time, have pulled us in two different directions, with both claiming to have figured out the right answer at the end of the destination. While one narrative points to evidence that women played little to no significant role as directors, producers, and writers, another insists that they did, at least before the political economy of the 1920s finished them off. “How Can We Say What Happened?” Gaines asks in the final section of the chapter, in which she suggests there are no final answers, only more questions. “While it may seem contradictory, it appears that when we consider the last forty years of research on women and film, the pattern has been to underestimate as well as overestimate the contributions of women in the first decades,” Gaines argues (p. 9).

She admits to the precarious nature of her position early on in the book, and, in Chapter 2, “Where Was Antonia Dickson? The Peculiarity of Historical Time,” she doubles down by offering the theory of “historical time” to explain the fluid nature of time—and, by extension, historical knowledge on the subject of women and the silent film industry. If time is a fluid, relative construct, then historical time is asymmetrical at best, for the history of one event or person is never the history. Accordingly, the historian (and, in this case, feminist film scholar) is in a “constant state of temporal uncertainty,” (p. 44) a condition that Gaines picks up again later in the book with Chapter 5, “The Melodrama Theory of Historical Time.”

Where does the historian’s “uncertainties” and the relative nature of time leave women such as Antonia Dickson, Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Gene Gauntier, and Hope Loring, among others? In the book’s other chapters, Gaines offers no easy, definite answers as to where they, and their contributions to the silent film industry, belong. Pink-Slipped just isn’t, nor was it meant to be, that type of historical work—the type that takes the reader on a linear journey through the historical timeline of events, people, and ideas, only to arrive at the end of the book with at least some satisfaction of a life, and career, well-documented.

The fact that Pink-Slipped is not a standard historical work is both its strength and its weakness—depending on where the reader stands. Scholars of intellectual and philosophical histories will perhaps delight in Gaines’s work, just as those who expect more definite answers in regards to the “What Happened To…?” question may be left wanting. Historians who don’t mind when theory and history collide will probably see Pink-Slipped as relevant and noteworthy, while traditionalists may have little use for it. In any case, Gaines knows and is confident in her subject matter—more confident than she admits in the book—and she isn’t afraid to challenge historical and methodological standards in its pages. And, in response to the question, “What Happened To…” she isn’t afraid to leave us with the following response: “Who Really Knows?”