Theses Doctoral

Spectatrices: Moviegoing and Women's Writing, 1925-1945

Gear, Nolan Thomas

How did cinema influence the many writers who also constituted the first generation of moviegoers? In Spectatrices, I argue that early moviegoing was a rich imaginative reservoir for anglophone writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Coming to cinema from the vantage of the audience, I suggest that women of the 1920s found in moviegoing a practice of experimentation, aesthetic inquiry, and social critique. My project is focused on women writers not only as a means of reclaiming the femininized passivity of the audience, but because moviegoing offered novel opportunities for women to gather publicly. It was, for this reason, a profoundly political endeavor in the first decades of the 20th century. At the movies, writers such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, H.D., Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf developed concepts of temporary community, alternative desire, and discontinuous form that they then incorporated into their literary practice.

Where most scholarship assessing cinema’s influence on literature is governed by the medium-specificity of film, my project emphasizes the public dimension of the movies, the fleeting and semi-anonymous intimacy of the moviegoing audience. In turning to moviegoing, Spectatrices opens new methods of comparison and cross-canonical reorganization, focusing on the weak social ties typified by moviegoing audiences, the libidinal permissiveness of fantasy and diva-worship, the worshipful rhetoric by which some writers transformed the theater into a church, and most significantly, the creation of new public formations for women across different axes of class, gender, and race. In this respect, cinema’s dubious universalism is both an invitation and a problem. Writers from vastly different regional, racial, linguistic, and class contexts were moviegoers, together and apart; but to say they had the same experience is obviously inaccurate. In this project, I draw from historical accounts of moviegoing practices in their specificity to highlight that whereas the mass-distributed moving image held the promise, even the premise, of shared experience, moviegoing was structured by difference. The transatlantic organization of the project is meant to engage and resist this would-be universality, charting cinema’s unprecedented global reach while describing differential scenes and modes of exhibition. Focusing on moviegoing not only permits but requires a new constellation of authors, one that includes English and American, Black and white, wealthy and working class writers alike. Across these axes of difference, women theorized the politics and possibilities of gathering, rethinking the audience as a vital and peculiar social formation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Cole, Sarah
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 1, 2021