Hearing Hollywood Women: Music and Gender in Action Films, 1950s–1980s
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Edgar, Grace Jost
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CitationEdgar, Grace Jost. 2020. Hearing Hollywood Women: Music and Gender in Action Films, 1950s–1980s. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractIn this dissertation, I explore how Hollywood film composers represented female action heroes in leitmotivic scores during the Cold War. Women starred in swashbucklers and Westerns in the regressive gender climate of the 1950s, long before second-wave feminism propelled them into the better-remembered action roles of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of serving as damsels in distress for men to rescue, female action heroes entered the fray themselves. I argue these roles posed a challenge to conventional film scoring practices. The dominant paradigm was the leitmotivic score, which linked characters to recurring themes coded as male/active or female/passive. Forging new points of contact between musicology, film studies, queer theory, and American studies, I examine how composers adapted or preserved these gendered conventions to represent active women in Cold War-era action films, from the swashbucklers and Westerns of the 1950s to the superhero and sword-and-sorcery films of the 1970s and 1980s. By situating these forgotten female action heroes within the context of the tumultuous debates about gender norms raging throughout the Cold War era, my project makes an important intervention in scholarship on this period: long before second-wave feminism, Hollywood provided a space for filmmakers and audiences to grapple with the issue of women’s rights.
My ultimate goal is to push back against the triumphalist rhetoric in scholarship and popular media that surrounds films featuring strong female characters. Despite the recent critical and commercial success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) and Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017), the action film is, and always was, dominated by men, and opportunities for women remain tightly restricted. The few existing female action heroes are almost invariably white, cisgender, and heteronormative. By contextualizing this newer cycle of woman-led action films within a longer, untold history, I highlight film music’s role in constructing heterosexist representations and draw attention to the ongoing marginalization of queer women and women of color.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365664
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