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The Women of Pre-Code Hollywood

The Women of Pre-Code Hollywood

The Women of Pre-Code Hollywood

Whenever you think of movies from the 1920s and 1930s, you probably think of boring old films in black and white that you would honestly rather avoid. However, many of these films were actually quite risqué, scandalous, and featured strong female characters. These movies were produced during the time before any censorship guidelines were enforced in the film industry. In fact, some of them were the very reason the guidelines were introduced.

Women were the true stars of pre-Code Hollywood, as the period is called. These films brought a new kind of heroine to the screen: one who was both sophisticated and sexy without condemnation. Female characters were just as complicated and developed as their male counterparts; they weren’t cast simply as love interests, which unfortunately seems to be the case in some movies. Stars like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer pushed the envelope and portrayed women in a way that would not reappear until decades later once censorship codes were instituted.

In the classic pre-Code film The Divorcee, Norma Shearer plays a woman who discovers her husband has cheated on her. He begs her to forgive his infidelity and take him back, but she refuses. Instead, she decides to have an affair of her own. When she reveals this to her husband, he is shocked and says that her actions are inexcusable. Frustrated by this, she leaves her husband and begins a new life of promiscuity, starting with none other than his best friend. In addition to being a box office hit, the highly controversial film challenged the double standard of sexual behavior and won Shearer an Academy Award.

Pre-code films like The Divorcee captivated many audiences, while enraging others. Not to mention, they would definitely have passed the Bechdel test. Unfortunately, it was only a short time before censorship codes were introduced, which limited what could be shown onscreen. Although things like violence, crimes, and vulgarity were restricted by the new guidelines as well, it was really the female characterization in films which suffered the most because certain enforcers of the code, known as the Hays Code, saw it as a way to keep female characters “in their place” in the home.


Next time you’re flipping through the channels trying to find something to watch on TV, consider an old, pre-Code movie. You may be surprised to find yourself drawn into the plot, captivated by the compelling female leads, and unable to turn it off. Although the films might be just black and white, the women of pre-Code Hollywood are more than colorful enough to make it worth the watch.  


Deanna grew up just outside of Nashville, Tennessee and is a middle child in a big family. Currently a junior in high school, Deanna enjoys serving as president of the Student Council, competing in Future Business Leaders of America, and working on documentaries for National History Day. When she isn't studying, she loves traveling. Whether it’s trekking through jungles, reading on sunny beaches, or studying Arabic in Morocco, when adventures calls, she’s waiting to answer. After surviving her junior and senior years of high school, she plans to study medicine in college.


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