Silent Cinema

Femme fatale, Vamp, Flapper and Other Stereotypes of Women in Silent Film

This series took place onFrom to

Román Gubern (series coordinator)

This cycle aims to present the female image as reflected in the first three decades of the history of film. Although it could be ventured that the first femme fatale in history was the mythical Helen of Troy, who sparked a war as a result of the amorous rivalry unleashed between Menelaus and Paris, the word "vamp" was coined after the publication of the novel Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, in which three vampiresses live in Count Dracula’s castle. This motive inspired a painting by the artist Philip Burne-Jones depicting a woman seated on the edge of a bed, looking at a man who lay on it, a victim of her bite. And Rudyard Kipling, the artist’s cousin, wrote an allusive poem for the exhibition catalogue titled "The Vampire". This theme inspired a play, a novel and finally, in 1915, the film A Fool There Was (USA), directed by Frank Powell and starring Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman), considered the first vamp in film history.

But by the end of World War I, when many women substituted the jobs of the men who went to the front, there was a radical change in the image of women in the media, which was accompanied by the important stylistic changes of fashion designers such as Coco Chanel, who freed the female body of its corsets and long skirts. This was how the flapper, a symbol of the so-called “jazz era” of the Roaring Twenties among other figures, was born. Film reflected this cultural change with the new behaviour and clothing of actresses and, in the United States, the archetype of the flapper was embodied by the actress Clara Bow, who features in the cycle in Mantrap (1926, USA), by Victor Fleming. But it is fair to say that, in spite of this change, many female characters of the 1920s still carried over features of the femme fatale, as occurred with some of the characters played by the actress of Swedish origin Greta Garbo or the Italian-American Nita Naldi, who respectively starred in two of the films that can be seen here, The Mysterious Lady (1928, USA) by Fred Niblo and Cobra (1925, USA) by Joseph Henabery, opposite Rodolfo Valentino.

It is important to consider that, while the stereotypes of the femme fatale, the vamp and the flapper are present, film of this period is not a mirror of reality, but a stage that doesn’t visibly question certain preconceptions and situations of injustice.

Silent film was suspended in developed countries around 1929, coinciding with the onset of the Great Depression, which would once again reformulate the social image of women on screen.

Sessions in this series