When innovation in sound technology gave actors on-screen a voice as the 1920s waned, the first word many women uttered was “no.” Women in Pre-Code films made an art of rejection. A negative chorus effect provided women in the audience with a handy primer for how to put off, spurn, and dismiss men—and do so with style. Talking pictures taught women methods to repel men’s demands. Although generally smaller, poorer, with odds against them, women on the silver screen held their ground and refused to settle for what men had to offer.
It wasn’t enough to just say no. Women had to practice a defensive wit that allowed them to resist a man’s ability to dominate an encounter. In the video clip from Virtue (1932), Carole Lombard has the last word with Pat O’Brien, by telling him bluntly that she doesn’t like his face. Not only does she mock him, her body language (hands on hips, thrust out chin) reinforces a challenge to the man on the street. Lombard’s verbal prowess achieves the same result as a sock in the jaw.
Joan Blondell learned to say no the hard way in the clip from Blondie Johnson (1933). As a woman down on her luck, she has no time to entertain romantic offers. Blondell’s character knows all the answers, that “the only thing worthwhile is dough,” logic based on a survivalist worldview where men are a liability. Women in the audience were not propelled into a life of criminal enterprise like Blondie Johnson, but her emphasis on independence may have shown women that options existed for financial security outside marriage.
In Possessed (1931), Joan Crawford shouts “no” during an argument with her boyfriend (Wallace Ford) then tells him “you don’t own me,” which later became the title of Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem from 1964. By way of insult, she calls him “you, turnip!” Crawford uses a metaphor of man as a root vegetable to teach women in the audience that men would prefer to keep them stuck in the dirt. Ambitious women who want something more out of life pack a bag at the first opportunity.
The sound of women saying no has encouraged me to produce 30 podcast episodes on woman’s pictures from the 1920s through 1960. My search for “no” fortifies my creative faculty and feels more productive rather than succumbing to despair in our current political climate.