18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism

Larry Holzwarth - August 20, 2019

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Though some claim that Talullah Bankhead was forced to have an abortion, biographers have claimed she had several, always through her own decision. Library of Congress

16. The male dominated studios forced numerous female stars to have abortions for reasons of image

The Hollywood studio system, besides being dominated by men, placed a premium on the images of their female stars (and most male stars as well, as lavender marriages indicated). The studio heads were well aware of the many extramarital affairs conducted in the film community, at a time when divorce was still considered scandalous by most of middle America, the primary source of Hollywood’s profits. Divorce was scandalous enough, but divorce as a result of extramarital indiscretion was worse, and pregnancy outside of marriage was most scandalous of all. Married film stars who impregnated female stars were protected, whether the woman was married to another star or not, by the pregnancies being kept hidden from the public. Abortions, which were illegal in most jurisdictions and considered immoral in nearly as many, were often ordered by male studio heads, though just as often they were arranged at the request of the pregnant (but not by her husband) actresses and stars.

Talullah Bankhead is often cited by gossipmongers or others with an agenda as having been forced to have abortions by distressed studio heads, but biographer Lee Israel (who was later convicted of forgery in an unrelated case) wrote that Bankhead had several abortions. Israel compared their frequency to trips to a hairdresser. Ava Gardner later told an interviewer that the studio would penalize her financially for having a baby, and that when an abortion was arranged, by the studio and to take place overseas in London, a representative from her employer accompanied her to ensure that it remained hidden from the press. The list of actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age who had abortions reads like a who’s who of the great film stars of the age, and while many abprtions were the choice of the film star, many others were demanded by the studio, with the star’s career threatened if they did not comply.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
One of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s nine husbands designed the Barbie doll, according to his contemporaries, to meet his standards of feminine beauty, Wikimedia

17. Was the Barbie doll created as a Hollywood image of the perfect woman?

The Barbie doll, a seemingly harmless toy designed originally to accessorize the fantasies of pre-adolescent girls, has been condemned by feminists and others as objectifying women, warping the minds of the young into envisioning an impossible image of feminine pulchritude, and a host of other heinous crimes. Its designer was a gentleman by the name of Jack Ryan – no relation to the character of the same name created by Tom Clancy and portrayed onscreen by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and others. Mr. Ryan worked with Ruth Handler, whom toymaker Mattel credits with inventing the doll, named for her daughter of the same name (Handler was married to one of Mattel’s founding partners). Ruth also had a son named Kenneth, who later had a doll named for him as well. Hence the namesakes for Barbie and Ken were brother and sister, not boyfriend and girlfriend.

Ryan was also once married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, the sixth of her eventual nine husbands (among then hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, great-grandfather of Paris Hilton). Ryan was also, according to the offended Gabor, innocent that she clearly was, a womanizer with a taste for women who possessed physical attributes which he designed into the famous doll, and eventually her plastic female friends as well. Ryan was accused, in life and after death, of promoting his sexist beliefs through the marketing of Barbie dolls and the fantasy lifestyle the doll promoted in young and impressionable girls. Ryan was active in the Hollywood social scene while married to Gabor (January 1975 – August 1976), after which he faded into relative obscurity. Whether Barbie and her friends are a product of Hollywood sexism is up to the eye of the beholder.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1953, around the time he reportedly raped aspiring actress Selene Walters. Wikimedia

18. Hollywood protected male actors guilty of less than gentlemanly behavior, including one who later became President of the United States.

The Hollywood system presented the escapades of male actors – both onscreen and in real life – with a decided boys will be boys attitude, which was more a reflection of the public mores of the time than a direction offered by the filmmakers of the day. The proclivity of the gentlemen of Hollywood for patronizing brothels was kept hidden as brothels were by then considered immoral by mainstream America, which nonetheless recognized that real American men were driven by masculine desires towards certain behaviors, often as not the result of being led on by women. Errol Flynn’s sexual conquests were often viewed by women through eyes glistening with lust; by young men with eyes glittering with envy, and the expression In Like Flynn was coined to describe the star’s effortless good fortune.

Other stars took advantage of the moral standards of the day, and when things went too far they could count on the studios’ financial muscle to protect them. Starlet Selene Walters, (who never enjoyed much of a film career, though she later claimed some fame as a Hollywood columnist) later informed an interviewer that actor Ronald Reagan’s romantic overtures were unwelcomed by her in the 1950s, and that the actor was insistent to the point of an actual rape. She revealed the story after Reagan’s presidency, and when conservatives recoiled at the image of Reagan as a rapist and denounced the story as utterly false, others stepped forward with similar tales. Among them was actress Piper Laurie, who claimed that she was seduced by the married Reagan (she did not claim rape) while still a virgin and while she was making a film with him in which he was portraying her character’s father. In both instances, the accusations were silenced by the actions of studio moguls, and Reagan’s character remained untarnished.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Casting-couch Tactics Plagued Hollywood Long Before Harvey Weinstein”. Thelma Adams, Variety. Online

“Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies”. Christel Schmidt. 2012

“Charlie Chaplin and His Times”. Kenneth S. Lynn. 1997

“What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women”. Donna Casella, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media. 2009

“Hollywood’s Bathing Beauties”. Anne Helen Peterson, Lapham’s Quarterly. August, 2013

“Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer”. Scott Eyman. 2005

“How Judy Garland was forced to starve herself for the screen”. Bee Wilson, The Telegraph. August 29, 2014. Online

“The Great Garbo, Part 2: Greta’s Haunted Path to Stardom”. January 17, 1955

“My memories of the Golden Age of Hollywood”. Pauline Wagner McCourtney, Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. April, 2010

“The monster of MGM: How Louis B. Mayer terrorised Hollywood’s women long before Harvey Weintstein”. Alice Vincent, The Telegraph. October 10, 2017

“Onetime home of Rudolph Valentino’s ex fetches a buyer in Hollywood Hills”. Lauren Beale, The Los Angeles Times. April 22, 2019

“Hollywood’s First Gay Marriage: Did William Haines choose his husband over stardom at MGM?” Karina Longworth, Slate. October 16, 2015. Online

“Tippi Hedren: Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted me”. Alan Evans, The Guardian. October 31, 2016

“The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson”. Robert Hofler. 2014

“In 1956 a Fan Magazine Published a Four-Part Casting Couch Expose. It Didn’t Go Well”. Matthew Dessem, Slate. October 13, 2017

“Classic Hollywood’s Secret: Studios Wanted Their Stars to Have Abortions”. Marcie Bianco and Merryn Jones, Vanity Fair. July 15, 2016

“Toy Monster”. Jerry Oppenheimer, New York Post. February 22, 2009

“Presidential Rape Allegations”. Donald Jeffries, American Free Press. August 21, 2018