18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism

Sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish were early Hollywood stars who there discovered a different world for women from that of men. Wikimedia

2. Female film performers became commodities early in Hollywood history

By the 1920s, with silent films at their peak and the Keystone Kops and Chaplin’s Little Tramp established as filmdom’s biggest draws, female performers were already considered to be merely interchangeable parts by the top Hollywood filmmakers. There were a few exceptions, notably Mary Pickford, who became “Queen of the Movies”, and the sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Pickford became powerful enough, due to her drawing power with adoring audiences, to become one of the stars to form United Artists, along with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffiths. Aspiring actresses used Pickford as their example and goal, hoping to match her looks and her ability to appear both helpless and powerful in comparison to her male peers on celluloid.

Despite Pickford’s allure and her influence within the Hollywood community, the majority of actresses in Hollywood were considered to be set dressing, useful as props for the male stars of films, or as foils in the slapstick comedies of the day. Pickford became one of the first actresses to find her desirability for roles diminished as she grew older, no longer able to portray the ingénue, and thus no longer desirable as a star of equal standing with leading men. She managed to avoid much of the sexist behavior prevalent on male dominated movie sets of the day, largely because of her position as one of the heads of the studio. By the 1930s changing public tastes and a voice which did not lend itself well to motion pictures with audio – the “talkies” which killed the silent films – saw her acting career at an end. She died, an alcoholic recluse estranged from her family, in 1979, having made her last film as an actress in 1934.