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
Louis B. Mayer (standing) with his young stars and moneymakers, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Wikimedia

7. Judy Garland was subjected to ridicule over her weight while in her teens

Judy Garland was an established child star before she took on the role for which she remains most well-known to this day, that of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. The studio bosses at MGM were determined to control her weight, after noting with alarm that both she and frequent costar Mickey Rooney were both gaining pounds, possibly a reaction to the drug cocktails both were fed to keep them on their frenetic filming schedules. Garland received memos daily while working containing descriptions of how she appeared on film. They were not complimentary. By contrast, Rooney’s burgeoning rotundity escaped most comment, while Garland read comments negatively describing the fit of her costumes, all while swallowing the diet pills prescribed not by doctors but by MGM officers.

MGM went so far as to restrict the number of meals Garland could be served each day in the studio cafeterias, as executives ensured she retained the healthy girl next door look they wanted to present. Years later Garland claimed that the studio encouraged her to smoke heavily, believing cigarettes to be an appetite suppressant. Desperate to retain her marvelous singing voice (and evidently unconcerned over the effect of tobacco on it), MGM controlled every aspect of the young star’s life, while keeping her on a schedule working eighteen hour days, six days per week. Garland carried the emotional scars of her abusive treatment for the rest of her life, as well as fighting a lifelong battle against drug and alcohol addiction. She died at 47 of an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller in 1925, when Garbo was deemed to be too heavy for American standards. Wikimedia

8. Slimming down Garbo to comply with American tastes

The studio system of Hollywood during its Golden Age ensured that actors and actresses complied with the demands of the studio heads, or producers, or directors, or the actors neither worked nor were paid. Louis B. Mayer of MGM epitomized the studio system, and through his lieutenants, including head of production Irving Thalberg, he ensured his demands were met. In 1925 Mayer asked a young Swedish actress named Greta Garbo to come to America for a screen test. Mayer’s interest had been piqued by a private viewing of a Garbo film made in Sweden called The Saga of Gosta Berling. Garbo was acting with director Mauritz Stiller, who sent Mayer the film in the hope of being asked to join MGM himself. Mayer was unimpressed with Stiller, but enthralled with Garbo, reportedly saying, “I’ll take her without him. I’ll take her with him. Number one is the girl”.

He may have been enthralled, but evidently Thalberg was less so, reportedly informing Garbo that America did not like fat girls as he began her makeover upon arrival in the United States. Garbo’s complete lack of English was immaterial in the days of silent film, but her teeth needed straightening, her hair color needed changing, and her weight needed trimming. Though Garbo was but 20 years old, MGM’s moguls envisioned her as an exotic, sultry seductress, and that was how she was presented, despite her protests. Garbo became a silent film star of immense proportions, and eventually she transitioned to sound after her accent was restrained through voice lessons. Throughout her career Garbo managed to evade the demands of MGM executives that she be made available for publicity appearances and interviews, shunning both in her lifelong determination to be left alone.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Pauline Wagner’s biggest Hollywood production was as Fay Wray’s stand-in in the epic King Kong. Library of Congress

9. Hollywood stag parties were notorious for their exploitation of young aspiring female stars

Pauline Wagner was a young actress in the early 1930s who, like so many others, arrived in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a major star. In 1930 she landed a role in the film College Lovers, one of the early Hollywood talkies, which was produced prior to the Hays Code’s impositions of restrictions on what could be portrayed on the big screen. For Pauline, the small role – she portrayed the girlfriend of star Frank McHugh – was to be a stepping stone into larger roles, though her musical and dance numbers were cut from the film before it was released. In 1933 she accepted another role, one in which she served as a stand-in for Fay Wray in the epic King Kong. It was to be the high point of her acting career.

Pauline still found roles in Hollywood, despite being warned by director Sam Wood to avoid them. They were in attending stag parties, which were common events often hosted by studio executives, and which served as little more than staged orgies for the leading men and other studio executives of the Golden Age. Aspiring starlets were often directed to the parties, where they were expected to provide sexual services for the male attendees (and sometimes female attendees as well). Women were sometimes told that the party was in actuality a location filming for an upcoming picture and that they would be serving as extras, only to arrive and find out that they were there for the selection of the privileged male stars in attendance. Some parties, such as an event held on May 5, 1937 in a private rail car, offered free entertainment (Laurel and Hardy) and copious booze, supported by over 100 such women, several of whom were raped despite the additional attendance of an escort provided by the Los Angeles Police Department.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Louis B. Mayer (right, in 1921) and other Hollywood studio moguls employed “fixers” to ensure potentially scandalous problems were kept quiet. Wikimedia

10. “Fixers” abounded to protect Hollywood stars and silence victims of sexual abuse

Louis B. Mayer ran MGM with the same authority and lack of accountability enjoyed by the fictional tinpot dictators sometimes presented in the films his studio sold to the public. In addition to providing scenarios such as stag parties in which young starlets were exploited, Mayer and the executives of the other major studios provided “fixers” in order to ensure their valuable male stars escaped public exposure of their indiscretions, as well as potential legal liabilities. It was common for young women hoping for an acting contract to be ordered to date leading men having spotted them, and rape was a not an unusual result. Some well-known female performers were raped as well. Loretta Young was raped by Clark Gable (according to her daughter-in-law), and impregnated. When the child was born Young left it with an orphanage, only to “adopt” the child later. Gable was never charged, and the story was kept under wraps by MGM, which employed both stars.

Abortions were for the most part illegal, as well as condemned by society at large, but MGM kept abortionists on their payroll, in privately run hospitals and clinics. In addition to abortions, the doctors were expected to discreetly provide treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and perform any other medical procedures which the stars of the silver screen wanted to be kept from their adoring public. Female stars who complained of sexual importunities from male stars were sent to such clinics for examinations, often under the guise of concern for their emothional well being. Examinations could and did remove physical evidence of rape. Loretta Young, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and scores of less well known starlets were treated by studio doctors and clinics, which were presented to the public as compassionate medical care for studio employees when they were revealed to the public at all.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Jean Acker (white cloche hat) weeps at the funeral of her former husband by arranged marriage, Rufolph Valentino. Wikimedia

11. Studio moguls arranged marriages to keep the sexual preference of their stars hidden from their fans

Jean Acker was a Hollywood star from the onset of the silent era until the 1950s. A former vaudeville star, Acker moved to Hollywood in 1919, and although she had several roles in silent films her performances and her fan base did not seem to justify her then princely salary of $200 per week. Her relationship with Alla Nazimova, another silent film actress of considerable influence, was the source of her contracts, and the studio took steps to prevent wagging tongues from revealing the lesbian relationship between the two. In order to do so, Acker was married in accordance with studio fiat, to a struggling but promising young male star by the name of Rudolf Valentino. Reportedly, Acker fled her new husband on their wedding night, seeking solace with Alla, and the marriage with Valentino was never consummated.

The practice of ensuring movie stars appearing to be involved in heterosexual relationships became critical after the imposition of the Hays Code, and continued until well into the 1960s. Some believe it continues to this day. Actor Rock Hudson married Phyllis Gates in 1955, reportedly urged to do so by studio moguls to protect his career, and then engaged on a career of infidelities and same-sex relationships which the studios struggled to keep quiet. They were divorced in 1958 and Hudson never remarried, for years being the subject of speculation in the growing tabloid markets. Hudson relied on the public’s distrust of the salacious speculation among the grocery store papers for years, before his true sexual orientation was revealed after his death from AIDS in 1985.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Actor William Haines defied the studio system and remained in one of the earliest openly gay relationships in Hollywood . Wikimedia

12. William Haines was forced out of Hollywood for refusing to hide his relationship with another man

William Haines was an actor who developed his career over a period of time, rising from bit parts and small scenes to become a leading man in the 1920s. Successfully making the change over to talking pictures late in the decade, Haines developed an on-film persona of the irreverent, smart-alecky leading man, adept at delivering wise-cracks and sharp barbs at the expense of his on-screen foils. By the end of the decade Haines was listed as America’s number one box office attraction among male performers. Then in 1933 Haines picked up a sailor in Los Angeles and took him to a YMCA, where they were arrested. The subsequent publicity promised to be devastating and Haines’s employer, Louis B. Mayer, directed that Haines find a female to marry or forget about his acting career.

Haines elected to forget about his acting career, eventually opening an interior design firm in Los Angeles, with the former sailor, Jimmie Shields, as his business and domestic partner. The former actor found support from the Hollywood community. Among his clients were Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard. Haines and his partner later branched into an antique dealership as well, and Haines, though he claimed to have been offered some roles, never returned to acting. Later in life Haines worked as an interior decorator for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, during the time when Reagan was serving as governor California. The sham marriages which Rock Hudson entered into and which William Haines disdained were common enough to have their own name – they were called lavender marriages – and were dictated by studio executives for decades.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
By the premiere of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, Hitchcock had a well established reputation as a gentleman who preferred blondes. Wikimedia

13. Alfred Hitchcock made Tippi Hedren a star while sexually harassing – and maybe assaulting – the actress

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood in 1963, having made a string of successful films and developed the reputation which he still holds as a master of suspense. Among the actresses with whom he had worked were Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Tallulah Bankhead, Eva Marie Sainte, and Joan Fontaine. In 1963 he offered a leading role in the film The Birds to Tippi Hedren, then a still relatively unknown actress in Hollywood. He would later offer her other roles, including the title role in his film Marnie, in which she appeared opposite Sean Connery. But during the filming of The Birds he began a pattern of behavior which would today be called stalking, including driving repeatedly by her house, often stopping to observe her arriving and departing. He also sent her food, after telling her on the set that she was losing weight. When she balked at his advances he threatened to end her career by blacklisting her among Hollywood directors.

According to Hedren, during the filming of Marnie, Hitchcock made overt sexual advances towards her which she rebuffed, including on the set, in his office, and in the back of a limousine. His response to her rejection was to threaten her career, and when the threats did not deliver the desired results, Hitchcock made good on them. Using his influence, he ensured that Hedren was blackballed after the completion of Marnie, and the actress was never again cast in a leading role in a motion picture. In fact, it was more than three years before she could find work as an actress in films at all. Hedren was not the only actress to reject the unwelcome attentions of the director – he had a noted penchant for blondes – and when Grace Kelly retired from acting to marry Prince Rainier, effectively escaping from Hitchcock as well, he took to calling her Princess Disgrace in public, as well as denigrating her acting ability. In fact, Hitchcock had first wanted to cast Kelly in the title role as Marnie, offering the role to Hedren only after Grace became Princess Grace of Monaco.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
The Hollywood establishment ensured that the gay Rock Hudson maintained his image as an affable ladies man throughout his career. Wikimedia

14. Henry Willson built a career upon the sexual abuse and blackmail of young men

Henry Willson first worked in Hollywood as a reporter and writer for gossip magazines before starting his own agency after working for a time for Zeppo Marx as a talent manager. Willson, who was gay, sought out young wannabe male actors, or simply young gay men who caught his eye whom he then convinced they had the talent to be actors. Among his recruits was a truck driver named Roy Scherer. Willson changed his name to Rock Hudson. Another was a Navy veteran named Robert Moseley, Willson renamed him Guy Madison. Willson was unable to seduce Madison, according to the latter’s biographers, and shifted his attention to another veteran, Arthur Kelm, renamed Tab Hunter.

When Willson’s prodigy Sherer/Hudson found stories of his personal life to be in the hands of the tabloid Confidential, Willson offered the gossip magazine stories of Kelm/Hunter’s gay social life for publication instead, protecting his most valuable client’s earning power. Hunter later revealed in his autobiography that well publicized affairs of his with Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood, as well as others, had been fabricated by his manager in order to shield the fact of his sexual preference. His preferences were well known however, and an insiders joke of the 1950s was that “Natalie Wood and Tab Wouldn’t”. Willson demanded that his client keep up the charade in order to keep working, a demand he also imposed on Rock Hudson, and other clients. It was Willson who first suggested Rock Hudson marry Phyllis Gates, and he insisted Rock keep up the charade of macho heterosexuality in order to continue working.

18 Examples of Old Hollywood Sexism
Young Hollywood starlets such as Paramount’s Marion Weldon were exploited by other industries as well, including the United States Government. Library of Congress

15. The Perils of Show Business – a warning to young women – was first published in 1956

Picturegoer was a British film fan magazine, noted for its inclusion of photos in the style which became known as cheesecake in the 1950s, which warned of the dangers young women faced in the film industry in a 1956 article, The Perils of Show Business. The authors – both male – introduced the article by calling it “the most depressing story we have ever written”. The article, besides describing the predatory behavior of film producers, financiers, directors, and actors, also described the various means adopted by young aspiring actresses to thwart the romantic intentions of their mentors and bosses. Still, the biases of the time are present, one subheading of the article warns readers not to blame the men, and warned that some young actresses offered themselves freely, thereby complicating matters for all.

The Hollywood studios and the studio system was in its death throes by the time the Picturegoer article appeared in print, though the great publicity machines still existed and still produced their self-defending flack with abandon. The 1950s were considered to be an innocent age, when America had only recently asserted its virility and moral virtue, and within a short time the existence of the casting couch and the attitudes towards women exhibited by male Hollywood were relegated to the role of gossip and fiction. Warnings such as The Perils of Show Business and similar articles were considered to be salacious tripe created by gossip magazines, as were the whispered suspicions that a man as masculine and handsome as Rock Hudson could possibly prefer boys over the adorable and virginal Doris Day. The desire to remain ignorant went a long way toward preserving sexist behavior in Hollywood, as well as everywhere else.

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