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Early Cinema’s Slapstick Feminists

December 17, 2019

Portrait of Maggie Hennefeld

Portrait of Maggie Hennefeld
Photo by Gavin Schuster, CLAgency student

“Classic Hollywood films are beautiful and so absorbing, but often at the expense of women."

Maggie Hennefeld, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, recently published Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, a book exploring gender politics in early silent movies. She found that in some cases, women used slapstick to resist and rebel against their social oppression.

Bringing Justice To Jokes

“I've always been interested in feminist theory and gender politics and am a big fan of comedy,” Hennefeld explains. A self-proclaimed cinephile, she has a fondness for old movies but is critical of how women are treated in them. “Why does the woman either have to be a perfect housewife or a deadly vamp who needs to be killed off?” she asks. “There’s nothing in between.” Her disillusionment with these portrayals led her to dive deep into the history of women in silent films.

She found that women used their bodies playfully to create destructive humor.  Hennefeld explains, “There's something about the spectacle of display associated with women's bodies that makes them perfect vessels for visual manipulation and physical explosion.” While this comedy was usually performed at the woman’s expense, Hennefeld was interested in investigating instances where women used slapstick as a form of empowerment.

Hennefeld focuses on women who performed slapstick comedy as a way to vent their frustrations about the oppression they experienced. In one film, a bored housemaid spontaneously combusts through the chimney, making her escape from the domestic sphere. In another, a kitchen maid dreams that she can dismember her limbs and that they will do her housework for her while she just rests. “Slapstick comedy is very violent,” Hennefeld notes. “It’s about taking joy and finding hope in destroying a world that gives you a subservient place.”

To view these films, Hennefeld traveled to archives throughout the US and Europe. Her frustration with their inaccessibility prompted her to write her book and bring greater attention to these works. “The myth that women aren’t funny is perpetuated by all of the countless times that funny women have been erased from history,” she says. “This book tries to set the record straight.”

Feminist Comedy Today

“There's an explosion of feminist comedy in popular media today,” Hennefeld explains. She believes that although it is easier now for women to be at the forefront of comedy, they still face the oppression felt by their predecessors. “There are so many fierce, funny women in stand-up comedy who are really popular, but there's so much backlash against them at the same time,” she comments.

Hennefeld sees a similarity between the women of silent films and women in comedy today. “Being funny is a strategy for radical protest against the resurgence of misogyny, where women show they are not afraid to be too loud or grotesque,” she says. “I see a lot of that defiance in these early films, too.”

Comediennes have come a long way in how they are viewed by the public, but there is still a long road ahead. “There's no such thing as a linear trajectory of progress,” Hennefeld adds.

Bringing Films of the Past to the Present

Hennefeld hopes to change how we see comedy in early cinema and bring more attention to these feminist films. To that end, she also curated a program on Nasty Women at a silent film festival, which took place in Italy in early October. The festival showed dozens of early feminist movies, many of which are referenced in Hennefeld’s book.

Hennefeld’s work brings well-deserved exposure to the funny women of silent films. “The book is for anyone who loves cinema or wants to learn more about the gender politics of comedy,” she says. Her next book will continue to explore female identity in early filmmaking by focusing on the association between laughter and hysteria in early 20th-century cinema.

For more information about Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, visit Hennefeld's page at Columbia University Press.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.