“She both on the screen through enforcement

“She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.” These words were spoken by Oprah Winfrey, just days ago, as she received the annual Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards. In a powerful and direct manner, Winfrey addressed the blatant and abhorrent gender disparities of the film industry, and the fight that all women have endured throughout time to achieve equality. Winfrey spoke of sexual assault, the fear that comes with speaking out, and the bravery of the actresses who had come forward this year to share their painful yet important stories. These experiences of gender disparity and mistreatment have been around since the beginning of the film industry, and were perhaps never more prevalent than in the 1950s. With the creation of mega production companies like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), actresses were forced to adhere to strict codes that dictated the way they could behave both in their professional and personal lives. In a time that viewed women as inferior to men, actresses were treated and respected differently from their male counter parts. Actresses of the 1950s like Judy Garland and Patricia Douglass were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused as powerful men in the industry tried to exert their dominance and control. During the early 20th century, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer worked to hide its sexist treatment of women by silencing them both on the screen through enforcement of strict contracts and moral codes and off the screen through aggressive control of its actresses bodies. MGM was just one of the many successful Hollywood production companies in the early 20th century film industry that sought to protect its own reputation and success by forcing its actors and actresses to adhere to strict moral codes. In 1930, under William H. Hayes’ presidency, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPAA) created the Motion Picture Production Code. It was a set of moral guidelines that all movies were expected to follow, and it went into full force in 1933.  The purpose of the code was not meant to eliminate references to violence or sex within the movies the studios produced, but rather to give guidelines for the studios to produce films which would entertain but not offend the viewing audience . These guidelines however, did not address both sexes — they were solely geared towards women.  It forbid the showing of women actor’s skin and sex organs yet no such restriction was placed on their male counterparts.   The code emphasized a more pervasive problem, men and women were not viewed, portrayed, or respected in the same way. While the code was inherently sexist in its strict divide between genders, its intentions were not all bad. Unfortunately, the code was ignored by many companies including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Meyer founded MGM in 1918, and just two years later, he teamed up with Howard-Strickling to control the publicity. Above all else, Strickling sought to protect MGM and their actors from harmful scandals. In 1966, Mayer and his associates created “Premiere Productions,” a temporary company that had no formal agreement with the Production Code. Their movies, therefore, did not have to adhere to the standards of the code, allowing pictures like Blow Up to be produced. Filled with sexually explicit scenes and lots of nudity, Blow Up would have blatantly disregarded the Production Code, and thus MGM was forced to take extreme measures in order to publically produce it. It was extreme actions like this that ultimately led to the decline of the Production Code and the start of the new rating system. It was also measures like this that showed the extent to which MGM prioritized its success above all else. They showed little concern for the actress’s comfort and basic rights, and actresses were forced to adhere, for fear that they would lose their jobs if they spoke up. Examples like this serve to emphasize the ubiquitous disregard for women’s rights and the control that these powerful men had over their professional lives.While losing their jobs was surely a concern, their fear to speak up went beyond just that. In the mid 1920s, large production companies began to add moral clauses into the contracts of all of their actors and actresses. This was prompted by the case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a well known comedian who was arrested on charges of rape and murder. Universal Studios saw this case and wanted to avoid any such occurrence within their own company. Thus, moral clauses were added into all of their talent contracts primarily to protect the values and reputations of the company. The protection of their actresses was of little concern. By having such strict contracts, actresses were expected to behave properly. “He will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or that will tend to shock insult or affect the community or ridicule public morals.” In reality, these contracts silenced women even further. Many actresses feared that producers would think they were disobeying these moral clauses by damaging the reputation of the company if they spoke openly about their mistreatment. Large production companies, including MGM, enforced the idea that any wrongdoings of their actresses reflected poorly on their own company, and thus must be hidden from the public eye.Not only did the executives at MGM aim to manipulate their employed actresses on screen, but they did so off the screen as well. Actresses for MGM were forced to maintain a certain image of femininity that dictated both their physical appearance and personal decisions. Mayer nourished and spoiled the actresses, but it came with a price. He expressed a possessive, and almost abusive, control over their appearance and presentation. This was exemplified in the treatment of Judy Garland, who once said “they used to starve me whenever they thought I was putting on too much weight.” Weight was important in Mayer’s eyes as he believed that each women had to fit the stereotypical thin beautiful role in order for his movies to obtain the most success. But his control of Judy’s body went beyond just withholding food as she was forced to undergo physical and medical methods to uphold the exact image that MGM desired. This, of course, was not known to the public. “The studio prescribed pills to make sure she slept at night, pills to make sure she go to the set bright and early, and appetite-suppressing amphetamines to make sure she stayed thing. By twenty, she was seriously addicted” These pills were not prescribed by a doctor, but were illegally forced upon Judy by the company. “I would never leave home unless I looked every bit the movie star. The public has never seen me less than perfect. MGM taught us that. We were movie stars if we went shipping or picked up our kids at school. My God, leave the house without my fake eyelashes? God forbid.” Perfection was both admired and enforced among these women and many believed that Mayer had created an “untouchable breed of women.” Their hair and makeup was always done, and a fake smile was always sitting upon their face. But beneath those smiles were women who felt mistreated and abused, forced to uphold unrealistic standards of feminine perfection. MGM also sought to control the personal affairs and intimate relationships of their actresses by dictating choices of marriage, divorce, childbirth, and abortion. MGM was particularly concerned with the question of childbirth. They felt adamantly that they would be unable to reach maximum success if their actresses had children, since they would be less invested in their work. The studio’s success always came first, so having babies had to be planned according to the production schedules. This often led to extreme expectations and actions as Mayer arranged for abortions and divorces when they caused distractions to the movies. The women often had no choice but to agree. For if they chose not to, their lives would be turned upside down and their future success would be in question. As Ava Gardner, another MGM actress who was forced to get an abortion said,  How could I make a living?… I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on. MGM made all the arrangements for me to fly to London. Someone from the studio was with me all the time. The abortion was hush hush… very discreet.Studio actresses were brainwashed into thinking they could not have children because it would impair their success. When Mayer found out that Jeanette MacDonald, a prominent MGM actress was pregnant, he told her to “get rid of the problem…” MacDonald was forced to lie to her family and tell them that she had a miscarriage. But, in truth, Stickling and MGM had arranged for her abortion. Strickling similarly arranged Joan Crawford, another of the studios actresses, fto have an abortion. Mayer also held strong opinions on who his actresses were allowed to marry. When MacDonald told him that she was planning to marry Clark Gable, an MGM actor, Mayer threatened to fire them. Mayer was strongly opposed to his stars marrying each other, as he believed it would be detrimental to the company. If they ignored him or neglected to ask for his permission, Meyer would suspend them without pay. On the rare occasion that his actors were allowed to marry, he insisted  that he was the one to give the women away at the wedding, and not their fathers. When MGM actor Mickey Rooney asked to marry Ava Gardner, Mayer said to him “your life is not your own, Mickey. Not as long as you’re working for MGM. It’s in you contract.” They soon got divorced and Gardner said “Although Mayer had strict rules for us, he often bent them in his own favor. Mayer could have fired me for violating the morals clause in my contract, but he didn’t. I always knew where I stood with him.”  Mayer handpicked who he chose to like and help, and those for whom he showed no tolerance. Not surprisingly, Mayer often favored the actors and actresses that brought in the most money and success, while punishing the ones who seemed to be losing fame.The control of these actresses went beyond just their beauty and personal lives. MGM, through tactics of fear and coercion, successfully hid the sexual assaults of many of its own actresses and in doing so, possessed alarming authority over their lives off the screen. With the industry already against them, many of these women knew they would have no second chance in the film industry if they spoke out against those in charge. So they endured constant mistreatment and sexual assault, as powerful men took control over their bodies. Patricia Douglass’s rape was one of the many cases effectively covered up by the MGM management. She was a 19 year old girl who was abused by a man  who invited her to an MGM convention. While at this gathering, Chicago salesman, David Ross, assaulted her in the car of a nearby parking lot and subsequently left when she began to scream. She was later found and brought to the closest hospital. There were several suits filed against MGM, but “nevertheless, they were dismissed or suspended, under circumstances suspicious enough to suggest that MGM negotiated deals with both mother and advocate.” There was strong evidence to prove that Ross had in fact raped Douglass, but because of Howard Stricklings fierce determination to keep MGM’s reputation untainted, he was able to cover up this horrible event. In another case, the one that prompted the initiation of the moral clauses, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle successfully got away with the  rape of Virginia Rappe.  In a newspaper article from the day of the alleged rape, a policeman stated that Arbuckle had fled town in order to avoid confrontation. Arbuckle said, “shortly after Miss Rappe had taken a few drinks she became hysterical and complained she could not breathe and then started to tear off her clothes.” This sort of an explanation was not uncommon. The blame of almost every sexual assault seemed to always shift towards the women, who were constantly accused of being too drunk to function or using their sexuality to seduce men. Arbuckle was made out to be the victim, and other women chose not to speak out as a consequence. As Shirley Temple once said “not for nothing was the M.G.M. lot known as the ‘factory,’ a studio perfumed with sultry, busty creatures with long legs and tight haunches, and more than its quota of lecherous older men.” Many of these men were also pardoned by their fans, who believed that their actions off screen were of minimal importance in comparison to the roles that they played on screen. For example, after Errol Flynn was accused of raping a young woman, many of his fans continued to rally behind him. They refused to accept the allegations as true because they loved the characters he played. Powerful male actors used their fame and status to rape, while woman suffered the consequences unable to be fairly acknowledged for their sufferings and blatant assault. Since the beginning of the film industry, men have always been the leading force. Up until just a few years ago, every successful and well-known director, producer, and actor were almost always male. Because of this power and success in Hollywood, men began to believe that they had full control over women, and the sexist treatment of actresses became the norm. It was a mistreatment that was based in a society that devalued women’s accomplishments and potential. It was a mistreatment that continued to persist through generations because men believed they could take comfort in knowing that many of these women would never speak up. During the time of Louis B. Mayer and Howard Strickling, few actresses did come forward for fear that they would not be believed or that they would lose their jobs. Today, over 60 years later, while many of these sentiments still persist, women have begun to make their voices heard. In a world that values women more, an alliance has been created, between both actors and actresses to achieve change. With the creation of new technologies and platforms, women have the ability to have their voices heard, and in doing so are being supported and applauded for coming forward. While Patricia Douglass’s case was covered up at first, the film Girl 27 exposes the truth about her sexual abuse. As technology progressed, more and more stories were able to be uncovered and the women were able to speak out and expose the men more easily. While there has been some positive change in the recent months, the film industry in particular still has a ways to go. But there is hope. As, Winfrey ended her powerful speech, she said “So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.”

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