Wow. It has been a long time since an article has made me think (and rethink and rethink) as much as this piece in The Atlantic, The Forgotten Female Action Stars of the 1910s. I can’t get over it.
Just take a look at this publicity shot from 1918::
Here’s the description:
A city editor orders an armed female reporter to chase down a con man and “get the story.” A railroad telegrapher seeks vigilante-style justice against two robbers who attacked her. An adventure-seeking heiress outruns a giant boulder Indiana Jones-style … decades before Harrison Ford was ever born.
What? Did you know that this existed? Me neither!
In the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.
Incredible. So what happened? How did this come about?
And more importantly: why did it end?
The author of the piece, Radha Vatsal, has some ideas.
I invited Radha Vatsal onto the History of Literature podcast to discuss the article. She has her own book coming out, too: a murder mystery with a plucky female journalist at the center. In New York City. In 1915. What a fantastic idea – I can’t wait for my copy of the book to arrive (it’s available now for pre-order at Amazon.com).
Radha and I talk about her research process, the rise of female journalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the changes in the film industry, and developing the character of Kitty Weeks. Oh, and she picks four book recommendations. We discuss those too.
I’ll be posting the episode the first week of May. In the meantime, check out the Atlantic article. And imagine a time when Hollywood didn’t quite have such a stranglehold on the industry…and we could see different kinds of movies…maybe in the past…maybe in the future…