Elevate Difference

Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood

In Universal Women, Professor Cooper launches a multidisciplinary investigation into the mystery of why it was that Universal Film Manufacturing Company broadly supported women directors during the 1910s before abruptly reversing the policy. Drawing on philosophical, sociological, historical and structuralist interpretations of gender, culture, power, and institutions, Cooper’s study is positioned to show the interrelationship between art and the development of social norms, aesthetics, and political upheaval, and culture and epistemology in the United States.

However, readers looking for a narrative account of women director’s success and subsequent exile from Universal should look elsewhere. Cooper sets up his project by describing a confluence of events and personalities, some of which appear to be only distantly related, that played varying roles in this drama of gender. Some of these are not clearly explained, as when Professor Cooper explains the etymology of a word but does not clearly tie his explanation to the relationship he is trying to describe and defend.

His definitions and explanations take the following pattern: first, Cooper defines a word like “institution” or “organization” with an appeal to the Oxford English Dictionary. He appeals to the historical use of words to explore the concepts that fall under the definition and to point to a kind of etymological necessity: the word organization brings with it an inheritance from biology and so organizations are implicitly naturalized. Then he describes the word in its social development and practical usage. In the case of “organization” Cooper describes different sociological invocations of the word-concept.

Although in the next section, Professor Cooper describes the bi-coastal organization of Universal Film Manufacturing Company, he does not tie this historical description to the linguistic, historical and sociological discussion that preceded it. It seems that the reader is meant to intuit his purposes in such places and to develop the claims herself. I am not opposed to writing styles that foster critical thinking. But Cooper doesn’t make clear his purposes in so defining and explaining (for example). That is to say, I can look up definitions. I have access to the OED. I can read Durkheim and Weber. But I can’t get inside Cooper’s head to figure out what it is he intends by these things.

Reading Cooper’s book is a bit like watching someone’s film depicting a movie being made: it is interesting to see all the “extras” around the set–the camera crew, the lighting, the onlookers, the caterers, the director and producers and the landscape behind the backdrops and facades–but it is difficult to follow the plot of the movie being made.

The book is directed toward an academic audience; readers should be advised to plant their pinkies in the endnotes for quick reference. It will be most intelligible to those trained in film studies or who are such avid consumers of early Hollywood films and trivia that the characters are familiar–I had a hard time keeping track of names. The study is an interesting one, stressing the role that Universal played in interpreting and then enforcing what it means to be gendered as a man or as a woman. It would be interesting to see a slightly more narrative treatment of the subject–even a narrative that made clear the difficulties of narrative for such a diffuse phenomenon as the shifting meanings of gender–in order to appeal to more non-specialists.

Written by: kristina grob, July 6th 2010