Essay: Star Spangled Persona - The Cultural Demand for Clara Bow as a Flapper
Updated: Jun 4
FS240A for Dr. Katherine Spring at Wilfrid Laurier University
“The successful efforts of suffragettes to win women the vote in 1919 led to a fragmentation of the political aims of feminism, and in the lack of agreement over a common goal, young women who were interested more in individual self-development and sexual freedom than political or social reform became the dominant social and cultural symbol of the ‘New Woman’.” As an idea sourced from Ryan, writing in 1983, and Finnegan in 1999, these were the ways in which the groundwork was laid for the emergence of the ‘flapper’. This paper explores the portrayal of sexual liberation that broke through traditional expectations of gender in Clara Bow’s on-screen persona and focuses on the historical setting in which she rose to stardom. Furthermore, there will be an attempt to clarify the role of fame and why film was a vessel for the star system. Celebrities and the films they star in have been noted as impactful to society in potentially both positive and negative manners, depending on whom you ask. It is important to investigate such affects to the audience who participate in engaging with this cultural material as well as the effects fans had on the Western film industry as a whole.
The United States’ socio-cultural and industrial contexts of the star system encouraged the use of the flapper persona during the 1920’s resulting in the iconic role of Betty Lou Spence, played by new-found “It Girl” Clara Bow.
Elinor Glyn coined the “It” label, which resulted in defining the Jazz period of history, an “era and its wild child, Clara Bow.” As a writer in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, Glyn brought her British outside perspective into the world of Hollywood. She wrote on the sexuality of the flapper, which gave way to Badger’s It.
In a serial release for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1926, Glyn can be quoted saying:
To have ‘It’, the fortunate possessor must have that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes. He or she must be entirely unself-conscious and full of self-confidence, indifferent to the effect he or she is producing, and uninfluenced by others. There must be physical attraction, but beauty is unnecessary. Conceit or self-consciousness destroys ‘It’ immediately. In the animal world ‘It’ demonstrates in tigers and cats – both animals being fascinating and mysterious and quite unbiddable.
Another way of understanding Glyn would be that she argues the “It” factor could be utilised by a star “to get what and who they wanted.” However, Glyn was not originally published in 1921 as being in favour of the behaviour of flappers in media. The complete switch from critique to praise within these two pieces through the 1920’s shows the evolution of the understanding of femininity with its rapid changes in “attitudes, appearance and actions” across only a decade. In the 1927 release of It, the opening scene features one of the primary characters, Monty, reading Cosmopolitan magazine and Glyn’s article on the “It” factor. His search for the girl with star power drives the first scenes and leads to the romantic relationship. The use of analytical editing is prominent to display close up shots of the actors and also important items such as the Cosmopolitan article.
Prior to considering the influence of the star system, I will identify how it formed during the 1910’s and define it in the 1920’s. According to Thompson and Bordwell, the liveperformance productions had an established star system already in place. For a film the actor only had a brief contract during filming. The actors would not have worked on enough films to be recognizable to audiences and actors’ names were not publicized to prevent the demand for higher wages. This means audiences would have to just recognize the faces of the actors; they made up their own nicknames. With this excitement in fans, studios began to hire actors for longer periods of time and would exploit the stars for their own benefit. From photos and personal appearances to the introduction of the fan magazines in 1911, fans just wanted a closer look into the life of someone they had fallen in love with on the big screen.
“Clara Bow's film, It, can be understood as a parable about fan culture, particularly the ways that fan magazines constructed female readers and Hollywood films positioned female spectators.” Marsha Orgeron focused on fan magazines and how they created an illusion of accessibility. The star system supported the idea that stars were normal except living luxurious, sometimes scandalous, lives at the same time. Fan media promoted not only the sharing of private information, but the opportunity for fans to engage. Bow was “a market commodity.” The act of sharing this personal information demonstrates a change in the socio-cultural history of the United States. It was previously considered both “crude and improper”, but in the 1920’s became “institutionalized and normalized” to share this information with the public.
Clara came into the spotlight after winning a photo contest for Motion Picture Magazine and was soon after scouted by Preferred Pictures, a small production company. B.P. Schulberg, the producer, would cast her in his own films but also loaned Bow to other companies for films to profit from loan-out fees. Her stardom allowed both Schulberg and Bow to transition over to Paramount, and this demonstrates her “commodity value.” Clara Bow was a product of her generation. Bow’s fame resulted from a combination of her ability to fit into the desires of the nation and proliferation of income desired by the film industry; she was essentially being used to sell films. The industry needed to please the masses in their admiration for the flapper persona and Clara Bow fit the mold. Clara Bow’s characters, such as Betty Lou, showcase an embodiment the feminist movement of the early 1900’s.
The flapper, as a star persona infamously portrayed by Clara Bow, could be seen as a woman who “pushed the boundaries of acceptability.” Gender politics would determine what was acceptable and coming out of the first world war after the Victorian era there were fairly strict expectations of women’s behaviour. Bow was described as a flapper in Stephen Sharot’s article in the Journal of Gender Studies. “With her mass of bobbed hair, plucked eyebrows, bow lips with dark lipstick, generous breasts, and wiggle walk, she was the sexy flapper.” An important part of the flapper persona was the youthful playfulness paired with the outward sexuality. Bow expressed “both innocence and sexuality”
Bow’s identity essentially became that of her film characters; there was a lack of differentiation between what the characters were like and Bow’s true personality. As a star she was potentially viewed as a role model for other women, which would have been of concern to conservative individuals. The sex scandals Bow was accused of were all too fitting of a flapper girl. While her sexuality and lifestyle were seen as animalistic as a new woman, there was an extreme contrast to that of the traditional attributes of a woman such as being polite, put together, classy and regulated. In It, we see a mixture of these expectations from Betty Lou. It added “spice” to entertain the audience, but came with issues from the MPPDA and Jason Joy in their concern over moral values presented in the flapper films. “Betty Lou acts out this doubleness by appearing to be both the wild, rapacious New Woman and the morally correct and conservative young lady of the past--she is, like Bow herself, at once a walking contradiction and evidence of the paradoxical nature of women's sexual roles in the 1920’s.” The use of comedy was important for allowing the showings to continue and to participate in what would come to be known as “compensating moral values”.
Sara Ross points out that the dualism is part of Betty Lou’s flapper shtick and shows the unpredictability typical of this persona. In particular Ross examines the scene where Betty Lou dresses up for her date at the Ritz. After cutting her work dress apart she adds a scarf and flowers to make it look like a garment more suitable for fancy dining. She shows her roommate while imitating the mannerisms of rich blonde women. Once at the Ritz, the host tries to put her and Monty at a less public table, but she insists sitting near Waltham. Her behaviour is not reserved as she breaks apart the wish bone and gives alluring looks to her crush, who is not her date.
The character of Betty Lou is a direct representation of an independent working woman who could have male company over without the worry of her parents knowing. This breaks the strict sexual standards that were in a state of decline during the late 1920’s. She also stood up and laid claim on the baby that was indeed her roommates despite having male company over and media outlets listening in to ensure it was not taken away. Confessing to that status of being a single-mother especially when it was not true displayed her courage and refusal of conforming to Victorian social norms and supported the first wave of feminism.
In the scene at the fair, the scene in Waltham’s office after receiving her bonus and the last scene on Waltham’s yacht, Betty Lou shows that she is shameless. She is incredibly flirtatious with a man who is in a relationship and also rejects him when he tries to tie her down in marriage. “Female desire – be it sexual or economic in nature – is legitimized through Betty
Lou’s persona of the unabashed modern woman.”
Clara Bow was undoubtedly an actor that will still captivate your heart with her looks, mannerisms and everything else. She might charm you or simply catch your attention because of the unexpected. Once you think you have her figured out, she changes. Bow was in the limelight from the mid-1920’s until the early 1930’s, approximately a 10-year run. However, today there are versatile stars in the current culture that have been around for decades, even after large scandals. We see stars living lavish, and sometimes appalling, lives with the ease of finding out personal details at the edge of our fingertips. It could be also argued that we no longer see strict star personas like we did in the golden age of Hollywood cinema. Further research can be done to look at the reasons why her career was so brief, especially considering new waves of feminism were on their way to further liberate women. Clara Bow was a woman who truly had “It”. She may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but she sure would have made you at least try a sip.
Badger, Clarence. It. Performed by Clara Bow. 1927; Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2014. YouTube video posted by Musicofilia.
Desjardins, Mary. “The Perils of It: Clara Bow, Experience, Agency, and the Scandalous Life Story.” Celebrity Studies 8, no. 4 (2017): 510-526. Accessed December 9, 2018. https://www-tandfonline-com.libproxy.wlu.ca/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2017.1370826.
Moody, Nickianne. “Elinor Glyn and the Invention of “It”.” Critical Survey 15, no. 3 (2003): 92- 104. Accessed December 9, 2018. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.wlu.ca/ps/i.do?&id=GALE|A115843880&v=2.1&u=wate 18005&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w.
Orgeron, Marsha. “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture.” Cinema Journal 42, no. 4 (2003): 76-97. Accessed December 7, 2018. http://link.galegroup.com.libproxy.wlu.ca/apps/doc/A160418999/AONE?u=wate18005&si d=AONE&xid=093de65c.
Ross, Sara. “'Good Little Bad Girls': Controversy and the Flapper Comedienne.” Film History 13, no. 4 (2001): 409. Accessed December 7, 2018. http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A138527628/AONE?u=wate18005&sid=AONE&xid= 04154385.
Sharot, Stephen. “The ‘New Woman’, Star Personas, and Cross-Class Romance Films in 1920s America.” Journal of Gender Studies 19, no. 1 (2010): 73-86. Accessed December 6, 2018. http://resolver.scholarsportal.info/resolve/09589236/v19i0001/73_twspacrfi1a.xml.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2010.