Divergent femininities in British film, 1945-59
British cinema of the post-war period has often been characterised as anodyne in terms of gender relations, with the exciting 'wicked ladies' of the war years erased in favour of more conservative versions of femininity. Recent writing (Geraghty, 2000, Harper and Porter, 2003) has brought challenges to bear on this paradigm and opened up a critical space for a more nuanced analysis of gender. This thesis considers representations of divergent femininities in post-WWII British films, that is, female characters who function as liminal figures and who queer boundaries between normative and divergent femininity. I explore how divergent femininities are constructed and the extent to which gender conservatism can be challenged in films from the period. A number of well-known (cross-genre) films, such as Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Mandy (1952), are analysed, augmented by other films that have received little critical attention, for example, The Perfect Woman (1949), Dear Murderer (1947) and Young Wives' Tale (1951). This study employs detailed textual and semiotic analyses (film, reviews, publicity material, critical writings) to produce a historicised feminist reading of 1950s films and femininity and, by combining attention to visual style with an analysis of contextual material, complements existing scholarship which emphasises film production and reception. This thesis explores the extent to which female desire for autonomy, excitement and social mobility could be expressed in 1950s films, and how women questioned their 'proper place' in the gendered social economy. Women's function as housewives is problematised in ways that enter into contemporaneous debates about modernity and consumerism. The heterosexual nuclear family survives as the preferred familial model but the difficulty of mothering is dramatised in ways that challenge hegemonic maternity. Heteroromance and marriage remain the central goal for all women and censorship largely curtails the depiction of female sexuality outside this paradigm. A space however is opened up for women to voice desire for something in addition to the role of wife and mother and in this respect these liminal figures represent a cultural contestation of normative femininity. They shore up - whilst simultaneously challenging - certain ideals of femininity and in doing so speak of the consolidation and transformation of gender relations in post-war British society, suggesting a more dynamic model than has been acknowledged.