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The "New Woman" In Cecil B. De Mille's "The Cheat"

2095 words - 8 pages

Cecil B. DeMille is regarded by many to be the founder of Hollywood, given that his 1914 film, The Squaw Man, was the first important full-length motion picture made in Hollywood. As Joel W. Finler considers, the film "accelerated the trend toward establishing California as the new home of movie-making" . However, it is in his depiction of the `new woman' that the director is both celebrated and derided. In many of his films, DeMille illustrates the rise of consumer culture that had begun in the latter half of the nineteenth century. During its escalation, goods took on a symbolic life while middle-class women attained the characteristics of commodities as they moved into the public sphere. Their movement can be put down to their "refusal to stay at home or even remain in [the] local high street" which "threatened her own reputation and her family's social position" and "excited those who could profit from, control, or at the very least direct her movements" .

This is brought out most notably in The Cheat, where the female protagonist disrupts the established order, the traditional notion of womanhood being inverted. Robert Birchard considers that "Cecil B. DeMille's early critical reputation is based almost entirely on The Cheat [being] the only one of DeMille's early films generally available for reappraisal" . This may be down to his fearless treatment of the "lurid" subject matter which offers up "blatant racism" but perhaps more so due to his subtle analysis of the new female role in society. This analysis is brought out in the main through his use of revolutionary lighting techniques and the interrelationship of elements of mise-en-scène, significantly setting and use of space.

Sumiko Higashi contends that, "the term new woman first appeared in the 1890s" and that such a lady "was alternately praised as a `more independent, better educated...companion to husband and children' " and condemned for having failed `to prove that woman's mission is something higher than the bearing of children and bringing them up.' " Stereotyping of the `new woman' led her to expect to operate in both private and public spheres while reifying the female role in society.

In The Cheat, DeMille uses the notion of the `new women' to critique society in the era. While the film does not deny Edith the freedom that had come to be associated with the idea, it elucidates "[o]ne of the dangers of the modern urban culture [namely] the disappearance of traditional methods of knowing social status and presumed moralities associated with that status", a hazard which "meant [women's] decreased privatisation at the cost of their increased commodification" .

Indeed, the early part of the film portrays an accurate depiction of society at the time, without overt prejudice or obsession with issues (which are dealt with in the narrative later). The society on show in DeMille's classic is one at the hands of an invasion by consumerism where, "[w]hether...

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