A Queer Way of Feeling: Girl Fans and Personal Archives in Early Hollywood (Volume 4) (Feminist Media Histories)

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Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
University of California Press
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Diana W. Anselmo, scholar, film historian and queer researcher, analyzes the “unknown story” of “queer spectatorship” of movies by female (predominantly white) American adolescents in the years roughly between 1910 and 1920. Her research has focused on a plethora (almost 70) of movie scrapbooks, diary entries, fan mail, college yearbooks, letters, diaries, etc., and explores how many adolescent girls used their involvement with motion pictures and movie stars to explore their own emotions and sexuality—especially as they might not be aligned with the binary model prevalent in society of the time.

She places her examination of the vividness of queer fandom, in the context of the emergence of the Hollywood star system showing how movies and movie magazines were oriented toward and dependent upon a young female audience comprised primarily of schoolgirls and young office workers, all of whom were assumed to be characterized by “susceptibility, leisure time and emotional intensity.” As she sees it “female queerness is at the heart of Hollywood’s star system and its attendant celebrity culture,” and enabled these devoted spectators to explore and express their non-normative sexual and emotional yearnings through schoolgirl crushes and romantic friendships, often expressed through poems dedicated to the love-object.

At the same time psychologists and sociologists began to recognize adolescence or “teenageness” as a distinct social category, in a way that had not been the case heretofore.

Through her very detailed chapters Anselmo shows convincingly that “queer media reception” is not a recent phenomenon as has sometimes been assumed; early chapters focus on the “seminal homoerotic language” of female fan mail; Chapter 4 focuses on the “movie scrap book” fad as a “privileged site for girls to rehearse divergent affinities under the cover of paper conservation and domestic craftwork.” Although actresses were the main target “some girl fans forged relationships with male players that also allowed for exploration of “gender non-conformity, same-sex attraction and erotic fluidity.” In later chapters she traces developing ideas of “gender and sexual deviance” as expressed in juridical, scientific, and other literature.

She sees the girls whose artefacts she has lovingly excavated, presented, and examined as helping to “implement one of the most influential institutions in the world: Hollywood cinema and its enduring offshoot, celebrity culture.”

Anselmo amply demonstrates her thesis though her book could have been shorter and her language less clotted and overwrought. It’s unlikely that the queer ghosts she has raised would recognize that their scrapbooks “the building blocks of fan-made caches” should be considered as “brittle, fugacious and embattled,” and this is not the worst!