Sexual Independence During the Great Depression: Jean Harlow as a Hollywood Rebel

Sexual Independence During the Great Depression: Jean Harlow as a Hollywood Rebel

Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow. Hollywood’s original rebel subverted what people could and did think about sexually liberated women who chose to live their lives in front of a camera, deconstruction just how the film industry could, and should, treat female movie stars. Zita Short looks back on her indelible legacy.

When Jean Harlow emerged as a movie star during the early 1930s, she was seen as a representative of all that was dirty and immoral about the film industry. She was most frequently cast as ‘laughing vamps’; vulgar sexpots who would seduce married men and violently resist domestication. To the surprise of many, this persona made her wildly popular with female audiences, who found they rather liked seeing a self-interested heroine on screen. Perhaps women responded so positively to her portrayal of cynical, avaricious characters because they themselves were living through a time  in which money was hard to come by and women were unable to fend for themselves. Rather than pretending that a Prince Charming would come along and sweep them off their feet if they were docile enough, Harlow’s vehicles acknowledged the fact that romantic attraction was a lot more complicated than the Catholic Church would have liked people to believe. 

Conservative puritans responded to Harlow’s popularity with outrage and fury. The National Legion of Decency, an organisation dedicated to identifying ‘morally objectionable’ content found in motion pictures, was at the forefront of the moral crackdown on racy, morally ambiguous pictures that would eventually result in the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code. They were especially incensed by the success of one of Harlow’s most daring pictures, 1932’s Red-Headed Woman, in which she portrayed Lil, an adulteress who gets away with ruining her married lover’s life. Catholic lobbyists were especially upset by the fact that Lil’s bad deeds go unpunished, as she is seen living the high life at the end of the film. 

This sense of moral ambiguity strongly contrasted with the black and white morality found in the ‘fallen women’ films that had achieved great popularity during the previous decade. Those films told stories about wholesome, virginal girls who would end up falling into depravity through no fault of their own, before dying as martyrs who wish to atone for their sinful behaviour. They fell back on the highly conservative belief that all good women would be willing to suffer in order to protect a child or keep their alcoholic husband happy. These films glorified women who went to ridiculous lengths to avoid doing anything selfish, instead of simply leaving  their deadbeat husband. The Legion of Decency could get behind a film like The Sin of Madelon Claudet in 1932, because it presented a completely un-nuanced view of complex issues like fathers abandoning their children and single mothers choosing to marry for money. 

Harlow represented a threat to this regressive perspective on women, as she suggested that life as a cunning, independent party girl could be a hell of a lot more satisfying than life as a repressed Catholic housewife. Her appeal stretched beyond that of other sex symbols because she always brought an edge of self-awareness to her performances. Over time, she would develop into a full-fledged comedienne and gain the ability to deconstruct her own persona. Promotional photoshoots framed her as a sneering goddess who looked upon those who lusted after her with a touch of pity, but her later films emphasised her status as a brash smalltown girl who felt slightly uncomfortable in high society. Rather than displaying her ordinariness by playing up her own vulnerability, she chose to become an increasingly gregarious, carefree screen presence.

This was a risky move, as actresses don’t often receive praise for deciding not to play emotionally fragile naifs who wrestle with pathological guilt. When we think about great acting, our minds tend to conjure up images of Al Pacino moodily glancing into the middle distance or Daniel Day-Lewis talking about skinny ties. We have been taught that skilled actors spend all of their time going Method. This means that people may scoff when serious actors transition into comedy. For some, it is still impossible to accept the idea that a thespian could actually expand their horizons and gain an understanding of the complexity of their craft while playing a role that doesn’t ask them to starve themselves or harass one of their co-stars on-set. 

Harlow’s dramatic career shift proved that some performers could gain a lot of freedom from playing parts that let them poke fun at themselves. When she was confined to dramas that existed purely to capitalise upon her sex appeal, the public was encouraged to treat her as a dangerous, exotic beauty who was legitimately responsible for society’s moral decline. The threat she posed seemed less serious when she started appearing in comedies that forced puritans to wrestle with the fact that home-wrecking gold diggers could also be witty career gals who served as confidants to their close friends. These comedies managed to push back against the misogynistic ideals that conservative Catholics had traditionally promulgated, as they gave Harlow the ability to be a Madonna and a whore. This opened her up to appearing in a wider range of pictures, as she no longer needed to rely solely on her image in order to gain parts. 

She delivered one of her finest performances in 1933’s Bombshell, in which she played an actress torn between pursuing her career ambitions and finding a long-term romantic partner. Harlow displays remarkable comic timing in scenes that ask her to play a woman who needs to display false modesty in the presence of her male colleagues. There is something delicious about the fact that a smug little grin lurks beneath the overly innocent expression she uses to mask her true intentions. Every offhand gesture and disarming grin is used to emphasise the fact that this woman likes manipulating the people who dare to challenge her authority. The DNA of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is present in many of Harlow’s comedies, and it makes you wonder whether we would have Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall without Harlow’s influence. 

In 2022, Jean Harlow’s isn’t necessarily on everybody’s lips. We live in a more sex-positive society and the Catholic Church no longer has the power to turn the majority of Americans against an actress with a highly sexualised image. We also see plenty of comedies in which physically attractive characters get the opportunity to crack jokes and make a fool of themselves. For those who are not fans of classic cinema, Harlow seems like a proto-Marilyn Monroe and has little cultural significance beyond the 1930s – but it is depressing to realise she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for revolutionising the manner in which Hollywood treated sex symbols. Without Harlow, we simply wouldn’t be where we are today. 

Back to blog