The Idle Class, that did little for Progress

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In the simplest and most direct way, the film The Idle Class, illustrates the misogynistic, sexist underbelly of the United States that is slowly being revealed each day, as we work toward a more perfect union.

The silent film is about a wealthy woman, referred to as the Lonely Wife, who has an alcoholic husband that she refuses to see until he stops drinking. However, a vagabond, known as the Little Tramp, resembles her husband. At a ball, she mistakes the vagabond for him and proceeds to touch his arm and become slightly intimate. However, this soon ends because the husband shows up at the ball (dressed up in full armor), and tries to claim his wife back.

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The lens that I used when watching this film was Bulter’s gender theory, while also examining its theme of sexuality. For the foundation of my lens, I took to heart how Bulter described, “gender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women.” She later adds, “gender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of free-floating attributes.”

The inequality and concept of assigned gender roles Butler discusses are almost explicit throughout The Idle Class.

Going back to the story, before the Little Tramp finds his way to the ball, he plays a game of golf. Through trickery and thievery, he steals a new set of clubs and several balls. However, in each scene he blames another person for the theft. The immediate reaction out of every man is to either punch, kick or ‘deck’ the accused, while radiating with anger and hyper-masculinity.

Eventually, later in the film, the Lonely Wife is defended by her husband after the true identity of the Little Tramp is revealed. The husband’s immediate reaction is to punch and chase him around the ball in hopes of redemption. He not only now has to restore his lady’s dignity, but also prove to her that he is a “strong man” that can take care of her.

Through these actions, the characters appear to see the wife as a prize to win over, not as a human being.

The Lonely Wife herself, plays the stereotypical 1920s proper lady. She acts as a blundering buffoon and apparently is so self-absorbed she can’t tell her own husband apart from a homeless man. Her stereotypes come across again, being a dainty rich woman, dressed in the finest clothes who rides horses. She also faints when the truth comes out that the Little Tramp is not her husband, because why would she be able to stand up for herself? That would be utter nonsense.

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All of these actions are in alignment with what people would actually do, when compared to the time period.

In terms of a historical reference, things were changing drastically, especially for women. The 19th Amendment was passed, the workforce was beginning to take women seriously, and women got to decide whether they were going to be pregnant.

In the same decade, the Ford T Model was released, and who some consider the first feminist,Victoria Woodhull, ran against President Ulysses as a member of the Equal Rights Party.

However, it was still the “Roaring Twenties.” F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the novel that also has two men fighting to fight, under the false pretense of fighting for love. This same book also highlights the failures of American “culture,” as we have previously talked about in class.

The Flapper Girl was also born, who began a period of sexual freedom that defied traditional gender stereotypes. However, they were still commodified by men, because they smoked, drank, had casual sex and danced provocatively. They were not regarded for their knowledge, brilliance or personality.

The 1920s may have been a decade of progress, but that does not mean that life was great or rights were equal.

As the film title says, this is about the idle class, which in my opinion, is one that sexualized women and defined what “being a man” means. And when asked what this film says about American Culture, it says we have built a system for women to be oppressed.

If young boys watched this movie, it would teach them that violence is the first resort for any sort of offense. If young girls watched this movie, it would teach them that they are expected to be frail, skinny, beautiful and rich wives, but also submissive (it also implies that are too stupid to recognize someone they apparently ‘love’).

This rhetoric and narrative is nothing new. It is found in new films, in old films and in history books. And when you look at the broader scope, the 1920s supported the idea of sexism. Without World War I, women wouldn’t have gone to work. The flapper still emphasized a sense of sexuality in order to acquire men. There was no focus on attending university because there was no need for women to be smart.

Take this advertisement for a tie:

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We are talking about an advertisement for a tie here. This woman is on her knees, serving a man breakfast in bed, BECAUSE he is wearing a tie. Even the verbage says, “Show her it’s a man’s world,” implying that she doesn’t already know that.

Butler’s gender theory may also say that there are negative aspects to feminism because once again gender roles are being assigned, however, at least it is progress. Even though her argument is compelling, we must admit that feminism is the reason ads like this do not exist anymore.

The idle class of the 1920s, as shown through Chaplin’s movie, dramatizes the ridiculous and blatant assigned gender roles, sexism and misogyny. And when compared to history, Chaplin’s depiction wasn’t wrong about what life was like.

Film Background information:

  • Film: The Idle Class
  • Director, producer & screenwriter: Charlie Chaplin
  • Release Date: September 25, 1921
  • Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mack Swain, Henry Bergman, Al Ernest Garcia, John Rand, Rex Storey
  • Link to the film: https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/idle-class

Hyperlinks have been added (in light blue) for works cited, as instructed to do so on Monday (2/13) in class.

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