Did Films Reflect or Shape Gender Roles in the Second World War? Part 1

Categories of social difference are identified by how they juxtapose each other. Women are women because they are not men; masculine is masculine because it is not feminine. Gender is perceived in binary terms and this relationship is highlighted in physical and emotional aspects: man is traditionally strong where woman is weak, or rational where woman is hysterical. Masculinity is also associated with ‘good citizenship’, providing an abstract definition of personhood against which people’s characteristics are measured. Thus when constructing ideas about gender it is often assumed that gender and sex are one and the same: I am female, therefore I should appear feminine. In practice it is more complicated than this. Sex might be determined by biology, but gender is a cultural construct, subject to alteration as society itself develops.

The gradual emancipation of British women since the nineteenth century began to challenge inherent beliefs about gender identity. Indeed, Sonya Rose maintains that “public attention was directed to the cultural meaning of manhood only when something happened that changed deeply held and taken-for-granted ideas about male-female differences”[1]. Total warfare is another such “something”: as with the Great War, the Second World War was a gendered phenomenon, one that forced gender relationships into the foreground of public debate as women had to be mobilized to help the war effort. Since the wars there have been arguments over the extent to which they were catalysts of further shifts in gender relations. Margaret and Patrice Higonnet convincingly argue their ‘double helix’ theory, which suggests that while women did make some gains during the wars, ultimately gender dynamics were unchanged: men remained the superior strand, directly opposed to the subordinate female strand of the double helix gender structure[2].

The Higonnets’ theory can be utilised when examining different British film genres from the Second World War. During this period, producers disagreed over the type of films the British public wanted: films allowing them to process the situation, or films allowing them to escape it. One popular genre, therefore, was the topical war film, which explored the ordinary heroism of non-combatant men and the active support of British women through a realistic and restrained style. In direct contrast to these, the public was also offered a series of trashy Gainsborough melodramas, produced in quick succession with the same stars. Their distant and loosely historical settings “allowed an expression of the fears and desires of women which were not allowed to surface in the realist films of the period”[3], thus furthering the debates about femininity. Brief Encounter (screenplay Noël Coward, dir. David Lean, 1945) serves as a bridge between these two genres: despite being made predominantly by men, the tragic love story is narrated through Laura’s internal monologue, yet the film is also renowned for its repressed realism, rendering it stylistically more in tune with the topical war films.

Brief Encounter, 1945

Despite stemming from different film-making traditions, these films are all similar in the way they offer an exploration into aspects of the gender identity crisis, while ultimately conforming to conservative patriarchal narrative structures. This was in part due to the Ministry of Information’s strong hold over the British film industry during the war; many film-makers relied on funding from the Ministry and thus their films could not be seen to radically undermine the unity of the British nation. More importantly, given the crisis of gender identity, there was no coherent image of masculinity or femininity for film-makers to package and produce for the British public. Instead, these films actively contributed to the on-going discourse on gender by opening up parts of the debate for cinema-goers to examine. Thus it would be somewhat reductionist to talk about these films purely in terms of them ‘reflecting’ or ‘shaping’ gender categories; they were vehicles through which both creator and consumer could attempt to make sense of the discussion on gender identity.

A Canterbury Tale

A Canterbury Tale, 1944

The gender crisis of the Second World War was largely provoked by the economic, financial and sexual independence women gained through their participation in the war effort. By 1943, 90% of all single 18-40 year old women and 80% of married women with children over fourteen were working[4]. Initially, female aid was voluntary but in December 1941 women aged 20-30 were conscripted for service in the military or in industry and, post-1943, women aged 45-50 had to register too. Thus patriotic duties blurred gender lines, as many women were removed from the domestic sphere and required to take up traditionally masculine jobs. In A Canterbury Tale (screenplay and dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944), the female inhabitants of ‘Chillingbourne’ in Kent are shown in a variety of male roles, from managing farms to driving buses.

Went The Day Well?

Went The Day Well?, 1942

Moreover, the sanctity of the ‘home’ was destroyed during the war, as the Home Front came under attack through air-raids and invasion threats. The topical war films explore this displacement of women and the vulnerability of the home: in Went the Day Well? (screenplay Graham Greene, dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) the home is infiltrated by German soldiers disguised as British ones. Likewise, in A Canterbury Tale, the heroine Alison is essentially a pilgrim; without a stable home. Her fiancé is also presumed dead, “so a promise of a future home is denied her”[5]. In both films, though, the home is ultimately saved: the women use domestic objects to blockade the village manor house against the Germans in Went the Day Well?, while the miracle awaiting Alison in Canterbury is the news that her fiancé has survived and his father will give them his blessing. Reports suggested that the majority of women eagerly awaited a return to domesticity and Alison’s story certainly supports this; although she is part of the Women’s Land Army, her happy ending involves marriage and motherhood.


The Wicked Lady, 1945

Contrastingly, the Gainsborough melodramas are quite daring in their decision to voice female protestations against confinement within the feminine sphere: in The Wicked Lady (screenplay and dir. Leslie Arliss, 1945), Margaret Lockwood’s anti-heroine, Barbara, becomes exasperated with married life, protesting that ‘I’ve got brains and looks and personality… I want to use them, instead of rotting in this dull hole!’ Similarly, in Love Story (screenplay and dir. Leslie Arliss, 1944) when Lissa, again played by Lockwood, learns that she is dying of heart failure she vows to make the most of her remaining time, stating: ‘I want to be in life, not watching outside of it’. Indeed, Penny Summerfield has found evidence that it was actually “the minority of married and single women who did not want to continue in paid employment after the war”[6], thus many women, enjoying the greater sense of purpose and freedom the war provided them, would certainly have been sympathetically responsive to the exploration of female independence offered by the melodramas.


[1] Rose, S. ‘Which People’s War?’ (Oxford, 2006), p151.

[2] Higonnet, M. R and Higonnet, P, ‘The Double Helix’ in: Higonnet, M. (ed.) Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (New Haven, 1987), pp34-5.

[3] Murphy, R. ‘Realism and Tinsel’. (London, 1992), p56.

[4] Richards, J. ‘Films and British National Identity: from Dickens to Dad’s Army’. (Manchester, 1997), p113.

[5] de Cacqueray, E. ‘New Slants on Gender and Power Relations in British Second World War Film’, Miranda, no.2, 2010 [http://www.miranda-ejournal.eu/1/miranda/article.xsp?numero=2&id_article=article_11-1019] (8 March, 2012).

[6] Rose, S. ‘Which People’s War?’, p140.

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