Did Films Reflect or Shape Gender Roles in the Second World War? Part 3

A crucial concern of the wartime discourse on gender was that of duty versus desire, explored in the melodramas and Brief Encounter. L. K. Gordon of Leicester wrote to the Leicester Evening Mail in 1943 stating that ‘the war had caused a search for pleasure among selfish people who neglect their first obligation – to their children…’[1] Women were required to be both workers and mothers: they were required to contribute to the war effort, but also symbolise the motherland their men were fighting for. Furthermore, women were not considered good citizens if they were seen to be neglecting family values, especially child-care, for the sake of their war-work. While soldiers serving abroad were issued with condoms by the War Office, female sexual morality was seen to be intrinsically linked with the calibre of their citizenship.

The disruption of war and the availability of contraception had allowed for an increase in casual sexual relations, as women separated from their husbands by the hostilities became more financially and sexually independent. As a result, the illegitimate birth-rate nearly doubled between 1940 and 1945 and between 1943 and 1945, one-third of illegitimate children in Birmingham were born to married women[2]. Women who prioritised their desires were castigated for being bad mothers and, therefore, bad citizens. Desire and its relationship to motherhood is explored in both Brief Encounter and the Gainsborough melodrama Madonna of the Seven Moons (screenplay by Roland Pertwee, dir. Arthur Crabtree, 1945). In the former, Laura returns home after agreeing to meet with Alec a second time to find that her son has been hit by a car and has mild concussion. In Madonna, the issue is played out through Phyllis Calvert’s character, who suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. Maddalena is pious, quiet and sexually restrained, while the gypsy Rosanna is feisty and passionate. When Rosanna surfaces and disappears to Florence, Maddalena’s daughter, Angela, is put in danger when she attempts to find her. Without realising, the sexual and selfish Rosanna is a threat to her own daughter’s safety, as she is drugged and nearly raped by the gigolo, Sandro. Yet Rosanna also saves Angela’s life, stabbing Sandro because she believes him to be her own lover. These films do not reprimand the actions of Laura or Maddalena-Rosanna; the viewers are left to decide for themselves whether the car accident is coincidence or condemnation and, likewise, Rosanna is shown both endangering and saving Angela, while the timid Maddalena proves unable to connect with her at all.

Madonna Of The Seven Moons,

Madonna Of The Seven Moons, 1945

The rise in illegitimate births was accompanied by a soaring divorce rate. From 1943-45, seventy percent of divorce petitions were made on the grounds of adultery. Thus the relationship between lust and loyalty was a key questions raised by the romance films of World War Two. By setting Brief Encounter in the winter of 1938, Coward is arguably allowing his audience to explore adultery and moral choice without the added complexity of war. Not unlike the historical settings of some of the melodramas, the 1938 depicted in the film must have felt a lifetime ago for contemporary viewers, thus it would seem that both genres used “‘history’ as a country where only feelings reside, not socio-political conflicts” [3], encouraging audiences to actively engage with the discourse on duty and desire by removing contextual complications.

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter, 1945

Divorce is never fully explored in the Gainsborough melodramas; in Madonna it is shrugged off disdainfully as an expensive hassle, while the narrative of The Wicked Lady does not allow the characters to defy social convention with a divorce and ‘swap’. Barbara’s rash behaviour produces the unhappy marital arrangement to begin with and also prevents its resolution – in attempting to murder her husband Ralph, she is shot and killed by Kit, her true love. Indeed, while Barbara’s counterpart, Caroline, is eventually rewarded for choosing to respect the sanctity of marriage rather than become Ralph’s mistress, Barbara’s insatiable desire inevitably leads to her death, rejected by the society she spent the entire film scorning.

This is the typical formula through which the melodramas explore the discourse on duty versus desire: the contrasting of a heroine with an anti-heroine. While the ruthless villainesses were ultimately punished for their transgressions – The Wicked Lady and The Man In Grey (screenplay and dir. Leslie Arliss, 1943) both have Lockwood killed by the man she desires – the melodramas were bold in their presentation of rebellious women who challenged convention in their quest for more power; more excitement; more freedom.Moreover, evidence suggests that the female audiences identified more with these women, epitomised by Margaret Lockwood, than with the insipid ‘good’ girls played by Patricia Roc and Phyllis Calvert, just as they fantasised over James Mason’s dark and mysterious anti-heroes, rather than the “tender rescuer”[4] .

The Wicked Lady, 1945

The Wicked Lady, 1945

Similarly, the predominantly working-class female audiences could not understand Laura’s moralistic restraint in Brief Encounter – exasperated preview audiences in Rochester boisterously asked ‘isn’t ‘e ever going to ‘ave it orf with ‘er?’[5] Thus Brief Encounter examined the sanctity of marriage through a middle-class lens, rendering it a “class-specific gender discourse”[6].  Indeed, Coward presents a clear division between Laura and Alec and the buffet manageress and ticket collector, despite them occupying the same physical space in several scenes, highlighting the heterogeneous nature of gender identification. Class boundaries and the potential for downward mobility are emphasized throughout the film – Laura worries that her affair will make her ‘cheap’ and ‘low’; derogatory terms associated with working-class women. Thus ultimately Laura’s characterisation made it very difficult for the working-class, the bulk of cinema-goers, to identify with her, so it was not surprising that The Wicked Lady beat it in the box office ratings for 1946.


[1] Rose, S. ‘Which People’s War?’, p121.

[2] Lant, A. ‘Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema’. (Princeton, 1991), p155.

[3] Harper, S. ‘Historical Pleasures’, p179.

[4] Landy, M. ‘Melodrama and Femininity in World War Two’. In Murphy, R. (ed.) ‘The British Cinema Book’ (London, 1997), p85.

[5] Hoare, P. ‘Noel Coward: A Biography’. (Chicago, 1995), p361.

[6] Dyer, R. ‘Brief Encounter’. (London, 1993), p40.

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