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AfriGeneas World Research Forum

Passing anxieties: Identity, authenticit...

Passing anxieties: Identity, authenticity and performance in Hollywood films, 1947--1960

Kelley, N. Megan. Proquest Dissertations And Theses 2006. Section 0267, Part 0337 456 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation].Canada: York University (Canada); 2006. Publication Number: AAT NR19837.

Abstract (Summary)
This dissertation analyzes representations of passing in Hollywood films during the long 1950s. It begins in 1947 with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington and ends in 1960, with the collapse of the Studio system and the ending of the blacklist.

This study historically contextualizes how representations of passing in Hollywood films expressed broad social and cultural anxieties about identity. Passing had a long literary tradition focused on blacks passing for white, but after World War II it became a metaphor in films for anxieties about identity, including the specter of Communists passing as patriotic Americans and the feared breakdown of gender categories---anxiety that other people were not what they seemed.

This dissertation argues that over the course of the long 1950s, representations of passing shifted from a rational response to external issues to a psychological problem reflecting fears about identity and authenticity. In the late 1940s, the trope of racial passing was visually represented in Hollywood films, such as Gentlemen's Agreement and Pinky, sympathetically portrayed the practice as a rational strategy to counter discrimination in an unjust world.

Similarly, anti-Communist passing was presented as rational, if evil, political strategy. By the late 1950s, however, passing was marginalized in plot-lines and films as an internal psychological problem, and it was seen as a sign of personal failure in accepting one's authentic identity. Films that depicted gender ambiguity and passing, such as Johnny Guitar and Some Like It Hot, expressed similar concerns.

This study of Hollywood representations of passing between 1947 and 1960 illuminates how contradictory discourses about identity coexisted in postwar American culture.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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