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AfriGeneas World Research Forum

This ain't you, girl!...

This ain't you, girl! Performing race and ethnicity in Hollywood

Monti, Gloria Silvana. Proquest Dissertations And Theses 2000. Section 0265, Part 0900 271 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation].United States -- Connecticut: Yale University; 2000. Publication Number: AAT 9991197.

Abstract (Summary)
In this dissertation, I analyze three female Hollywood performers: Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, and Susan Kohner. These actors engage in ethnic and racial performances that often do not coincide with their own ethnic and racial identities. Their various impersonations foreground race and ethnicity as constructs and undermine the idea that these are unchangeable categories.

Their screen roles are often ambiguous, bordering on visual excesses that result in hybridity--indicating that identities are nuanced and layered rather than monolithic. However, this multiplicity of meanings can become detrimental within a power structure like Hollywood that assigns specific roles to characters and performers depending on their race and ethnicity. Darker complected women are relegated to the periphery of the frame and the story--marginalized by the film's signifiers and signifieds.

These differences emerge significantly in three films. In Blonde Venus , Dietrich, a northern European, plays a blond "African" who occupies center stage, while the voiceless African-American chorus girls recede into the background. In Broadway Rhythm , Horne, an African-American, portrays a Hispanic cabaret performer who sings two songs and walks offstage. In Imitation of Life , Kohner, an American of European and Latin American descent, represents an African-American who grows up walking through back doors and exacts her revenge on society by passing for white.

Horne is considered an anomaly by studio executives because she does not fit the stereotypical roles in which African-Americans are usually placed. She undertakes the demanding task of a role model: she never portrays a maid, but she is confined to perform musical numbers detached from the film's narrative, and is not given speaking parts. On the contrary, Dietrich achieves fame because she is marketed as sufficiently exotic and foreign, yet perceived as reassuringly white. Kohner enjoys a brief and intense Hollywood career, where seventy percent of the women she portrays are of various ethnic and racial origins. On an extra-textual level, her race and ethnicity become an issue (of contention) within academic communities which, years after her retirement, decree that she is white, despite sufficient evidence to the contrary.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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