Massachusetts Historical Society


Movie-Mad Girls: Female Suicidality in Early Twentieth-Century United States


Author: Diana W. Anselmo, California State University
Comment: Michael Rembis, University at Buffalo

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Diana W. Anselmo’s work explores the cultural and political reach of “bad feelings” beyond the strictly psychoanalytic. She turns attention to the archives of self-injury underwriting silent-film female fandom to track the impact segregation and social denial have had on young women throughout US history, and to interrogate how Hollywood cinema works to reaffirm feelings of exclusion and belonging in immigrant, poor, nonwhite, nonconforming, and/or disabled female consumers. In this paper, Anselmo surveys published reports of a movie-motivated “girl suicide” wave sweeping the United States around World War I. Highlighting girls’ own words as preserved in crime reports and suicide letters, Anselmo argues that, though easily interpreted as artifacts of female failure, movie-inspired suicide notes, criminal testimonies, and forensic reports can be read as testaments of queer film reception: a powerful nonnormative response to conservative iconography, a grievance-driven media attachment that willfully went against conventions regulating female propriety, well-being, and recovery by instead embracing moral, social, and legal disobedience.

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