Ever since it was invented, film has always been a major source of influence that shapes the public’s image towards others and themselves. In particular, the gender norm in our society was, to a large extent, shaped by the popular films that defined each era. This is why I decided to pursue the study of this topic —– the gender dynamic in classic films and its influence on our society.

In the past week, through a careful selection and discussion with my mentor T. Pat Macpherson, I narrowed my topic down to studying how several important films and actors/actresses in 20th century America and China shaped the norms of masculinity and femininity in both countries. For the former part, I started my project with a study of the milestone romance film —– Casablanca, set in WWII. A brief introduction of the film can be found here. The story revolves around the relationship between Rick, an American cafe owner in Casablanca, and Ilsa, the wife of a fugitive leader of anti-Nazi movement. Rick and Ilsa previously had an affair during the captivity of Ilsa’s husband by the Nazis. The story consummates in a typical heroic act of Rick who took the local police captain hostage and helped Ilsa and her husband flee to Portugal.


The popularity the film has to be understood within its historical context. The raging war in Europe and its displacement of many from a stable and promising life directed their attention and hope towards the films. Often the story of American soldiers deployed to Europe contains an important element of romantic encounter with a European femme fatale; this cultural phenomenon both made and is reflected by Casablanca (Macpherson). It was not difficult for me to find the parallel structure of the gender dynamic in this film and real-world politics. Rick, a succulent yet righteous American gent, represents America and plays a dominant role in his interaction with his Swedish femme fatale Ilsa, who carnates Europe. The story develops as Rick overcomes his resentment against Ilsa for leaving him and becomes determined to help them at his own cost, which both corresponds America’s participation into the war and reflects the typical cultural expectation of a male in that era: a “righteous” yet unaffectionate male who is able to sacrifice his emotional attachment for the betterment of others, not unlike the social image of American soldiers in Europe and the Pacifics. Meanwhile, I have noticed that Ilsa remains passive throughout the film and her story is portrayed through the lens of Rick. This contrast lends insight into the patriarchal nature of the film —– a wartime story told from the perspective of American males, despite the greater social mobility that women gained in that period.

The Celluloid Closet

I also watched the documentary the Celluloid Closet, a overall history on the presence and depiction of homosexual characters in American films. It explains how homosexuality once flourished in the Pre-code era films as a comic contrast to the normal heterosexual standard and was later banned as sexual degeneration. I was able to understand the social context of several pre-code films that I am going to study in the next two weeks, including the Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco (1933) by Marlene Dietrich, Female (1933) by Ruth Caterson and the Cabaret (made in 1970s but set in 1930s Germany). Many of their stories feature sexually nonconforming characters who challenge or reflect the sexual norm of the society and my focus will be looking at how these films reflect social changes and how are they received in that context.

I am beginning to think about the final project of my study. One possibility will be an essay comparing the development and changes of gender norms between American and Chinese films. An alternative will be to an essay in which I analyze one or two current popular films from America and China and analyze how they reflect the gender dynamic today. As I move forward and study more films, I will be more clear as to which I will choose.

Works Cited

“Casablanca Posters.” Movieposter. com,

Casablanca, Warner Bros.,

The Celluloid Closet, Sony Pictures Classics,

Macpherson, Pat. The Big Fix A Hollywood History of Heterosexuality.

“The Celluloid Closet.” Movie Poster Shop.Com,


  1. sabrina.schoenborn

    I love this topic! I think it is especially important to talk about and study this in today’s climate surrounding the #MeToo movement. I think looking at the Twilight Zone series could also be a good way to look at where these gender norms come from, as that is a topic that they talk about frequently. I am excited to see where you go in your studies between film and gender norms!

  2. kevinwang11

    Hi Tony,

    I am very excited about this project of yours. I think that a comparative essay about different gender norms in Chinese and American film would be quite an interesting final project. Alternatively, have you thought about shooting a short documentary about what you are going write? I’d be happy to help you if you have any trouble with filming or editing.

    Keep it up,


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