Lately I’ve been running into lots of examples in movies, stories, and books of sexual harrassment of women in show business. It’s just rampant. Of course, my media sources aren’t from the present day — the present day is too depressing. I’ve set the dial back to about the turn of the century through the 1930s. Now that I think of it, these too were depressing times. But depressing times call for entertainment—so bring on the show girls!
Before the movie star, there were show girls and their kin, the chorus girls. Young, pretty, anxious to get a leg up in this world, they flocked to get into show business as chorus girls, singers, dancers, actresses, and vaudeville performers. Not surprisingly, when you have crowds of pretty young, often unchaperoned girls trying to get into something, you will just as often find men in charge seeking payment of one sort or another for that access.
Exhibit A (and my only exhibit) is taken from a 1908 novel called A Little Brother of the Rich, in which a young former chorus girl tells the hero how it is. How is it? If you’re pretty and ambitious, not good. A pretty girl couldn’t get parts if she didn’t put out, according to this writer. As the theatre manager tells the ingenue after passing her over for role after role, “You know dear, nothing goes for nothing in this business.” Summing it up: “A musical show is a pretty punk place for a pretty girl….And for a good many as well that ain’t so darn pretty.”
But the cultural critique goes on. Our chorus girl, whose name is Blanche, tells us that for a girl to put on tights and dance on stage was a simple matter of men and economics:
“It’s you and other men that make girls wear tights. Girls don’t wear ‘em for the fun of it, but because you men pay ‘em to. And they’ve got to have money to live. You pay a girl six or eight dollars a week in a store to stand up all day and sell goods until she’s ready to yell at night, she’s so nervous, and you offer her eighteen a week to wear tights and dance and sing in a chorus. Do you wonder that those that can, choose the chorus?….We women do what you men want us to, to live anyhow—and it seems you like us better in the chorus—you pay us three times as much for showing our legs as for selling your wives hardware…”
It should be noted that this speech was written by a man, Joseph Medill Patterson, journalist and future of founder of the New York Daily News. But all the same, it’s interesting commentary, and is based, one suspects, on actual conversations with chorus girls. In fact, Little Brother of the Rich produced on Broadway in 1909 although not as a musical.
Another fact that should be noted was that some young women entered show business for the express purpose of finding a rich husband. Some even succeeded, and for a time at the turn of the century, there were occasional kerfuffles when some young plutocrat professed his undying love for a pretty young starlet on Broadway. Sometimes the girl was bought off, sometimes not. This tradition lasted into the 30s, as a plot device, at least. It inspired Busby Berkeley’s successful “Gold Diggers” movies, which showed chorus girls from all angles.
In Patterson’s novel, the hero is briefly reunited with his former girl friend, the good, innocent Sylvia from good, decent, rural Indiana. Sylvia had been forced to seek her living on the stage but she had always been “straight,” never sacrificing her virtue for her art. Then, in an unexpected twist, Sylvia rejects her now rich lover, giving up the high life rather than accept his terms — to be his unmarried mistress. The show girl mythos is turned on its head — the real gold digger in this story is the young upstart seeking wealth and position on Wall Street. As for the wielding of sexual power, that’s only a piece of this puzzle.
Patterson, Joseph Medill. A Little Brother of the Rich. Chicago: The Reilly and Britten Co., 1908.