The Women Behind Hollywood's Scenes


by Michelle Martindale

Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production,
by Erin Hill,
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 256 pp.

In her dissertation-turned-book, Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production, Erin Hill resists the historical allure of the Hollywood actress in favor of tracing women’s work behind the American film scenes from 1850 through 2015. In doing so Hill is able to reject the notion that women were not present in media production until the late twentieth century. Rather, she shows women as a key cog in the efficiency machine embraced by the American film industry during the early twentieth century. By focusing on clerical and lower-status positions, Hill not only highlights women’s previously ignored presence in the media production system, but also argues that these gender performative positions were critical to the creative production of filmmakers. Essentially, all women, even those not employed as actresses, were expected to play a specific role at work. The myriad clerical and assistant positions women undertook were cloaked in feminized gender roles in which women were expected to shoulder an immense amount of emotional labor in support of their bosses’ creative efforts.

Divided into five chapters, Never Done follows the twin threads of efficiency and the rise of feminized clerical work in the American film industry. The first two chapters trace the development of American media production from the Gilded Age through the beginning of the studio system of the 1920s. Hill reveals that the film industry was similar to other industries in that it became paper intensive with the emergence of scientific management organizational efforts. As the tedium of clerical work increased with standardization and increasing amounts of paperwork, what had once been a pathway for men to advance to executive positions through informal apprenticeship programs morphed into a career that locked women at the level of secretary. As women were relegated to the bottom of the increasingly complex and robust administrative hierarchy, men were elevated to the upper ranks of a hypermasculinized executive management. This served to segregate women from creative endeavors in the film world into reading, research, and script departments whose prestige declined during the 1920s in proportion to their feminization.

Hill makes some effort to include nonwhite workers in this work in a short section exploring their presence and place in the studio system. While it seems appropriate for her to focus on the 1910s and 1920s since that is when women and men of color entered the narrative, I was disappointed that Hill did not follow nonwhite workers into later chapters. Studio newsletters reveal the significant presence of African Americans, Latinos, and immigrant workers as janitorial and commissary workers. Although the diversity of Hollywood was not fully explored throughout the book, this chapter does provide future scholars with a methodology to further study underrepresented workers in media production.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine how female clerical workers and assistants were expected to behave and the type of work they were expected to perform within the large studio cities and the systems they fed. Chapter 3, “The Girl Friday and How She Grew,” shows how clerical work evolved into a complicated domestic/work relationship between female secretaries and their male employers. Hill explores the nuanced connections between required displays of femininity and the perceived sexuality of studio clerical and secretarial staff. Using studio newsletters and studio tours, Hill exposes how studios domesticated, feminized, and sexualized their female media workers in the studio publications, which seemed to double as dating sites. Here women were described in physical detail along with their marital status and offered up to single male employees as prospective dates. Movie producers and writers reinforced and normalized these gender roles through movie plot lines as fitting for the workplace. Hill does not shy away from the dark side of such workplace dynamics by following several workplace sexual assaults uncovered through oral histories. These stories were made more disturbing when illustrated as part of a studio system that came complete with its own doctors and police force; here Hill asserts, “studio cities didn’t just keep outsiders away—they held employees captive inside” (p. 123).

Actor Turhan Bey with Universal Studios mailroom workers Ann Ross, Nancy Howard, Peaches Alphin, Rose Moromarco and Alva Lacy, 1953. Photograph via.

Hill dedicates the fourth section of her book to case studies of secretaries and executive assistants assigned to high-profile directors and studio heads. She uses these examples to further explore structural inequalities between gendered categories of work. She highlights how “emotional labor” was expected of women, yet considered a developed skill of men. Female assistants and secretaries dealt with the taxing chores of keeping schedules, working as emotional buffers between directors and actors, and taking on the generally “unappealing tasks, details, and emotions” of film production (p. 133). This emotional labor by women transformed into a “creative service” which freed male moviemakers to concentrate on the creative work of directing, writing, and producing. Hill argues that many of these women were able to achieve managerial and creative agency. Although women were sometimes left in charge of significant creative decisions such as postproduction direction, script selection, and rewrites for continuity, women were not officially credited for their contributions nor were they rewarded with loyalty or money from their bosses.

In her final chapter, Hill centers her analysis on the gendered roles of the contemporary media industry, arguing that decades of gender segregation allowed the film industry to continue to depend on women to do more for less pay and prestige. She reveals how film departments such as script supervision and casting were developed out of the feminized labor of assistants during the previous areas. Hill is also quick to point out that these fields were some of the first victims of the industry’s shift to freelance production in the late 1940s. These fields were used as gendered conduits into which women were funneled during the 1970s when women pushed into executive reaches. Hill argues in her epilogue that women still experience difficulty, not suffered by their male counterparts, breaking into credited production roles outside of script work, casting, and costuming because of biases formed over the previous century. These continued biases are undergirded by media plots that cast women in the role of helpmate, sexpot, or shrew who must be rescued from her work to appreciate her natural position of feminine domesticity.

Hill’s well-researched book is theory-driven in some areas while overly descriptive in others, but excels in exposing readers to female actors previously ignored by historians. Oral histories, studio promotional films, newsletters, and memoirs provide a broad foundation for Hill’s arguments and should make the book attractive for both undergraduate and graduate classrooms. The book should be particularly appealing for undergraduate courses on film, gender, or working-class studies and histories. The continued gendering of the workplace cannot be separated from America’s obsession with efficiency and standardization, as Hill skillfully highlights. The entire work could thus be especially helpful to graduate students exploring the feminization and masculinization of work based on prestige and how monetary reward often follows the gendering of a given position.

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