Chapter Arts Centre‘s season last month, Girls Like Us, gave us a ‘glimpse into the world of wartime propaganda filmmaking, … showing some of the best of British films that aided the war effort.’ Lucy Sanderson reviews the 1943 classic The Gentle Sex.
The irony of The Gentle Sex (1943) is palpable from the moment the cross-stitched film titles prelude the opening with the quote ‘1838 THE GENTLE SEX – In whatever station in life a woman is placed, a spirit of modesty, humility, obedience & submission will always be required of her…1938 onwards’. This was Leslie Howard’s final film, he was killed a few months after its release while returning to Bristol when his commercial flight was shot down by German Luftwaffe, and it is certainly a joyous example of World War Two propaganda in action. Although that underlying message does certainly make its appearance in the notably optimistic tone which pervades most of the film, there are other themes which really endear this film to a more modern audience.
To start it depicts a varied, realistic, and positive group of role models for the audience. As the film begins and we are introduced to each of the 7 women we will follow on their journeys through the ATS (auxiliary territorial service) training camps and into active service. They are a varied bunch: young, old, married or single, experienced, and naïve. But more importantly, they are less glamourized and were skilled character actresses as opposed to big name stars. Not only would this appeal to a wider audience women at the time, but it adds a sense of realism to the film.
Although we do see women cast in positions of authority (head billeting officer and Sergeant), the lack of faith in their abilities in active duty are certainly voiced by passing male characters in the film. One remarks about the tardiness of their convoy delivering supplies, ‘I expect they’ve stopped to have their hair waved’. But these deliberate jibes are either cunningly mocked or proved to be untrue. In the final moments of the film, Leslie’s parting description of the ‘strange, wonderful, incalculable women’ perfectly describes the enigma that a manually laboring woman appears to be to some of the male characters.
But the real gem of this film is the powerful scene where we see the women in action shooting down enemy bombers which temporarily punctures the jolly ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude. The chilling and now iconic sounds of air raids, swooping bomber planes and the bombs themselves fill the cinema. One shot picks out the glint from the raised eyes of the women as they look toward the dark skies. The film uses this moment to reflect on the importance and danger of the work the women have taken on here. As someone who has been lucky enough to avoid living through anything like the blitz, it really brought another facet to this otherwise entertaining film, satiated with wartime optimism. Speaking to some of the other audience members as we left the cinema (I must admit I at least halved the average age of the Tuesday afternoon crowd), I learned that one lady’s older sister had very similar experiences working in a one of the ATS training programmes.
While undeniably flavored with unapologetic propaganda strategies, Leslie’s film is also a wholesome representation of the women working together. It focuses on the independence and comradery the war effort offered women and addresses the discrimination they undoubtedly faced from men unused to seeing women working in this type of job.