Introduction

While investigating perceptions of sexuality in the 1930s I watched The Broadway Melody (1929) and was interested in what I viewed as a lesbian plot. During the 1930s continuation of the series, the plot submerges the lesbian angle, although the resulting heterosexual focus feels as forced as a Michael Jackson/Priscilla Presley wedding. The Broadway Melody movies seem to recognize their homosexual past and want to hide it beneath a veneer of heteronormalcy, and what could be more normal than a wedding. As Chrys Ingraham states in White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, "Weddings are one of the major events that signal readiness and prepare heterosexuals for membership in marriage as an organizing practice for the institution of heterosexuality." I would claim that weddings may not just show a readiness to take on heterosexuality and its binaries of sex based roles, but weddings can also show the participants' desire to be part of that group even if it is to masquerade as part of that group or even society's desire to push heterosexuality through the importance of weddings. The plotlines of the Broadway Melody series use weddings as a way to force sexual normalcy on its characters, but the movies fail to keep up the facade of normalcy weddings imply. Tracing the series, I will show how the movies move from off-stage marriages to scenes that replicate wedding icons to fake weddings used for economic profit. By the end of the series the weddings ceremony no longer hold the same power in the storyline. The J. L. Austin's performative words of a wedding ceremony are exposed as a performance, and the on-stage performance becomes a purer display of emotions. Through this tracing I will follow the female's role to see how her sexuality and power in the storyline changes with the enforcement of marriage.

The Depression brings the construction of marriage to the forefront. The economic instability of the time had many people believing that women were taking jobs away from men. Many blamed female economic independence for the continued upheaval of the Depression. From this perspective women needed to be removed from the job force, and a means often used was marriage. A married woman had her husband to support her, and although this wasn't necessarily true during the Depression, the idea was that woman could depend on him as the sole breadwinner. Lesbians, of course should not be considered in a heterosexual marriage plan to control women, but the movies conflated the difference between the various types of women. In a musical, characters who could be perceived as lesbian could also be forced to marry because of the Production Code and its exclusion of "sex perversion." The code paralleled what was happening at large, as George Chauncey stated,

As the onset of the Depression dashed confidence of the 1920s, gay men and lesbians began to seem less amusing than dangerous. A powerful campaign to render gay men and lesbians invisible-to exclude them from the public sphere-quickly gained momentum.

A world in which lesbians could be rendered invisible or at least ignored as a true alternative, in that they to could be forced to marry if recognized at all, was a benefit to compulsory heterosexuality because the danger that Chauncey stated, is the triple threat of lesbianism Adrienne Rich stated in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." She perceived, "the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access." The possibility of lesbians slowly fade into the background of the Broadway Melody series as compulsory heterosexuality pushed on the plot in order to control female independence.


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by Abby Manzella, American Studies at the University of Virginia, Spring 2001