Women Who Say ‘I’: Courtesans, Actresses, and a #metoo Movement That Spans Millennia


Kamlabai Gokhale, one of the first Indian women to appear on screen   Photo: courtesy of Caravan magazine


In 1991, Indian feminist filmmaker Reena Mohan produced a little-known documentary called Kamlabai. The film chronicled the remarkable life of one of the first Indian film actresses, Kamlabai Gokhale – one that began with the dizzyingly modern new twentieth century, marked by class considerations, and rather shockingly included drag and a cross-dressing marriage. Most would be surprised to learn that appearing on-screen in the new medium of cinema in India was initially so disreputable that men were required to play women’s roles. It was Durgabai Kamat, Gokhale’s mother, who broke this stigma for the very first time in 1913.

With this film, Mohan accomplished two things more relevant than ever in light of the global #metoo movement of the last year. Firstly, she managed to get a remarkable woman’s history into the film historical archive. In managing to interview the elderly Gokhale the year before she died, Mohan also ensured that the actress’ experience of life as a woman in the earliest years of the film industry was not erased with her death. But more questions remain than answers. Why isn’t this film more famous, more studied? Why are the details of Kamlabai’s life still conflicting on the internet, even today? And most importantly, what has become of all the stories of the other Kamlabais in other countries, already lost for good?

In terms of women’s film history, the case of Kamlabai reminds us that there is both a scholarly and an ethical imperative to turning the #metoo conversation to the historical. One of the major points I have tried to drive home this year in my own work as a feminist film and cultural historian is that #metoo doesn’t begin with Harvey Weinstein in 2017 at all, or even with Tarana Burke’s coining of the phrase outside of film circles ten years prior. In fact, it should be a lead-in to excavation that traces back much further in film history, through golden ages and silent screens. Neither can #metoo be classified as only a Hollywood-centric imperative, to gain a historical understanding of how women have been treated in film industries, but a global one. How did casting couches work differently across borders? What became of women who stood up against financial, sexual, and professional mistreatment from industry to industry?

So #metoo is not and should not be synonymous with American Hollywood. Accepted. Also, #metoo is not contemporary but also should reframe how we look at all women in cinema, from stars to extras back to the earliest decade of the twentieth century. Still with me? Good. But now please indulge by following me into an even deeper historian’s dive. To understand #metoo, and create a scholarly body of evidence that supports it, why start – or rather stop – with the birth of cinema at all? Why should we draw an artificial bright line between the cinematic actress who grew into what we understand as the modern star, and the pre-cinematic theatrical actress, dancer, showgirl, artist’s model, courtesan, and all the permutations blurred therein for centuries?


Kamlabai Gokhale


The actress in culture doesn’t begin with cinema, but rather moves into cinema taking all the archetypal prejudices of centuries with her. Simone de Beauvoir understood this, including a chapter entitled “The Actress” as a pan-historical and pan-global category in her magnum opus on women and culture, The Second Sex. Within the work, de Beauvoir crucially unlocked what we might call the largest paradox of the actress in any given society. She is a woman who gains bodily freedom accessible to few women in male-controlled culture. And yet, the actress is still subject to the worst kinds of sexual and labour exploitation, and to a life of poverty and misery if people lose interest, or her career ends through aging.

We must remember that the concept of the actress as a woman at the peak of aspirational glamour is an extremely modern one, made possible by a shift in class understandings and respectability standards and exported from American Hollywood. Throughout human history and across cultures, actresses were, definitionally, beyond the pale. For thousands of years, performing women fell in with courtesans, prostitutes, mystics, and women scholars – women who left their families, didn’t marry, didn’t bear children, who traveled around, who were inherent outsiders. Women who didn’t fit, who, as historian Ute Frevert has put it, said “I” – and thus were non-conforming and dangerous.

Luce Irigaray has theorized all of society as predicated on the exchange and commodification of women, who have always been divided into use-value and exchange-value depending upon their classification as mother, virgin, or prostitute. The actress fascinates as a woman who at times may straddle all three, and do so on the public market. As long as women have been performing, from demimondaine 19th-century France to Restoration England, from 18th-century Russia and its serf theatre to opera troupes in ancient China, and from devadasis in India to haeteras in Rome, they have faced the same underlying reality: the treatment of women in a business where being a visible woman was conflated with having a body for sale to be traded around and owned by men. In every one of the above-mentioned cultures, actresses, by virtue of being paradoxes, prized for beauty and yet reviled for non-traditional public life and bodies on display, have faced the same concerns and the same exploitations and mistreatments.

The re-reckoning with women’s realities in history is an ethical and political ethos, but it is not only that. When it comes to the gender organization and inequities in global culture, Faulkner’s famed axiom, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is inescapable. To contextualize #metoo, and even women in modern culture at all, we have to go back to the beginning, to the global and the ancient. As historians trying to correct the historical record for what life has been like for women in culture, we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of today, or the era of silent film, or Hollywood, Hong Kong, or Bollywood cinema. We should be mining all of women’s performance history for its #metoo revelations.

We cannot go back and interview the maenads of ancient Greece or the abhinetriyon of medieval India on their roles and treatment in society. We can’t talk with a Russian serf actress or a Parisian courtesan of the fin de siècle about sexual assault or economic precarity. But we can start with doing interviews, writing articles, and making documentaries about women like Kamlabai before they are gone.





Kerry McElroy is a feminist film historian, freelance writer, and doctoral candidate at Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis, entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focuses on the actress as working-class subject and includes fieldwork interviews she conducted with women in Hollywood across professions. She currently has an eight-part series running through 2018 in The Independent magazine on the economic history of women in Hollywood. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.