On Clara Bow and Hollywood’s Impossible Standards

"Natural Beauty" by Lauren Kolesinskas
“Natural Beauty” by Lauren Kolesinskas
Lauren is a Pratt graduate who lives in Brooklyn; she really enjoys drawing gooey things and hair / @lkolesin

When you think of a Hollywood celebrity, you probably have a particular image in mind. They tend to be tall, tan, and impeccably dressed. They’re told to be—and as a result, most of them are—very thin, and they always seem to be effortlessly happy and smiling.

Hollywood demands perfection. There’s so much pressure on female stars to be a certain size, and to look and act a certain way. Unfortunately, it seems like this has been a longstanding tradition—and one that doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

The Story Of Clara Bow

Clara Bow was a silent film star in the Jazz Age who escaped a hard childhood in Brooklyn with a Hollywood film contract. But that “escape” turned out to be anything but easy. Before landing a contract, she auditioned for years, constantly facing rejections because of her weight. Even when she was a star, making studios major money, the studio executives called her names and belittled her.

“I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!”

She didn’t fit in with Hollywood’s standards for personality for that time, either. She was from a working-class background, and had to put in a ton of work just to earn a bit of respect, while her actress peers tended to come at it with little to no effort. She was more at home with the crew than with her fellow actors.

Bow also didn’t conform to the façade of morality that Hollywood attempted to uphold in that era. Studios put morality clauses into actors’ contracts so that scandals wouldn’t tarnish their reputation and hurt their box office appeal. Hushed abortions were common, because starlets couldn’t be seen getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Bow refused a morality clause and wasn’t ashamed of where she spent her late nights. Other starlets were certainly doing the same things she was, but they just kept it hidden. Bow is quoted as saying, “I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!” Being unashamed and refusing to hide her love life, as well as staying true to her Brooklyn roots and personality, made her an instant outlier in Hollywood society.

The Present

Has Hollywood really changed since the Jazz Age? We’d probably like to think so. And sure, morality clauses aren’t a thing anymore and there isn’t nearly as much of a panic if an actress gets pregnant without being married. Social media has also made Hollywood more accessible than ever before, and it’s arguable that we know a bit more now about our favorite stars than when studios completely controlled an actor’s image.

How long will it be before Hollywood starts pushing images of normal people in the media without it being a spectacle?

However, the idea of acceptance still seems to be very much the same. Only certain people are truly accepted in Hollywood. In today’s increasingly progressive society, Hollywood has also found a way to feign acceptance and open-mindedness while still resorting to its old tricks. For example, instead of being pushed out of movies and struggling to get parts, plus-sized actresses are now hired but cast in stereotypical roles.

In most of the movies they’re in, they seem to portray one of three typical archetypes: the funny one, the villain or the woman who blatantly hates herself for being fat.

It’s not entirely surprising that Hollywood continues to sell unrealistic body standards to women when, as recent events have proven, so many men in Hollywood abuse their power by acting in inappropriate and often abusive ways. In short, it seems that while morality clauses and overt weight discrimination may be a thing of the past, Hollywood is still dealing with a lot of the same old pressures and dynamics.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same in Hollywood

While Hollywood may like to act like it’s very progressive, it actually continues to sell unrealistic beauty standards to women—now they just come in a different and seemingly easier-to-swallow pill. Hollywood pretends to accept a diverse group of women, but the roles for plus-sized women and women of color just aren’t there.

So the wrap-up? Not that much has actually changed since the Jazz Age. Actresses are still expected to look and act a certain way and problematic power dynamics between studio executives and actresses definitely still exist. But how long will it be before there’s some actual change—before Hollywood starts pushing images of normal people in the media without it being some kind of commodity or spectacle? And before the entertainment industry starts taking responsibility for the abuses against women it has continued to allow.