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Musical clues to the truth about female sleuths

25 September 2012 Huddersfield, The University of

By analysing the soundtracks of 1940s film noir thrillers, musicologist Dr Catherine Haworth, of the University of Huddersfield, can track changing attitudes to women - moving away from the classic femme fatale and love interest to the independent female sleuth and action heroine

The film noir genre of the 1940s is mostly celebrated for its stark imagery of mean streets and luridly-lit boulevards. But for a researcher at the University of Huddersfield, the soundtrack is just as revealing as the visuals.

In particular, the music that provides a backdrop to crime thrillers of the period provides a great deal of information about attitudes towards women as they became less passive and more likely to play an active role when there was a mystery to be solved. The female sleuths and cops that are familiar to modern film and TV audiences can be traced to the 1940s, argues Dr Catherine Haworth.

A musician by training, she conducted doctoral research into the soundtracks of RKO Radio Pictures of the 1940s and what they revealed about female characters and broader visions of women in society.

Stereotypes such as exotic music to accompany a femme fatale, commenting on her sexuality and morality, were still common. But a new picture began to emerge...

“My research shows that things were a bit more flexible than we thought,” said Dr Haworth. “There were lots of negative, stereotypical processes, but women frequently display more agency than we have previously allowed for. Music can emphasise or act out elements of character construction and it can demonstrate a broadening out of the roles that we tend to associate with female characters”.

Dr Haworth’s latest article – which will appear in leading journal “Music & Letters” – deals with female characters in 1940s movies who turn detective. Case studies include “Two O’Clock Courage”, with Anne Rutherford, “Deadline at Dawn”, starring Susan Hayward, and “The Big Steal” with Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum.

“Music highlights the women’s role as detective as well as their role as a love interest. The way the soundtrack interacts with other elements of narrative emphasises these women as suspenseful and influential characters as well as their more cliched positioning as wives or girlfriends,” said Dr Haworth.

A Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield, she is a member of its Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity. With the Centre’s Director, Dr Lisa Colton, she is co-organiser of an international conference taking part at the University (October 6-7) named “Gender, Musical Creativity and Age”.

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