While women have long been involved in music, their experiences differ significantly from their male counterparts, and thus the study women in music is essential in fully comprehending gender differences and gaining a more complete vision of the music industry in America. The variations in which women are portrayed through American popular music across history reflects society’s shifting perceptions of sex, domesticity, and femininity. The era of the Great Depression represents a significant cultural shift for women, where traditional gender roles become emphasized and women’s responsibilities increase while simultaneously marriage rates plummet and the gender ratio becomes skewed. These societal changes manifested themselves in the lyrics of popular music, where traditionally women had been portrayed as either the innocent and wholesome “virgin” archetype or the scandalous, lascivious “vixen.” Instead of this rather sexist, narrow, and unrepresentative duality, the portrayal of women in the 1930’s begins to evolve into more complex and sophisticated images of women as they began to receive more power and responsibility in society. The emergence of the rare “goddess” imagery, depicting an untouchable woman of incredible beauty, illustrates the incredible value that was placed on women and their traditional merits. This led to the more widespread notion of the “goddess of the hearth,” who was a more approachable and attainable woman suited for the needs of the husband. While the Great Depression was filled with uncertainty and unpredictability as a result of economic hardship and increasingly ambiguous gender roles, the reinforcement of classic familial values embodied by women in popular music attempted to console these fears. Consider the work of George and Ira Gershwin, who through their music epitomize the ideal roles of women and glorify their place in the home and in marriage. Their 1927 song “’S Wonderful” celebrates and idealizes committed partnership in marriage in saying,
“Don’t mind telling you, in my humble fash
That you thrill me through, with a tender pash,
When you said you care, ‘magine my emoshe
I swore then and there, permanent devosh,
You made all other men seem blah
Just you alone filled me with ahhhhhhhh……”
While technically written within the 1920’s, this song was celebrated throughout the Great Depression and onward as a reminder and re-emphasis of American values in a society that appeared to be rapidly replacing them. The effortlessness of of the “permanent” devotion as well as the humility mentioned, as well as undying passion, set up the woman to be an ideal image of perfection. Placing women and marriage on a pedestal and celebrating the “goddess of the hearth” in music altered society’s impression of women to revere them as almost godlike, resulting in a greater sphere of influence. Along with this notion of the female goddess that pervaded American popular music was the “seductress,” who was no stranger throughout the lyrics of previous eras. However, the 1930’s reports a decrease in sexual activity, resulting in a certain awkwardness in dealing with this archetype in the media. While the traditional homemaker was beloved, celebrated, and encouraged, a woman with heightened sexuality was not so easily accepted and was met with humor and irony to take the edge off such a controversial figure. Scheurer explains that, “…The portrayal of sex in the 1930’s reflects the cynicism born of confronting the hangover resulting from what Fitzgerald called “the big party.”” Not only were sexual women being met with comedy, but they were also being criticized to juxtapose against images of traditionalism, such as in Cole Porter’s 1930 song “Love for Sale.” The song is essentially an advertisement for a prostitute’s services to the audience, describing,
“If you want the thrill of love, she’s been through the mill of love
Old love, new love, every love
But true love for sale.”
While the song’s subject centers around a “loose woman,” its true meaning lies in the value of true love, something rare, priceless, and incomparable to the illusion that the subject is offering. The final image that emerged in 1930’s American popular music is the “golddigger.” The golddigger archetype builds off of the stereotype of the flapper girl, but is more evolved and takes on more masculine attributes, threatening male patriarchy and control. The golddigger embodies the “new woman” figure that emerged in the early teens of the twentieth century, being independent, smart, and altogether more aggressive in achieving her goals. This version of the golddigger is portrayed in the musical film, “The Golddiggers of 1933,” especially in the song “We’re in the Money.” The number depicts women literally wearing money, but moreover emphasizes women’s more substantial role in the economy as the primary purchasers, involved more readily in markets and more concerned with economic welfare.
Watch the number here
Within the context of the Great Depression, women’s close associations with money, as seen in this musical number, places women as the most desirable and respected members of society, being so closely integrated with such valuable and precious substances. Their sexuality and individual beauty is emphasized with the flashy outfits, representing an unattainable lifestyle in the midst of such economic turmoil and the lack of luxury pervading society.
While this depiction of women often acted as a threat to masculinity from the male perspective, the amplified complexity of the golddigger more fully humanized women than ever before. The archetype of the 1930’s golddigger, interestingly enough, has continued to represent strong, self-sufficient women in modern popular music, most notably in Kanye West’s aptly named song, “Gold Digger.” While the lyrics and themes of this song indulge in the idea of the Depression era golddigger and the surrounding fears, the music video features early twentieth century advertisement styles as well, showing a complete return to this classic archetype, and proving its long-lasting importance in American culture.
Stills from West’s music video, “Gold Digger.” (Warning: Explicit)
The popular music of the 1930’s offers the modern spectator and listener insight that only the passage of time is able to reveal, namely the significance of the portrayal of women and the consequences of their increased autonomy and power in a country caught the throes of most horrifying economic depression to date.