The Vapors! Swooning, Fainting Women in Film

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The ivory keys stop abruptly as the image of watching Kay Francis looks over in alarmed concern. Jean Muir dramatically passes out at the piano before she can finish her tune. This isn’t the only time nor the only reference to fainting in the PreCode gem, DR. MONICA (1934). Oh sure, Muir’s character Mary turns out to be pregnant. Francis’ character, Dr. Monica is the doctor that diagnosises her. The kicker is that Mary’s under some strain because the baby’s father John (Warren William) is Dr. Monica’s husband.

It got me to thinking. I’ve been stressed plenty in my day. I’ve been pregnant a couple of times. And while I’ve never dealt with Mary’s situation, I’ve never fainted a day in my life. I don’t know a singular example of any women in my life that has fainted. And yet, from watching classic films, it must happen all the time, often with the slightest strain or a shock.

You can see fainting and swooning in silent films and a plethora of classic films. I can’t think of many examples in modern film where this phenomena isn’t the rare scene. And when exactly did this change occur? Was this a reflection of a change in society? Did women truly faint all the time in in real life, even after those Victorian corsets loosed and fade from fashion? Or was this a stereotype only depicted in film?

You might observe that fainting seemed to transition away from celluloid as feminism came into play in society in the seventies. But a couple of interesting factors should be considered. Many PreCode films of the early 1930s as we can see in the before mentioned film, William Keighley/ William Dieterle’s DR. MONICA (1934), show women in more empowered roles like a female doctors and female pilots and yet they couldn’t seem to stop those darn fainting spells.

Then, fast forward to the ‘women’s lib movement’ of the 1970s. As the movies took on more realism, women seemed to be transitioning away from fainting for bell bottoms and car chases. But did the faux feminine stereotype of fainting fully disappear from the screen? My theory is that modern film replaced the markers of unrealistic fainting and swooning spells for unrealistic crying or hysteria in a continued image of the helpless woman.

Luckily, we’ve seen a few stand-outs of women since the seventies that are empowered and not likely to faint, swoon nor cry when the occasion hardly calls for it. Ripley in the ALIEN (1979+)series, Officer Marge Gunderson in FARGO (1996), and Agent Starling in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) come to mind. While I’ve seen a few (emphasis on few) female roles that exhibit physical strength, it still seems a daunting challenge to find a consistency of choice roles that realistically display the emotional fortitude and intelligence of women today. We’ve come a long way baby, but we’ve got a longer way to go…

Here are a few images of those fainting, swooning ladies:

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In MY MAN GODFREY, Carol Lombard makes fake fainting a habit

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Campy SciFi of the 1950s saw a surge of fainting damsels in creature shock

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Comments

  1. Good one, Kellee. But, at my house it’s my wife who doles out the smelling salts to get me back on my feet. 😉

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  2. Oh my, this was a fun read! I have to admit that I often get cases of the “vapors”. I once got a paper cut and I collapsed on the floor, so I can relate to all those women swooning in horror/mystery films. Even the stoutest female would swoon if a giant caterpillar ( the Monster that Challenged the World ) picked them up and would stare at them with those bug eyes!

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  3. This is hilarious. Great images. Outside of blood drives, you just don’t see it (and then it’s usually the men). I like this line: “My theory is that modern film replaced the markers of unrealistic fainting and swooning spells for unrealistic crying or hysteria in a continued image of the helpless woman.” It’s so true. How many tough women in modern rom-coms have some kind of regular emotional breakdown at work? At WORK?

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