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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Kerry McElroy, Humanities

Class Acts: A Sociocultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood

Date & time
Wednesday, January 27, 2021 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This project takes a gender-specific and sociological approach to the figure of the actress in Hollywood. Steeped in interdisciplinarity, it draws on cultural history, sociology, anthropology, performance studies, psychology, and feminist theory. The overall purpose is to examine Hollywood as a classed sociocultural system based on labor and sexual exploitation. The project begins with a survey of class within American culture, querying its place in the American Dream and in westward migration. From such a vantage point, the study asserts that women functioned as second-class citizens within the economic and social structure of the studios. The star system, which reflects Hollywood's hierarchical, male-centred organization, offered many actresses aspirational careers through the illusion of glamour, while in reality offering them ephemeral careers and exploitative labour conditions. Within such a conceptualisation of women as a class, the mistreatments of women who were star actresses are spotlighted, while also clearly situating them upon a continuum of misogyny and precarity with women screenwriters, extras, and other employees. The project depends heavily on primary sources and includes testimonies from actresses and other women in Hollywood, especially found in memoirs and interviews. Such first-person accounts bolster the argument that within classical Hollywood, glamour and publicity served as twin cudgels of industrial and social control, working under management corruption, criminality, and sexual abuse. Within this context, the studios established an authoritarian and dehumanised working space for women, obscured by star discourse and publicity, and prone to all manner of abuse, exploitation, and disappearance. Finally, the project closes by raising questions of ethical imperatives towards historiographic justice, asserting that if the change sought by MeToo/Time's Up since 2017 is to solidify, the precise historical roots of today's system must be reckoned with first.

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