How do British films made during the Second World War reflect contemporary attitudes to gender?


The term ‘gender’ is a social, cultural, and psychological construct which attributes specific traits and behaviours as being either male or female.[1] The films produced during the Second World War (1939-1945), in what Aldgate and Richards label the ‘Golden Age’ of film tend to focus on the home front, as opposed to the frontline, which emphasises the period’s gender ideals and domestic concerns.[2] The anomaly in this essay is In Which We Serve (1942) which predominantly features an active Naval Service, therefore I will firstly explore how this film reflects the contemporary view of the battlefield being considered a male-only space, whilst their female relations are expected to maintain their supporting roles as wives and mothers at home. I will secondly examine how the films Millions Like Us (1943) and The Gentle Sex (1943), both commissioned by the Ministry of Information as a propaganda attempt to recruit more women into factory work and the ATS respectively, reflect changing in attitudes towards women’s participation in the war effort.[3] Finally, I will consider how the inclusion of women into a previously male dominated sphere sparked fear of continued gender dislocation and examine how This Happy Breed (1944), set during the interwar period, reassured men that women would resume their stereotypical feminine roles, just as they had done after the previous war.[4] My essay therefore takes the stance that the depiction of gender in films during the Second World War is a reflection of the contemporary population’s changing experiences which simultaneously portrayed and evoked both public and political concerns about masculinity and femininity.[5]

Main Text

Gender ideals dominated the first half of the twentieth century; this is particularly evident during the war period as defending the nation was viewed to be a man’s prerogative. On the other hand, women merely provided emotional support to their male counterparts.[6] In Which We Serve reflects these gender stereotypes by predominantly focusing on an active Naval troop who come extremely close to the strikes of aerial bombers on several occasions.[7] The production of a Naval-based film reflected Churchill’s desire to advertise the Service’s achievements as protectors of the nation and their womenfolk, highlighting their professionalism and bravery which were characteristics exclusively attributed to strong men.[8] Similarly, the film’s director, Noël Coward, believed civilians to be in debt to ‘these extraordinary men’ who defended the nation’s ‘pride and honour’.[9] This is a clear example of two influential individual’s respect towards the masculine Services which ultimately led to the creation of In Which We Serve. The film highlights warfare as being an exclusively male arena through the use of flashback scenes. Through dialogue between Walter and his wife, Cathy, it is clear that women are resentful at the prospect of a second war. This ide appears in the film on more than one occasion with the Blake’s Christmas dinner conversations lending themselves to reminiscing over their previous wartime experiences and show enthusiasm to get back on the front line, much to Mrs Blake’s disapproval at the topic of conversation. Furthermore, Walter’s mother in law states that ‘men must work, women must wait’, which highlights women’s lack of involvement in the war and supposes their lack of interest in in the Services. The accuracy of the depiction of women in this dismissive light is questionable however, as Coward is writing and directing from a male point of view and wishes to highlight masculinity which inevitably degrades the significance of women’s role.[10] The same attitude is conveyed in This Happy Breed, which shows conversations occurring between husband and wife regarding war, with Mrs Gibbons concluding that there will always be wars ‘so long as men are fools to want to go to them’.[11] The portrayal of war in such a gender exclusive way, although contextually correct for the interwar period, appears unappreciative of, and counterproductive to women’s contribution to the current war effort. Furthermore, This Happy Breed shows the exclusion of women from war to extend into peacetime as Mr Gibbons is so engrossed in discussing past military experiences with fellow Serviceman Bob Mitchell, that he forgets to introduce his wife.[12] Instead, women were believed to continue as housewives, keeping the home and garden pristine for their husband’s return; this strong view is taken to the extreme in In Which We Serve as Cathy’s refusal to evacuate, or leave the house during an air raid results in her tragic death. Even Millions Like Us, a film which was intended to persuade women to enter wartime factory work, begins with Celia and Phyllis’s father stating his desire for his daughters to stay at home and take care of him in their family household.[13] However, the later production of films focusing on mobilised women (young, single women free of dependents) shows how attitudes towards women changed as the need for the female body ‘in a war factory or uniform’ became evident to contemporary society.[14]

The political agenda of the period influenced the way in which women were portrayed on-screen during the war, largely contradicting the consistent sense of female fragility depicted in In Which We Serve. Towards the end of 1940, Ernest Bevin began to realise the urgency for female employment as the increased conscription of men was drawing mannual workers from industries producing munitions.[15] After Bevin’s 1941 appeal failed to raise 100,000 female volunteers, the government considered propaganda films to be an efficient recruitment method as the Wartime Society Survey of 1943 discovered 67% of cinema enthusiasts (attending at least once per week) were female, and 70% of these were under 50; therefore the target audience of mobile women would be reached.[16] Whilst the Ministry of Information (MOI) were not initially inclined to give women address in feature films, it was now necessary for them to address women as part of a national community serving war interests.[17] It was under these conditions that the MOI asked directors, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, to produce Millions of Us and represent the female experience in their transition from domesticity to manual factory work.[18] The film shows employment to be an enjoyable experience for women by creating a strong community feeling. The audience are particularly made feel this by the end of the film when all the women are gathered to sing as one large sisterhood, providing a vast support network to those who have lost their husbands, like Celia.[19] Given the circumstances under which this film was produced, perhaps this scene was selected for the ending of the film buy its directors in order to create a memorable impression to the female audience that factory employment came with social benefits, which would ultimately boost their morale during a period of worry and grief; thus enticing women to sign up for war work. Difficulties regarding recruitment was also the reason behind another MOI commissioned project: The Gentle Sex.[20] The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) suffered low numbers due to women considering it inferior to both the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), just as factory work was considered to be considered inferior to the Services due to its lack of uniform. This view is also touched on at the beginning of Millions Like Us when Celia romantically fantasises about various uniformed roles, such as nursing, bringing her into contact with handsome young men, before finding out she can only join the ATS if she is willing to cook.[21] The Gentle Sex aimed to combat women’s resentment to join the ATS by dedicating a lengthy scene to the newly recruited women collecting their uniforms, crediting the role with professionalism and thus respect, putting the ATS in the same league as the WAAF and the WRNS.[22] In addition to the issue of uniform and status, both of these films present the ‘deglamorization of the national heroine’ in a positive light as getting dirty was potentially another obstacle to recruitment.[23] Mr Forbes in Millions Like Us directly states that this work will lack in glamour, but reinforces the fact that these women are ‘indispensable’ in the factory.[24] The Gentle Sex highlights the transition of delicate women, who once required assistance getting down from a truck, into hardened workers; several scenes were dedicated to showing off newly learned skills in car mechanics, as a grubby Anne pops out from underneath, and truck driving which were occupations previously attributed to men.[25] Showing women successfully conduct these tasks would have been considered exceptional for the time, shocking the male audiences.[26] The film portrayed these women as being capable of such ‘masculine’ tasks to encourage women who had not yet joined the services to believe that they could be just as good – if not better, than men. This shows that women had as much duty to work for the survival of their country and is emphasised towards the end of the film as the women work together to assist in the taking down of a German bomber.[27] Whether either Millions Like Us or The Gentle Sex can be considered successful recruitment campaigns, despite their intentions, is questionable due to the crisis for labour being over with the mobilisation of women having reached it’s peak in in 1943; by the middle of 1944 women were beginning to be laid off.[28] Nevertheless, the recognition of women in action is commended in the film as the soldiers the group of women come into contact with, reluctantly state that ‘without the women we couldn’t carry on at all’, praising their efforts.[29] Ernest Betts of the Daily Express also stated that The Gentle Sex had given men a new respect for women at war.[30] Across the war period, 470,000 young women joined the three Armed Forces, with thousands more joining the ATS and Land Army; uniform had given women a stepping stone towards emancipation.[31] Young, single women were suddenly required by law to not be at home, freeing them from the societal expectations of motherhood.[32]

Whilst the use of women as active protagonists in these films rightly reflect the widespread recognition of the importance of women’s work in the absence of men, this new concept of female productivity stirred concerns in men, that women, having tasted independence and moved into previously male-dominated spaces, would be hungry for more and cause post-war social and gender dislocation.[33] Film could be partially at fault for creating this fear, as the narrator of The Gentle Sex states: ‘men must work, women must weep, or at least that used to be the idea’, which implies that women are now equal, if not superior to men, having conducted this extraordinary war-work.[34] Even traditional Historians, such as Arthur Marwick considered women entering work as a step towards an enhanced status which would continue to inspire women’s independence and self-confidence.[35] Films therefore, needed not only to recruit women, but reassure men that they would be able to return to their work and social positions in society once the war had been won, as changes in the female experience were challenging men’s understanding of themselves.[36] Millions Like Us perfectly addresses this conflict by encouraging women to enlist in factory work whilst still maintaining the portrayal women’s femininity by emphasising beauty routines such as painting toenails and continuing women’s concern for appearance despite being in a factory setting; This separates them from men who do not take part in these rituals.[37] The inclusion of cosmetics in this film highlight the concerns the war office had of losing the physical definition of femininity.[38] Whilst cosmetics are usually defined as a luxury product, the government had refused to stop the production of cosmetics during the war, as they were considered to be too central to femininity. Face powders were especially reserved for female munitions factory workers as this was considered to boost male morale, either by presenting them with attractive women or through preserving the status quo as much as was possible when women were starting to wear their uniform, do their jobs and take on a more masculine appearance.[39] Women’s femininity is also highlighted in The Gentle Sex which features women spending time in front of the mirror collecting their hair into intricate updos and headscarves, with one of the women stating that it would ‘take more than a war for me to stop combing my hair’.[40] The inclusion of these small detail of women’s lives within films about female conscription, reassures men – and women, that women ‘don’t stop being women because they have started work in a factory’, as pointed out by J.B Priestly.[41] The inclusion of dances in both Millions Like Us and The Gentle Sex reiterates Priestly’s statement, as dance halls were an ‘arena for fashion’, giving young girls the opportunity to dress up, style their hair and wear jewellery to highlight their femininity and attract male suitors.[42] Whilst the dance scene in The Gentle Sex has the ATS in uniform, Anne comments ‘I wish we were wearing evening dress’ instead, reassuring men that women were in no rush to permanently abandon their glamourous lifestyle – a point which is particularly strengthened by this scene’s placement which succeeds the one of Anne conducting mechanics under a truck.[43] This Happy Breed uses a similar structure to show that women’s ‘emancipation’ was only considered temporary, by allowing the young Queenie to ‘flirt with change’ by rejecting the prescribed female household duties, criticising women’s wellbeing depending on ‘a man living or dying’; in the end however, Queenie does settle for the ‘tried and true’ by marrying Billy.[44] Whilst this film is set during the interwar period, this can be considered as reassurance that the status quo will be returned to post-war, just as it had been after the Great War.[45] With hindsight, this need not have been a concern immediately post-war, as the high marriage rate of 1945 and the baby boom of 1947 implies that women’s main aim was to go home and start a family rather than push for permanent employment; this was further indicated by the drop of two million females from the workforce in 1947.[46]


In conclusion, films created during the Second World War aimed to show the audience how each gender was expected to behave during a period of crisis either through depicting the maintenance of gender stereotyped behaviours, or by highlighting the necessity for these to be temporarily broken by women for the sake of national duty. The emphasis here being the notion of impermanence, as all four of the films referred to in this essay, regardless of their intention to recruit women into munitions factories or the ATS, continue to preserve key aspects of femininity such as the use of cosmetics, in response to men’s fear of women’s changing status implicating masculinity. Whilst filmmakers were forced to acknowledge the importance of women’s contribution to the war effort and encourage more women to enlist in the services and factory work, there was still a clear divide shown between the male soldier and the female non-combatant so as not to completely defy gender stereotypes. Ultimately, the depiction of gender across these films is simultaneously by a reluctance for change in public opinion, and a political need to recruit every able body regardless of their gender, creating contradictions which filmmakers were challenged with balancing so as not to offend either sex.




Aldgate, Anthony, and Richards, Jeffrey. Britain Can Take It (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007).

Chapman, James. The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-45 (London: I.B.Tauris).

Gledhill, Christine and Swanson, Gillian eds. Nationalising Femininity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).

Holtzman, Linda, and Sharpe, Leon. Media Messages (New York: Routledge, 2015).

Lant, Antonia. Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991).

MacKenzie, S.P. British War Films 1939-1945: The Cinema and The Services (Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Pugh, Martin. State and Society: A Social and Political History of Britain Since 1870 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

Reeves, Nicholas. The Power of Film Propaganda (Continuum International Publishing, 2004).

Summerfield, Penny. ‘Gender and War in the Twentieth Century’, The International History Review, Vol. 19, Issue 1 (1997).

Summerfield, Penny. Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).


In Which We Serve, dir. Noël Coward and David Lean (British Lion Film, UK, 1942) [DVD].

Millions Like Us, dir. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (Gainsborough Pictures, 1943) [DVD].

The Gentle Sex, dir. Leslie Howard (General Film Distributors, UK, 1943) [DVD].

This Happy Breed, dir. David Lean (Eagle-Lion Distributors Limited, UK, 1944) [DVD].

[1] Linda Holtzman and Leon Sharpe, Media Messages (New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 68, pp.92-3.

[2] Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take It (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007) p.3; Nationalising Femininity, ed. by Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p.5.

[3]Antonia Lant, in Nationalising Femininity, p.15; Antonia Lant, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), p.63.

[4] This Happy Breed, dir. David Lean (Eagle-Lion Distributors Limited, UK, 1944) [DVD].

[5] Aldgate and Richards, p.12.

[6] Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p.122.

[7] In Which We Serve, dir. Noël Coward and David Lean (British Lion Film, UK, 1942) [DVD].

[8] S.P. MacKenzie, British War Films 1939-1945: The Cinema and The Services (Hambledon Continuum, 2006), p.63, p.67, p.69.

[9] Aldgate and Richards, p.193.

[10] In Which We Serve.

[11] This Happy Breed.

[12] This Happy Breed.

[13] Millions Like Us, dir. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (Gainsborough Pictures, 1943) [DVD].

[14] James Chapman, The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda 1939-45 (London: I.B.Tauris), p.201.

[15] Lant, in Nationalising Femininity, p.15; Summerfield, Reconstructing, p.118.

[16] Aldgate and Richards, p.299.

[17] Gledhill and Swanson, p.4; Sue Harper in Nationalising Femininity, p.194.

[18] Lant, in Nationalising Femininity, p.15.

[19] Millions Like Us.

[20] Lant, Blackout, p.63.

[21] Millions Like Us; MacKenzie, p.111.

[22] The Gentle Sex, dir. Leslie Howard (General Film Distributors, UK, 1943) [DVD]

[23] Lant, Blackout, p.60.

[24] Millions Like Us.

[25] The Gentle Sex.

[26] Summerfield, Reconstructing, p.78.

[27] Summerfield, Reconstructing, p.135; Penny Summerfield, ‘Gender and War in the Twentieth Century’, The International History Review, Vol. 19, Issue 1 (1997), p.13.

[28] Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda (Continuum International Publishing, 2004), p.180.

[29] The Gentle Sex.

[30] MacKenzie p.113.

[31] Martin Pugh, State and Society: A Social and Political History of Britain Since 1870 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), p.258.

[32] Lant, Blackout, p.113; Summerfield, Reconstructing, p.80.

[33] Reeves, p.177.

[34] The Gentle Sex.

[35] Aldgate and Richards, p.311-12.

[36] Lant, Blackout, p.61, p.110-111.

[37] Millions Like Us.

[38] Lant, in Nationalising Femininity, p.22.

[39] Pat Kirkham, in Nationalising Femininity, p.161; Lant, Blackout, p.69.

[40] The Gentle Sex.

[41] Summerfield, in Nationalising Femininity, p.43.

[42] Millions Like Us; The Gentle Sex; Pat Kirkham, in Nationalising Femininity, p.168.

[43] The Gentle Sex.

[44] This Happy Breed.

[45] Aldgate and Richards, p.211.

[46] Summerfield, in Nationalising Femininity, p.48; Aldgate and Richards, pp.311-12.

One thought on “How do British films made during the Second World War reflect contemporary attitudes to gender?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: