Assertive Fictions: Arguments and Audiences of the Postwar Social Problem Film, 1944-1954

Date of Award

December 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Steven Cohan

Second Advisor

Roger Hallas


message movie, social problem film

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation gives needed attention to the public function of the social problem film that has been missing in much of the earlier scholarship on the genre. Focused on films which examine topics of wide concern in the years following World War II, the dissertation argues that social problem films function as "assertive fictions" to make claims about the extrafilmic world to diverse audiences, who in turn recognize these assertions at work in the films and respond to them in active, engaged ways. After a theoretical introduction discussing the stakes of treating social problem films as assertive fictions, each chapter examines a different cycle within the genre.

The first chapter examines films about returning World War II veterans, arguing that such films made a variety of assertions about the way in which veterans could reintegrate into society after the war, about the origins of mental illness in veterans, and about how the disabled could adapt to the physical and social world. The second chapter turns to examine the relationship of semidocumentary detective films to discourses of scientific policing, public health, and urban planning in the postwar period, arguing that such films draw upon a "rhetoric of generalizable specificity" in order to make claims of broad applicability through the individuating medium of narrative cinema. Chapter three looks at reception practices of "race problem" films in the African American press, finding a variety of sophisticated practices for engaging with social problem films and contesting their arguments employed by writers in the press. Chapter four focuses on the reception of labor films Salt of the Earth and On the Waterfront in Communist periodicals, demonstrating the way in which a particular set of concepts emerged over time in critical writing in the press and came to be applied to the films.


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