It’s been several years since I sat down and watched the classic film The Philadelphia Story which is routinely considered one of the best American films ever made and one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It was broadcast as a tribute to Katharine Hepburn who would have been one hundred on the 12th May so I thought I would sit down and see if this film was really as anti-women as I remembered.
And it is.
First of all, I am a big fan of films from the thirties and forties and among my favourite actors are Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and secondly, I know "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" but if this film was as racist as it is sexist then what would the consensus be? Appreciations for Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are always prefaced with apologies for their racist content so where are they for this?
The key moments in the film’s sexism include:
- the opening scene when Dexter thinks better of punching Tracy but simply shoves her roughly to the ground
- the quite stomach clenching scene when Tracy’s father explains why a man philanders which is a combination of a fear of growing older and of not having a loving daughter to give the illusion of youth. “A devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his…because, without her, he might be inclined to go in search of his youth. That's just as important to him as it is to any woman. But with a girl of his own, full of warmth for him, full of foolish, unquestioning, uncritical affection” Naturally, if this view was challenged or refuted then it wouldn’t be so hideous but it isn’t and by the end Tracy reconciles without further reference to his words.
- “Because you'll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you've learned to have regard for human frailty.” Did you know that being a human and a woman are mutually exclusive?
- Dexter blaming Tracy for his drink problem or at least for making it worse because she was frigid (and that apparently is her problem: her frigidity both emotionally and sexually) “When I discovered that my relationship to her was supposed to be not that of a loving husband and a good companion but…that of a kind of high priest to a virgin goddess. Then my drinks grew deeper and more frequent.” Once again, Tracy is the one with problems, problems spelled out in humiliating ways while the men’s problems do exist but aren’t addressed at all. And, the undercurrent here is that having sex is the equivalent of love and companionship.
- finally, Tracy decides to re-marry Dexter who she has shown no sign of being attracted to: what a lovely happy ending, re-marry the man whose final words to you at the end of your marriage were spoken in the form of violence.
There is a rather better written review from Eclectica magazine by Thomas J. Hubschman which echoes my thoughts.
In addition, the views on class are rather interesting too with the working class character portrayed as a narrow-minded oaf.