Monday, October 09, 2006

Essay for Adolescent Fiction - done, yay!

Fast-talking Dames and Beautiful Blondes: the representation of women in romantic comedy.

When a woman appears on screen, what the audience sees is not a woman in front of them but the representation of a woman. A series of choices have been consciously made as to how she will be filmed, for instance what camera angles will be used, what her appearance will be and what dialogue she will speak. Her portrayal in the film may depict the desired role of women in society, as perceived by the director or studio producers, or it may present an alternative image of femininity. Traditionally, ‘acceptable’ femininity has been portrayed by women who are passive, obedient, nurturing and who take care of their appearance; these are women who are wives, mothers and who receive desire rather than acting on their own.[1] In romantic comedy, however, gender roles are often playfully inverted enabling these films to explore the idea of confident, intelligent, active and sexually aware women.[2] On the other hand, the women in these films are considered atypical and the ideological threat that they represent is normally ‘contained’ by the films having a conservative ending that restores the gender balance.[3] Most commonly, the films uphold the values of society, by ending with a wedding, or the hope of a wedding.[4] They thus reaffirm one of the most traditional Western institutions and they imply that the woman, by becoming a wife, has been returned to the restrictive world of submissive domesticity.[5] As society changes, increasing numbers of feminist film critics are questioning whether the representation of women in film has altered or improved.[6] In examining modern representations of femininity, for instance in the adolescent films 10 Things I Hate About You or Legally Blonde, it is worth considering whether the images of women presented in earlier romantic comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, are as conservative as they appear at first glance.[7]

During the 1930s Hollywood introduced a new kind of woman to American audiences, the ‘fast-talking dames’ of screwball [romantic] comedy.[8] These films combined the verbal repartee that the advent of sound allowed, with the physical slapstick popular in the silent films of the 1920s.[9] These films paired strong female protagonists with weak male partners; the normal gendered power dynamics were reversed and this generated part of these films’ pleasure and comedic value for audiences.[10] The charm of these heroines, like Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance in Bringing up Baby (1938), was their polysemous nature; they both endorsed conservative values of femininity and they questioned whether all of these were truly desirable.[11] Susan, in Bringing Up Baby, in some ways, portrays an ideal woman: she doesn’t work; she is nurturing; she is associated with childrearing, with her leopard, named Baby, symbolically representing the live child she can give David; and she wants to marry him. Susan’s free-spirited vibrancy, however, consistently resists restriction by conventionality and this is part of her appeal. For instance, Susan steals David’s golf ball, and his car, and then proceeds to lecture him on his use of the possessive pronoun when he rebukes her. The ball and the car are his but Susan’s word play illuminates the narcissism underlying his focus on ownership; although Susan will also become his at the end of the film it will be as a willing companion not as an objectified possession.[12] Susan’s active pursuit of David, as the object of her sexual choice, sets her apart from the passivity expected of women, as do her confident sexuality, vitality, spontaneity and sense of play but these prove to be positive qualities.[13] By teaching David to embrace the vitality of her worldview she saves him from the deadening sterility of his museum work displayed in the film’s opening scene.[14] Susan’s confidence and determination throughout Bringing Up Baby work to undermine the conservative elements of the film; the ending is not one forced upon her but one that she has actively brought about on her own terms.

The fast-paced wit of Hepburn’s Susan is strongly contrasted by the languid sensuality of Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), but the two heroines have a great deal in common. Both of them are used to take familiar concepts associated with a patriarchally defined femininity and examine them in a new light. Wes Gehring argues that the promise of marriage that usually ends screwball romantic comedies detracts from the strength of the female protagonist and that these endings reassert a “man-above-woman world order.”[15] Susan, in Bringing Up Baby, however, shows that marriage can be about partnership rather than dominance. She endues David with her energetic sense of play and he offers her his stability, most notably at the end when he saves her from falling. At the end of the film Susan has not changed whereas David significantly has; the power of Susan’s confidence is to force the world to change around her.[16] In Gentleman Prefer Blondes, although Lorelei’s marital status alters she remains unabashedly the same; instead, she forces others, such as Mr Esmonde Sr., to alter their view of women to agree with her perspective.

The opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ indulgence in opulent sensuality would, at first, seem to support Laura Mulvey’s feminist criticism of film. Mulvey argues that narrative cinema favours masculine pleasure by objectifying women and determining them as the passive receivers of the desiring male gaze.[17] Monroe’s Lorelei and Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw in their colour saturated red sequin dresses certainly offer an erotic spectacle that unifies the gaze of its diegetic and extra-diegetic male audiences.[18] The film, however, is ambivalent as to whether this male gaze is something to be condemned. Maria Pini recorded interviews in 1997 and 2001 where numerous young women spoke about the pleasure they took in cultivating a particularly sexualised appearance for clubbing. They emphasised that this did not represent a sexual invitation but rather was geared to their own pleasure at being looked at.[19] Similarly, Dorothy and Lorelei take pleasure in their attractiveness to men; the looks they receive add to their sense of empowerment. When they first attend dinner on the liner, the camera pulls back to a long-shot that shows they are controlling the space around them. They are aware of and invite the male gaze but they are simultaneously looking back.[20] This sense of self-awareness and of control is also present in the film’s ending. The film’s narrative indicates that Lorelei is aware that the capitalist society she lives in is designed to allow men, rather than women, to work and grow rich.[21] Lorelei uses her beauty and vocal talents to support herself but sees marriage as an alternative economic contract where she exchanges her beauty for male wealth. Although not a romantic idea, it was in part a realistic assessment of the opportunities available to women at the time; the validity of her economic understanding is seen in her convincing the pragmatic Mr Esmond Sr. to accept her worldview and allow her to marry his son.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was pragmatically aware that there was a gender imbalance in economic power present in society; however, Lorelei addresses this in the film by defending her right to capitalize upon the assets she has, her good looks. Lorelei, like Susan, represents a mix of traditional feminine values; her attention to her appearance and desire to marry appear conservative but the film portrays her as knowingly using these to her advantage and confidently asserting herself within a patriarchal society.[22] The world has moved on since Marilyn Monroe, there are new employment opportunities for women and the 1990s was a decade that recalled the height of feminism as the media filled with images and sounds promoting female empowerment.[23] Tizzy Asher and other feminist critics, however, argue that the fundamentals have not changed; women still live in a culture of heterosexual, patriarchal privilege that attempts to enforce traditional ideas of acceptable femininity.[24] The tension between conservative and revisionist representations of women in film has, therefore, continued although the setting has shifted to include the burgeoning youth market.

As the world’s population has, demographically, grown increasingly younger, Hollywood has increasingly sought to cultivate this potentially lucrative market.[25] In 1999, 10 Things I Hate About You brought Kat Stratford, played by Julia Stiles, to international fame. Wearing combat fatigues, reading feminist literature, listening to ‘Riot Grrrl’ rock, she could have been presented as a confident, articulate, intelligent young woman who unashamedly lived life according to her values.[26] Unfortunately, the film seems uncomfortable with the sassy woman it creates; the narrative more readily endorses beautiful Bianca who simply wants to be popular and enjoy her adolescence.[27] Critics examining femininity in 10 Things I Hate About You have encountered similar problems to those considering William Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew, on which the film is loosely based.[28] Michael Friedman argues that Kat is so rigidly antagonistic in her feminist ideology that she has significantly alienated herself from her peer group;[29] she is referred to as a “heinous bitch”, has possibly hospitalised a young man, and her feminist statements are so repetitive that Bianca can finish them for her. Friedman argues, therefore, that the conservative ending, which shows Kat wearing a skirt for the first time, being publicly vulnerable and breaking down crying over her love for Patrick, actually shows Kat moving towards a gentler feminism[30]. She has learned how to interact with others in a more personally fulfilling and rewarding way.[31] The problem with Friedman’s arguments is that he sees Kat’s violation of traditional gender roles as a fundamental problem in her character that the film must resolve by changing her. Kat is most reminiscent of Hepburn’s Susan when she plays paintball with Patrick; this scene better captures a sense of play, confidence and romantically interacting while remaining herself, than the ending does. Despite classroom banners advocating self-reliance rather than conformity, Kat alters to conform to her peers, far more than she changes the world around her.[32]

10 Things I Hate About You contains contradictory messages of what a modern young woman should be like. Kat is a far more conservative heroine than Susan or Lorelei, although she doesn’t appear so at the beginning of the film, unlike them she is remarkably passive and chooses to conform to a more acceptable femininity at the end of the film. Surprisingly, it is her sister Bianca, beautiful and manipulative, who is more consistently portrayed as self-assured, willing to aggressively pursue whatever, or whoever, she wants, and as capable of asserting herself against the patriarchal order.[33] Bianca represents a move towards what Melissa Klein calls ‘third-wave feminism’ where women claim their right to be both assertive and glamorous.[34] A few years later, in 2001, Legally Blonde offered an updated version of Bianca in the form of Elle Woods. Her character positively affirms the right of women to take society’s traditional expectations of them and make them their own, while simultaneously revising women’s role within society.

Elle Woods is beautiful, blonde, rich and her school’s homecoming queen; her looks and situation result in society expecting her to be vacuous and content to become a ‘society wife’.[35] The film doesn’t condemn women who choose to embrace this, like Elle’s friends Serena and Margot, but it does condemn those who judge others based on superficial appearances.[36] Elle is incredibly smart, yet even her love object, Warner, can’t see past her looks to the woman underneath and this prompts her to re-evaluate her goals.[37] Even in her moments of self-doubt, Elle is presented throughout the film as a woman supremely capable of forging her own way through society and retaining her unique sense of style and self while doing so. The film reclaims the idea that women’s interest in fashion, female friendships and the trivial are positive things.[38] It is Elle’s warm nature and belief in female solidarity that single her out in Professor Callahan’s legal team and allow her to discover Brooke’s innocence; additionally, it is her attention to ‘trivial’ details that wins Brooke’s case. In the courtroom Elle combines the familiar motifs of the ‘fast-talking dame’ and the ‘beautiful blonde’ to show that looks and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. Nor are these shown to preclude love; her developing relationship with Emmett is one based upon mutual respect.[39] The film does end with the promise of a wedding but the adoring gaze Emmett directs at Elle recognises more than her beauty, it affirms her confidence in herself and her personal success as she graduates from Harvard Law School as the keynote speaker for her class.

Legally Blonde, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is pragmatic in the way it considers the representation of women in society and actively considers the way that women are perceived. Elle’s appearance, like Lorelei’s, invites the male gaze but the narrative indicates that this is for her own pleasure rather than being a sexual invitation.[40] Moreover, the narrative repeatedly focuses on the message that identity is a composite that involves more than just appearance. Through Elle and Professor Stromwell the film shows that beautiful women can be intelligent and intelligent women can have an interest in beauty.[41] Legally Blonde contains powerful female figures that have achieved independent financial success by believing in and remaining true to themselves, even when they encounter men like Callahan who will always see women as inferiors who should fetch their coffee. Legally Blonde, more than 10 Things I Hate About You, presents a revised femininity that draws upon past heroines, like Susan Vance and Lorelei Lee, while embracing the new opportunities available to women. It emphasises that women have the right to choose what values they embrace and that it is possible for women to achieve personal, economic, and romantic success without having to conform to the standards that others set them.

[1] Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, ‘ “Too Close for Comfort”: American Beauty and the Incest Motif,’ Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no.1, 2004, pp.69-93.
Tina Olsin Lent, ‘Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy’, Classical Hollywood Comedy, (eds.) Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, New York: American Film Institute, 1995, p.317.
Matthews, Nicole, Comic Politics. Gender in Hollywood comedy after the new right, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, p.80.
[2] Wes D. Gehring, Screwball Comedy. A Genre of Madcap Romance, New York: Greenwood Press, 1986, p.3.
[3] Lent, pp.315, 319.
[4] Gehring, p.155.
[5] Ibid. p.155.
[6] For instance in: Patricia Erens, (ed.), Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Blommington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
[7] 10 Things I Hate About You, dir. Gil Junger, Touchstone Pictures, 1999.
Legally Blonde, dir. Robert Luketic, MGM Pictures, 2001.
Bringing up Baby, dir. Howard Hawks, RKO Pictures, 1938.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, dir. Howard Hawks, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1953.
[8] Maria di Battista, Fast-Talking Dames, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p.176.
Gehring, p.3.
[9] Lent, p.327.
[10] di Battista, p.181.
[11] An excellent essay on the critical importance of polysemy in media texts is: John Fiske, ‘Television: Polysemy and Popularity’ in: Robert K. Avery and David Eason (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Media and Society, New York: The Guilford Press, 1991, pp.347-355.
[12] di Battista, pp.190-1.
[13] Ibid. pp.176, 179-180.
[14] Gerald Mast, ‘Bringing up Baby,’ Bringing Up Baby (Rutgers Films in Print), ed. Gerald Mast, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988, p.297.
di Battista, p.200.
[15] Gehring, p.155.
[16] Mast, p.295. di Battista, pp.185,189.
[17] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens, Blommington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p.33.
[18] Misha Kavka, FTVMS 202 lecture, University of Auckland, 7 April, 2005.
[19] Bill Osgerby, Youth Media, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p.123.
[20] The idea of the ‘female gaze’ is most heavily emphasised in the film during the ‘Olympic athletes training scene’. Dorothy’s song lyrics become increasingly earthy as she, accompanied by a diegetic-audience of female swimmers, watches the muscular bodies of the almost naked male athletes.
[21] Lorelei is very open during the film about the necessity of women being open-eyed about their position in the world and that this is why she intends to marry well.
[22] Alec Foege, ‘The Return of the Dumb Blonde’, Adweek, vol.45, no.9, 1 March 2004, pp.22-24.
[23] Osgerby, pp.122-4.
[24] Tizzy Asher, ‘Girls, sexuality, and popular culture’, Off our Backs, vol. 32, no.5/6, May/June 2002, pp.22-5. Karlyn, pp.69-93.
[25] Hugh H. David, ‘I Was a Teenage Classic: Literary Adaptation in Turn-of-the-Millennium Teen Films’, The Journal Of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1, March 2006, pp.59-60.
[26] The ‘Riot Grrrl’ phenomenon of the 1990s was spearheaded by all-female rock bands such as Bikini Kill. Many of the bands were self-consciously feminist; they advocated women’s rights and personal empowerment. One of their motifs was requiring female-only mosh pits at their concerts, Club Skunk is an acknowledgement of this, and these bands, in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Osgerby, p.122.
Michael D Friedman, ‘The feminist as shrew in 10 Things I Hate about you’, Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 22, no.2, Summer 2004, pp.45-65.
[27] Friedman, pp.45-65.
[28]William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, (ed.) Stephen Orgel, New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Academic arguments relating to the portrayal of Katherina are covered well in: Margaret Jane Kidnie, ‘Chapter 6: Critical Assessment’, The Taming of the Shrew: a guide to the text and its theatrical life, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, pp.146-162.
[29] Friedman, pp.45-65.
[30] Ibid. pp.45-65.
[31] Kidnie, pp.147-8.
[32] [The yellow banner on the wall of Mr Morgan’s English class reads: “What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular.”]
Monique L. Pittman, ‘Taming 10 Things I Hate About You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol.32, no.2, 2004, pp.144-52.
[33] Unlike Kat, Bianca consciously chooses which men she wishes to have in her life and actively pursues them, whereas Kat is the object of Patrick’s aggressive drive and boyish charm. Bianca turns Cameron’s interest in her to her advantage by convincing him to find someone willing to date Kat, as this would then allow her to pursue and date Joey. Bianca’s self-awareness allows her to gain dominance in her relationships with young men and this assertion of her feminine power continues to the end of the film, when she righteously punches Joey at the prom.
[34] Melissa Klein, ‘Duality and Redefinition: Young Feminism and the Alternative Music Community’, Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, (eds.) Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997, pp.207-8, in: Michael D. Friedman, ‘The feminist as shrew in 10 Things I Hate about you’, Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 22, no.2, Summer 2004, pp.45-65.
[35] See for instance her interactions with the boutique assistant, her father and her guidance counsellor.
[36] When Elle considers giving up law school it is because she is tired of having to fight so hard for her people to see her as a person rather than a pretty face. “All people see when they look at me is blonde hair and big boobs. No-one’s ever going to take me seriously…Callahan never saw me as a lawyer, just as a piece of ass. Just like everybody else.” Elle’s frustration and Professor Stromwell’s assessment of Callahan condemn this kind of superficiality.
[37] Despite Elle’s 4.0 grade average and 179 on her LSATs, Warren can’t shake his view of her as a dumb blonde, a ‘Marilyn [Monroe] rather than a Jackie [Kennedy]’.
[38] Kelly A. Marsh, Dead Husbands and Other “Girls’ Stuff”: The Trifles in Legally Blonde, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol.33, no.3, 2005, pp.201-206.
[39] Their friendship contains a playfulness reminiscent of Bringing Up Baby, for instance when Elle teases Emmett on the way to the day spa, and this sense of camaraderie is supported by a mutual respect for the other’s intelligence. Emmett consistently encourages her in the film and is supportive of her career aspirations; he is the first to reassure her that she earned her internship due to her intelligence and not her appearance.
[40] Elle’s pleasure in fashion and her appearance are indicated throughout the film. Her shocked refusal of Professor Callahan’s sexual advances and her subsequent disgusted discussion of them
[41] On Elle’s first day, Professor Stromwell asks her to leave the class for not being prepared; on Elle’s final day it is Professor Stromwell who proudly introduces her as keynote speaker. When Elle’s despair prompts her to leave Harvard Law School, it is Professor Stromwell, also receiving a manicure, who convinces her to stay.


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