Alphabetical Movie – It Happened One Night
You can’t really escape sexism in most movies but the older the movie, the more likely that the sexism will be overt. Just like the racism in classic films, though, everyone involved in making the films was oblivious to what they were doing.
Nobody was trying to be sexist. They just were. The fact that women weren’t actually delicate flowers who would faint at the slightest provocation didn’t change the fact that women in film were that way. Easiest way to facilitate the monster carrying his victim? Have her faint!
That isn’t really sexism, right? It’s just practical.
Another very common form of subtle sexism was the way that young women were regularly treated like little girls. Men spoke down to them and they were regularly treated like people who couldn’t do a darn thing for themselves. Unless it was cooking or cleaning or raising children.
That is the kind of sexism we see in It Happened One Night. Claudette Colbert is a spoiled rich girl who falls in love with the first guy who bosses her around. The implication is that women want men to control their lives. Just like their fathers did. Because that’s what little girls expect.
Sure, Colbert is a rich girl who would most likely have great difficulty doing anything for herself if she found herself on her own without any money. She would need someone like Clark Gable to help her. Yet, if their roles had been reversed (a streetwise woman and a rich man on his own), Gable would have been shown as far more capable because, well, men just were more capable, right?
Now let me say that I like It Happened One Night a lot. I’m not trying to disparage the movie by observing the sexism that is a fundamental part of its structure. I’m just interested in how culture has changed. I’m not sure if the “old” sexism is better or worse than the “new” sexism.
“New” sexism is a lot subtler.
For instance, it seems like the number of good roles for women has dried up in the last few decades, doesn’t it? I’m not saying there aren’t any films with good female leads but how many movies have you seen where the woman is little more than the Bond girl?
Think back to films with Katharine Hepburn in them. Or Audrey Hepburn. Or Maureen O’Hara. Doesn’t it seem like the women in those films were essential to the story rather than present so the protagonist would have someone to protect/have sex with?
Yes, the roles they played were frequently at least a little bit demeaning but hey, at least they were there.
Claudette Colbert may be playing a spoiled rich girl who can’t do anything for herself but nobody would watch the film and think it was Clark Gable’s film.
Come to think of it, nobody would watch Gone With the Wind and think that either.
These days, we have lead actresses who are in films for the star power but it seems so infrequent that they are equal partners in the story. How many women can open a movie these days? Angelina Jolie and….?
See? The sexism is different but it’s still there.
I guess we still have some time before the walls of Jericho truly fall.