In the cinema, women were often sexual, powerful vamps and flappers, portrayed by actresses like Louise Brooks and Clara Bow. Flappers cut off their long hair and shed their long skirts for a more athletic and empowered appearance. However, although the flapper was culturally significant in terms of her image and power, her time in the limelight was relatively brief. Born of the prosperity of the Roaring 20s, during the Great Depression, women faced more sober circumstances. Still, many women continued to work, often because they were now the primary breadwinners for impoverished households. But working away from the home and female independence was less idealized. Films such as The Gold Diggers of 1933 showed women looking to marriage as a way of relieving their economic despair.
Katherine Hepburn: The Next New Woman
While some of the stars to emerge during the 1930s were decorous and feminine, others, such as Katherine Hepburn, showed strength and independence. Hollywood seemed ambivalent to such representatives of femininity. On one hand, Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle could ascend the corporate ladder. But it was always portrayed as a hollow victory when women pursued careers, because they were compelled to give up love and romance to do so. "In The Philadelphia Story, her [Katherine Hepburn's] 'fire and ice' heroine is castigated by every character in the movie for being too haughty, too frigid, and somehow made to take the fall for the flaws and missteps of everyone around her. In Woman of the Year, in penance for her worldliness, her ambition and her mothering inadequacies, she has to prepare a scrambled-eggs breakfast for mensch-husband Spencer Tracy, thus proving she is 'just a woman' after all. Remember [Spencer] Tracy's prophetic threat when told by George Cukor that his future co-star was taller than he. He promised the director he would 'cut her down to size'" (Haskell 2003).
Woman of the Year famously shows the 'career woman' Hepburn burning the eggs she is cooking for her husband, and is utterly incompetent at making a simple breakfast. The message is clear: women cannot have it all, and cannot be feminine in the private sphere and competent in the public sphere. However, the fact that Hepburn was shown having successful on-screen careers and dominating her male colleagues cannot be denied, even though the films she starred in had to give her a 'comeuppance' at the end.
Adam's Rib, a film about a married couple, two lawyers, representing the male and female sides of a case where a woman who committed a crime of passion against her cheating husband, is perhaps the most ambiguous of Tracy and Hepburn's films. "Relying on audience familiarity with legal and cinematic conventions, the film opens up new possibilities for the public perception of women in law. At the same time the film's fictional legal system and cinematic techniques reinforce each other in upholding conventional, patriarchal social order" (Kamir 2010). Hepburn wins the case. However, at the end of the film, when she is caught in a compromising position with another man, she shouts out 'you have no right,' which Tracy argued in court, against the supposedly defensible crime of a woman's anger at seeing her cheating spouse. Hepburn's words validate Tracy -- but in the private, rather than the public sphere of the couple. This seems to feminize Tracy's character. On the other hand, Hepburn's argument that a woman who is betrayed is so emotional that she cannot help herself but lash out in violence also seems to confirm male-female stereotypes.
As in Woman of the Year, Hepburn is frequently shown performing absurd actions while defending a feminist position. "Amanda expresses sympathy for the woman, and subsequently driving the couple to town, she argues passionately that were the defendant a man he would have benefited from the 'unwritten law' allowing a man to protect his home and enjoyed a sympathetic public. A desperate wife resorting to violence to save her marriage, she argues, deserves similar treatment. 'As she questions the fairness of society's view, she becomes excited and emotional, her driving becomes erratic and she almost has an accident'" (Kamir, 2010, citing Graham and Maschio 1995-6: 1036). As the couple takes opposite sides in the legal dispute in the courtroom, work causes them to become more estranged. Once again, showing competence in the public sphere is analogized to being incompetent -- for a woman and a woman alone -- in the private sphere. Furthermore, Hepburn's strength is continually undercut by her unconscious pratfalls. She cannot drive as well as a man and becomes emotional when talking about a technical, legal issue. Transcending the constricted binds of Separate Spheres ideology becomes humorous in the film.
Hepburn played golfers, journalists, and lawyers during her tenure in Hollywood. Hollywood clearly showed that there were options beyond that of wife and mother -- but her ease in assuming such positions also suggested that discrimination was not a factor; rather women's lack of participation in these occupations was a matter of choice and a desire for love above economic independence. "In Adam's Rib women on and off screen are not faced with a choice because the film does not represent a community of women and does not offer it as a possible choice. There is no pain in Amanda's return to Adam -- because the film fails to imagine an alternative for her; in the absence of a real option, her union with Adam is made to seem choice-free, pain-free and free of sacrifice" (Kamir 2010). Today, once again, society is experiencing a profound shift -- during economically trying times, more women are working, sometimes in households with unemployed men (as occurred during the Great Depression) and women serve in the military (as they did in World War II). In film and literature -- and in politics -- women's ascent to power is not portrayed as an act of hubris, as in Old Hollywood. Women directors as well as women actresses are formidable players in the film industry. But ugly shadows of the past remain of the idea 'punishing' women who dare transcend the boundaries of the Separate Spheres, such as in the form of derisive media laughter directed towards Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her run for the presidency. The pressure still remains upon women on screen and in life to prove that they can 'perform' the Separate Spheres ideal of the domestic woman, even while pursuing more conventionally masculine activities.
Adam's Rib. Directed by George Cukor. 1949.
Ali, Atka. "Lesson 10: Separate Spheres. " Women's history." July 12, 2010.
The Gold Diggers of 1933. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. 1933
"The Great Depression." "America in the Great War," EyeWitness to History. 2000.
July 12, 2010. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/snprelief1.htm
Haskell, Molly. "Katherine the Great." The Guardian. August 15, 2003. July 12, 2010.