Woman of the Year (1942)

woman of the year

“George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin this year. Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules for war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight…her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award.” –Tina Fey, 2015 Golden Globes monologue

In my post about The Heartbreak Kid, the protagonist rushed into marriage and then found someone else he realized was “the one” instead. Woman of the Year also deals with marital woes, so it is serendipitous that the two films sit right next to each other on AFI’s comedy list at #91 and #90, respectively. This one has something more profound to say, though, about gender stereotypes in relationships and in society as a whole.

Meet Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), two rival journalists who write for the same newspaper. As fate would have it, they end up going to a baseball game together. If their relationship progressed at the pace mine typically do, the next logical step would be for Sam to mull the first date over in his mind, put out a fleece to see if she is interested in a second date, and tell Siri to call her because he can’t dial the number with his trembling fingers. However, not too long into their relationship (read: acquaintance) they fall in love and get married.

It’s clear early on who wears the pants in the family. When Tess wins Outstanding Woman of the Year, it’s the last nail in the coffin for Sam’s manhood. The 1940s gender roles are completely swapped and Sam finds himself doing their cooking, household chores, and answering the phone. Tess only does things for her husband when she wants something from him, such as approval for adopting a Greek orphan to keep her public eye appeased. That doesn’t work out. And it doesn’t look like her marriage is going to, either.

What makes this movie so funny – and I’d imagine even a little unsettling to its original audience – is that it hangs up traditional gender stereotypes by a string, gives the female lead a bat, and lets her beat the bejeezus out of it like a piñata. It’s exhilarating to watch. Tess makes an afternoon telephone call to the president of Cuba and speaks his language fluently while Sam pretends to do a crossword puzzle. Tess speaks to an audience about women’s rights while Sam clumsily drops all his matchsticks behind her. You get the idea.

I was worried Woman of the Year was going to end like My Fair Lady. To jog our memories, that one ends with Higgins asking, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” I’m not a theatre analyst, but the scene left me with the nauseating implication that women are only good for fetching slippers. Sam and Tess come to the conclusion that there has to be more give-and-take in relationships. I applaud the fact that Sam’s character wants her to continue to be herself. Good for you, Sam.

At one point in the movie, a man sarcastically snaps at a woman, “What are you going to do, run for president?” as if it’s the most outlandish idea in the world. We might have a ways to go with helping society lose gender stereotypes, but 2016 proves that we have already come a long way.

 

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