Katharine Hepburn frequently and repeatedly shattered the gender stereotypes which dictated the roles a woman could and should play on screen. She refused to accept parts which underestimated the full vigor and intelligence of her character. Hepburn’s personality coincided more directly to her film roles than did that of many other actresses of that time. This is due to the strength of her star persona. Hepburn herself was known to have quipped, “I’m a personality as well as an actress! Show me an actress who isn’t a personality and you’ll show me a woman who isn’t a star” (Crimp, Katharine Hepburn Once Said…, 2003).
Janet Thumin defines “star persona” as the “public image which derives from the performances and utterances of the person and is constructed over time in specific ways” (Thumin, “Miss Hepburn is Humanized,” 1986). The star persona is defined by a combination of the star’s personal and public images. It is the person and the persona which creates the star text, the reading of the star persona within the context of the film. In Hepburn’s case, this persona is inseparable from the film text itself.
Throughout the 20th century, film stars had a very significant role in defining American womanhood. They were as much public figures as any politician, social reformer, or military leader. From the Great Depression years through the 1960s (an era often described as The Golden Age of Hollywood) actresses were the role models for a nation of women seeking definition in a time when the role of the woman in society was shifting. Women of all ages tried as best they could to imitate the lives, styles, and personalities of such great actresses as Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. Women were particularly attracted to the sense of grace, femininity, charm, beauty, and class expressed by the stars.
But there was more to these screen goddesses than just the superficiality of glamour. It was the sheer exceptionality of these individuals that was irresistible to the scores of women confined to the inglorious sphere of domesticity which trapped most American women in the first half of the 20th century. Film stars were seen to have attained success through their own talents rather than through relationships with men (Matthews, The Rise of the New Woman, 2003). Although they were viewed as career women who possessed the independence that came along with personal financial security, they still portrayed the beauty and femininity which secured their status as representatives of the female sex.
Most actresses of this era brought their own brand of exceptionality to their roles and each had a distinct niche to fill and these were established by her star persona. Each persona is unique. Some personas are highly sexualised, while others may be more comical. The definition, or identification, of these personas is determined by examining what was known about each star’s background and how the studios used (or fabricated) this information to sell that star’s pictures.
The purpose of this blog is to identify in what ways and to what extent Katharine Hepburn’s persona shaped the star text of her films. Hepburn’s persona continued to develop throughout her career as she constantly challenged herself and her abilities as an actress. I will investigate the various aspects of her life and work which contributed to her persona, including a thorough examination of her family life, upbringing, and education, as well as her career and life choices. Please feel free to leave comments about what you read here. I would love to hear your feedback about what is said on the blog, as well as any unique insights you may have based on your experiences as a Hepburn fan or movie buff. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!