This post was written in conjunction with the Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by Lara at BacklotsWomen in film are often represented as romantic rivals for a male character. Girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, wives and mothers, sisters and fiancées are perpetually warring with each other on the big screen. As the Bechdel test highlights, women are seldom shown as friends, and when they are shown as friends they are still obsessed with love and marriage. We are often exposed to an image of women as bitchy, witchy, and catty. There is no doubt that the media perpetuates this view of womanhood via advertising and news coverage. The current slew of “reality” TV shows is shameless about showcasing the very worst idea of womanhood.
However, there are instances throughout film history when the public has been exposed to alternative, more healthy examples of womanhood. Several of Katharine Hepburn’s films include situations where one would expect a “dueling diva” type of scenario, yet in many cases, any semblance of a romantic rivalry is broken down by the ultimate unity, or at least tolerance, of the female characters in question. These examples can be broken down into three distinct categories: communities of professional women, female relatives, and friendships. Hepburn’s persona, as a champion of women’s equality, serves to bring women together, rather than alienate them from each other. Here are the various ways that the strength of the Hepburn persona as anti-rival is manifested in her films.
In previous posts, I have written about how Hepburn’s character has united and led a group of female professionals in STAGE DOOR (1937) and DESK SET (1957). Although there is some initial cattiness in STAGE DOOR, the women are drawn closer together by tragedy. They also serve as a support system for each other as they battle the odds to eke out a living as actresses in the big city. In DESK SET, the women of a broadcasting network’s research department cling to Hepburn as their supervisor and friend as they contend with the implementation of a technology that threatens their jobs.
|Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn embrace in
Gregory La Cava’s STAGE DOOR
|Hepburn and Eve March in George Cukor’s ADAM’S RIB|
George Cukor’s LITTLE WOMEN (1933) is the greatest example of a family of sisters living in relative (pun intended) harmony, supporting each other through life with little interference from men. Although Jo (Hepburn) does have a jealous fit about Meg (Frances Dee) marrying Mr. Brook (John Lodge), it is not because she wants Brook for herself, but rather that she wants her sister for herself! It is not until after two of her sisters are married and the other has died that Jo even considers becoming romantically involved with a man.
|Katharine Hepburn, Jean Parker, Joan Benett, and Frances Dee in George Cukor’s LITTLE WOMEN|
Hepburn also plays the loyal sister in HOLIDAY (1938). When Linda (Hepburn) accidentally finds herself falling in love with her sister Julia’s (Doris Nolan) fiancé (Cary Grant), she does everything she can to suppress her feelings and support the marriage. Ultimately it is Julia, not Linda, who breaks up the engagement by rejecting Johnny. It is only when Linda has heard directly from her sister Julia that she is no longer in love with Johnny that she makes her move.
|Henry Kolker, Hepburn, and Doris Nolan in
George Cukor’s HOLIDAY
Many years and many movies later, Hepburn won back-to-back Oscars for two mother roles. In Stanley Kramer‘s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), Christina (Hepburn) joins forces with her daughter (played by Hepburn’s niece, Kathy Houghton) and her daughter’s fiancé’s mother (Beah Richards) to convince the men that the young couple have the right to be married although they are of different races. Anthony Harvey’s THE LION IN WINTER (1968) contains a touching scene between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alais, the girl she raised as her daughter and who has now become her husband’s lover. Although it is clear that Eleanor is upset by her husband’s affair, she never turns her anger on Alais, but instead continues to confirm her affinity for the young woman (as in this clip here).
CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933): When Lady Cynthia Darrington (Hepburn) has an affair with a married man, his wife (Billie Burke) is naturally saddened by her husbands infidelity, but that doesn’t prevent her from expressing gratitude to Cynthia for being such a good friend and mentor for her daughter. The daughter (Helen Chandler), on the other hand, is furious at Cynthia, despite Cynthia’s efforts to preserve their friendship.
|Billie Burke, Helen Chandler, and Hepburn in Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG|
SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935): It is a very awkward situation indeed when Sylvia (Hepburn), who had been masquerading as Sylvester to allude the police, reveals herself as a girl to the guy she’s in love with (Brian Aherne), only to be almost immediately confronted with his current girlfriend. But for some reason, the claws don’t come out. In fact, later in the film, Sylvia dives into the ocean to rescue the other woman, who has attempted suicide. Hepburn nearly drowned herself filming that scene. What can I say, it is an odd film, to be sure.
|Natalie Paley, Brian Aherne, and Hepburn in George Cukor’s SYLVIA SCARLETT|
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940): Although Mike (Jimmy Stewart) becomes romantically confused by Tracy’s (Hepburn) charms, his girl (Ruth Hussey) doesn’t immediately “scratch her eyes out.” Tracy also has an interesting relationship with her mother. At first they seem united against the philandering husband/father, but upon his return, the mother opts to forgive his wayward behaviour.
THE SEA OF GRASS (1947): Although their husbands are fighting over land in the American West, Lutie (Hepburn) offers every aid she can to the friend she made on the train journey. The two women maintain their friendship in order to make peace between the two families, rather than perpetuate the disagreement by siding with their respective husbands.
SUMMERTIME (1955): Spinster Jane Hudson (Hepburn) makes friends and finds romance on holiday in Venice. She becomes pals with the hotel owner (Isa Miranda), though she disapproves of her love life. Jane also finds companionship with “Cookie” (Mari Aldon), the wife of a painter who is also staying at her hotel. Another women in the movie is a touristy loud-mouth tourist travelling with her equally loud-mouthed husband. At no point in the movie do these women eye each other suspiciously, or jealously guard their men from the other women. On the contrary, they are friendly with each other and are even sympathetic to each other’s troubles with romance.
|Mari Aldon and Hepburn in David Lean’s SUMMERTIME|