Feminisim in the 1950s

In 1953, 20th Century Fox produced How to Marry a Millionaire, a romantic comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. For some reason I have a section called “Critically Acclaimed Comedies” on my Netflix feed, mostly featuring Audrey Hepburn-esque films, and this movie popped up. I had nothing better to do, so I watched it, and within the first twenty minutes I couldn’t stop thinking about what a field day feminist critics would have with it.

The main characters are models with one goal: find a rich man and marry him. Why? Bacall, as the no-nonsense Schatze, puts it very simply: Marriage is a matter for the brain, not the heart, and the best option for a woman is to marry rich, because love don’t mean a thing. As soon as she said that I knew what would happen, according to the standard, cookie-cutter, narrative of the Hollywood Studio System Golden Age. They would all find promising rich men, think they were doing well, and then meet nice boys, fall in love, and make a complete 180 degree turn to follow their hearts instead of their brains.

I couldn’t tell if the creators of this film were trying to write about strong independent women, and just doing it wrong, or if they thought it was okay to make such a sexist film. I know the 50s were a time of mass commercialism, materialism, consumerism, poodle skirts, big fancy hair, and anti-feminism, but really? Let me give you some examples of dialogue and action in the movie that set me on edge.

 

Schatze talks to her girlfriends, Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable), when they first rent the fancy apartment in New York City. She reveals her plan to catch a rich man.

“Of course I want to get married; who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you could do in life!”

Which immediately segues into:

“Marriage is a matter for the brain, not the heart.”

These two statements seem to represent conflicting stereotypes. First, the subtext seems to be, a woman is nothing without a man. She could be referring to the collective ‘you’ of the world, not the specific ‘you’ of the people she’s speechifying to, but I doubt it. She’s talking to only women in the context of a conversation revolving around the necessity of a rich man, the likelihood that the writer meant for her character to be claiming that marriage is the end all be all for people of all genders is very slim.

 The second line seems to be trying to fight against the stereotype that says all females are inherently emotional and irrational. Of course, this happens at the start of the film when the characters haven’t yet realized what’s right and true. So this line could be ironic: a woman claiming to value intelligence and logic over emotions eventually decides to listen to her heart. Cue happy ending.

 

There’s a meet cute between Tom Brookman and Schatze—he’s interested in her, but his casual attire led her to believe that he was poor. He isn’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop Schatze from shunning him. He resorts to calling at her place of work in order to see her.

The resulting scene is ten minutes of Brookman lounging in a chair, watching girls model clothes for him like mannequins, and calling up the “pink and blue number” (the dress worn by Schatze) for an uncomfortably, judgmental look up and down her body before dismissing them all and walking out without buying anything.

 

Loco travels to a lodge in Maine with a wealthy married man and catches the measles. Her host tries to figure out if she has a temperature, as she claims. The only thermometer they have is a 12” one from outside the house, she tries to refuse to put it in her mouth but he practically forces it down her throat and yells, “Don’t say another word until I take that out of your mouth!”

Now…that’s just awkward. And uncomfortable. And not just for the not-so-subtle innuendo. He later says that his wife is a “true credit to her sex,” as if the average woman is something inferior or common or generally unimpressive.

 

Later, Pola, after having spent most of the film blind as a bat because she was too insecure to put on her glasses (Four-eyes!), meets a man on a plane who changes her entire worldview and accustomed habits with one compliment: here’s a video of the scene.

 

The film ends at a diner, all three girls happy with their husbands and content to live with love and without money. Surprise! Schatze’s new husband is secretly rich! The girls instantly faint, in tandem, and the men raise steins of beer with a rousing, “To our wives!”

 

What?!? Just…what?? All throughout the film, the women are portrayed as ditzy, materialistic, selfish, bratty, cold-hearted, judgmental, and/or irrational. They end up completely changing their worldview because of men who apparently have no flaws; the flaws they do have are made light of (one man is a criminal on the run from the IRS!).

While there are several male voices in the film (shady rich man, self-absorbed rich man, kindly rich man, cheeky rich man, wholesome forest ranger, and sweet lawbreaker), Bacall, Monroe, and Grable are the only women with a voice in the film. And they play ridiculous characters.

How to Marry a Millionaire won a bunch of awards, aired on TV, and is currently up for a remake by Nicole Kidman’s company, Blossom Films. Whyyyy?? This narrative isn’t a satire on gender/class stereotypes. It is gender and class stereotypes. That’s what the fifties were! It privileges wealthy, white males to such a degree that I can’t believe I sat through the entire film! (And yes, it privileged the upper class, because the big surprise, happy ending is that the main character married a rich man without even realizing it!)

I’m using so many exclamation marks right now! And I don’t even care! I almost want a remake so I can see what kind of response it gets from feminist groups. And the remake better keep in the part where the Kindly Rich Man buys the Main Female a whole houseful of furniture because she can’t afford to buy her own, since she’s a poor, single, model.

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4 thoughts on “Feminisim in the 1950s

  1. This cracked me up. So true..but remember it isn’t until the 90s that women started sometimes being portrayed truthfully….but what about those shallow 50s men. That’s how it was…women didn’t even get the vote until the 2os and didn’t even get to do anything other than being slave secretaries until late 70s for the most part…and still we don’t have equal pay in most instances…but not all men are bad and not all women are stupid. Ahahaha. I actually love that old movie in a stupid sort of way….

    Thank you, Candice Sent from my iPad

  2. Evyn, my dearest. You are way too young to be so cynical about marriage! And, maybe the movie was a depiction of “good ambitions” for women of the ’50’s (somewhat satirical) before feminist groups of the ’70’s began brainwashing young women into thinking they don’t need a man to be a contributing member of society – that women and men are “EQUAL”, meaning “THE SAME” meaning “INTERCHANGEABLE”. C’mon! We are different, thank god, and we need each other, society needs – and is better when – men and women to marry and have children. Please watch: http://www.prageruniversity.com/Life-Studies/The-Case-for-Marriage.html

    • I’m hoping the film was meant to be satirical, poking fun at exaggerations of universal female stereotypes; even so, it’s worth looking at the ideologies that subconsciously inform stereotypes.
      I have nothing against the institution of marriage, or needing a life partner, and I recognize that women and men are inherently different–they differ biologically, and so develop perspectives that are unique to their gender.
      My issue is, even though the women were the protagonists, they were constantly portrayed as inferior to their male antagonist counterparts.

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