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24 May 2012

Communities of Women: Katharine Hepburn Passes the Bechdel Test

The cast of The Women with director George Cukor

The Bechdel Test had a significant impact on helping film viewers become aware of the lack of realistic female relationships on screen. It points out that not only are individual women not accurately represented, but that the way women interact with one another as friends, mothers, daughters, sisters, is almost completely ignored. Groups of men are represented in a slew of westerns, military, and sports films in which their primary subject of interest is not women. Yet movies like chick flicks, which do show groups of women, are more often than not focused on a romantic relationship with a man. This was equally true in classic Hollywood, the most obvious example being George Cukor's fabulous all-female cast The Women (1939), in which all the characters ever talk about is men!

Scholar Andrew Britton argues that Hollywood films about female relatives show these characters “bound together in passionate, destructive resentment and animosity” which is invariably generated by the women being rivals for a man and/or, as in the twin-doubles films, by their embodiment of the ‘good’ (wifely, domesticated) and ‘bad’ (sexual) woman respectively." However, he recognizes the difference in Hepburn films. He calls the female bond in Hepburn films an “oppositional unity in contradiction to that of the patriarchal family”. These bonds are therefore, as in Little Women (1933, left) and many other films of this type, “destroyed by the intervention of men." It is Hepburn’s star persona which allies the audience with the female bonds, alienating, rather than sympathizing with, the male characters, and thus creating a new type of film about women.

Stage Door (1937) Hepburn second from left then
Ginger Rogers then, seated, Eve Arden
Hepburn epitomizes what her mother’s generation of feminists were striving for: an educated, opinionated, confident, independent, autonomous professional woman. First wave feminism provided the modern woman with the right to vote, as well as the right to better higher education and to birth control. What the first wave didn't establish was an equal footing with men in the workplace. Therefore, Katharine Hepburn’s generation inherited an incomplete feminism, which did not establish social equality with men. However, a few women of her generation were able to establish themselves as exceptions that could work and live as examples of what a more complete feminism could look like. Author Susan Ware points out that Hepburn “remained one of the few actresses who was ever allowed to sacrifice love for career” while yet maintaining her legitimacy as a truly female star with sex appeal.

Hepburn in
Christopher Strong (1933)
The presence of Katharine Hepburn’s star text (the mode in which the star persona, may be read within the context of the film) gives strength and legitimacy to the presentation of feminist ideology within the greater film text. The plots of these films center on the goals, cares, concerns of groups of women and how they address their personal issues with each other. These films are unique in that they ally the audience with these female groups rather than with a single male protagonist or a heterosexual romance. Katharine Hepburn’s persona emphasizes this alliance because she represents the bridging element between the traditional female roles, in which she plays the leading woman to a leading man, and the strengths and legitimacy of a female group. 

Little Women (1933): Jean Parker, Joan Bennet, Spring
Byington, Frances Dee, and Katharine Hepburn

In other words, it is only because Hepburn’s star text in the traditional film roles reads as a liberated feminist that the audience is tempered to the idea that whole groups of women may also express autonomy in the same way. During the 1930s she had made such films as Christopher Strong, Little Women, Alice Adams, Mary of Scotland, and A Woman Rebels, in which she portrayed autonomous and powerful women. Her particular brand of female independence had been accepted by the general public to the point that it became something attractive rather than repulsive. Therefore, the film text is therefore able to portray communities of women which highlight this new type of female empowerment because her star text has already proved its possibility and its potential.

Desk Set (1957): Dina Merrill, Sue Randall,
Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Blondell
Two films in particular, Stage Door (1937) and Desk Set (1957), prove that communities of autonomous women have a place in society when the star text of the central character makes them acceptable to that society by way of being exceptions. Hepburn’s popularity as an exception to traditional gender expectations supports the acceptance of these groups in a way that necessitates their existence. The presence of the familiar Hepburn persona prevents the audience from registering horror at the possibility of a group of autonomous women as the focus for a popular film. George Cukor, who directed Katharine Hepburn in ten films and was her dearest friend in Hollywood, once said, “Kate is the most eccentric person I know. And the most eccentric thing about her is she thinks she’s regular” (Chandler 11). Perhaps this is the reason for her energetic spirit and perhaps this is what all twentieth century women aspired to – the regularity of Hepburn’s eccentricity as an autonomous female.


  1. Margaret, thank you for this post! This is a clear and concise explanation of how Katharine Hepburn aided the cause of feminism via film. It's lovely to read, and it makes me want to run out and find Stage Door and Desk Set, to see what you're talking about. I think we 21st century women aspire to the same goal - we're still working toward "Hepburn's eccentricity as an autonomous female" becoming regular. One day... (and it better be soon!)

  2. Love this post! Hepburn is one of the few female actresses that I think embraced female community in her films. What's your response to critics though that feel Hepburn lost that autonomy in her roles when she started making movies with Spencer Tracy? Critics have said that the Hepburn/Tracy films allow Hepburn to play a strong woman only because Tracy's character is strong. Ergo, her strength lies hand in hand because of his. It's an argument that goes either way, interested in your thoughts!

    1. I think there are enough examples of Tracy/Hepburn films in which KH doesn't lose her autonomy, but I think he does present an ideological conflict. Scholar Andrew Britton has described Tracy/Hepburn as the ideal democratic couple - they have not divided power into gender roles, they each shoulder an equal share of the responsibility of the relationship. It doesn't make sense that Hepburn would only be allowed to play strong women because Tracy is strong because there are THOUSANDS of film in which the strong male character insists upon a weaker female second (the strength of the male often diminishes, rather than supports, the strength of the female). Hepburn's strength as an individual and as a persona is independent of Spencer Tracy. I couldn't really tell you why their relationship works so well on screen, it's not my area of study really. But as an observer, I think he somehow mitigates her strength and somehow enhances her sex appeal and general female-ness without subverting her independence. It's a wonderful thing, but I couldn't tell you why it comes about. It's just one of those relationships generated by a great deal of chemistry that really comes across in the films. Thanks for your thoughts!


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!