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21 December 2012

Dueling Divas and Why Hepburn Isn't One

This post was written in conjunction with the Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by Lara at Backlots.

Women 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:

Professional women:
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
Perhaps Hepburn's most famous professional role is as defending lawyer Amanda Bonner in ADAM'S RIB (1949). Not only does Hepburn's character defend a wife (Judy Holliday) against her husband (Tom Ewell), she does so at the possible expense of her own marriage (her husband (Spencer Tracy) is the prosecuting attorney). She also has a comfortable working relationship with her [female] secretary - in one scene the two women discuss gender equality in a very easy, natural manner which we seldom see between two women professionals in film:
Hepburn and Eve March in George Cukor's ADAM'S RIB
Female relatives:
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
It wouldn't be fair to say that Hepburn provides the only examples of such relationships from the golden age of Hollywood. This post simply cannot be written without mentioning George Cukor's ground breaking film THE WOMEN (1939), with its entirely female cast. True, the movie contains its fair share of cat-fights and verbal jibes, but it also shows a group of women who are friends (and friendly) with each other. Another film that was just on TCM the other day is Barbara Stanwyck's LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943), which was written by Gypsy Rose Lee. The chorus girls in this movie are constantly at each other's throats, but by the end it is their unity as friends that helps solve the mystery. 

Someone once said to me, “there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” I cannot help thinking that Katharine Hepburn, her mother's daughter, would have felt the same way when making these pictures. The strength that the Hepburn persona provides these female bonds has contributed a great deal to the validity of realistic friendship between women in movies. I would be very interested to hear about your favorite examples of films with "non-dueling divas."


  1. Loved your post. The first example that pops into my mind would be 'The Gay Sisters' especially Barbara Stanwycks character and the way she sacrifices, for the happiness of her younger sister. A great womans picture in my humble oppinion, yes they duel as well but primarily they are non dueling.

    1. Thanks Alyssa! I haven't seen that movie, but it sounds like it would be worth finding.

    2. I was pondering again about your post and remembered another example 'when ladies meet' 1941, with Joan Crawford and Greer Garson. Even after Greer Garson finds out that Joan Crawford is having an affair with her husband they still retain a respect and friendship for eachother and no catfight. Love when a topic like this gets your brain ticking.

    3. I haven't seen that one either, but it sounds like a good one, especially since Crawford is so often identified as one of those "feuding females."

  2. This was very interesting and unique in the blogathon topic!
    Maybe Hepburn was like this in her ownli fe, since I can't imagine her dueling with someone else for any reason. It was a marvelous essay. You must have watched almost all Hepburn's movies, right?

    1. Yes, I have seen all Hepburn's movies - several times! I think she was the type of person that a lot of other people were offended by, but she herself didn't have any quarrels with people, and I really don't see her as someone who would hold a grudge. Glad you liked the post, Le! xx

  3. This is one of the reasons why I love her so much. She offered something so different to the movie industry and she brought so much of herself to it. Great post, Maggie!

  4. Margaret, I'm new to your post -- I am also one of the Dueling Divas blogathon contributors, and I'm glad to have found you through that. Your unique take on the issue of women as portrayed in media is fascinating. Who better than Katharine Hepburn to illustrate the best in women in relationships with one another? I have to say my favorite example of all you gave is "Desk Set", a top Hepburn movie in my opinion. I loved the women co-workers and their friendly relationships with one another, protective against the male system, and no bitchiness at all. I have always heard it said that women are their own worst enemies, that women don't like each other, etc. etc. ad nauseum. That can be true, but I have found in my life that this cliche is not as wide-spread as one might believe.

    I really enjoyed your take on Dueling Divas, and I'm very glad to have found a blogger who does such good work.

    1. Thanks so much! DESK SET is one of my favorite films. If you haven't had a chance yet, I recently posted an article about it on this blog. The post is really an excerpt from my senior thesis about communitites of women. I compared DESK SET (1957) and STAGE DOOR (1937), which I have also written about. Anyway, hope you enjoy my blog. I've added yours to my blogroll! I loved your post about man-divas as well. Such a great twist.

  5. The movies you've mentioned are all excellent examples of female relationships - something Hollywood hasn't always done well with. (Is it because male execs don't understand female relationships?) Anyway, great post with lots of food for thought. :)

    1. Yes, I definitely attribute the lack of female relationships to the lack of women involved in the creative process of movie-making. There are a lot of women on the ground floor, but not so many as writers and directors. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Insightful article and very well-written. As soon I saw the "community of professional women," I thought of DESK SET!

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it! Make sure you check out my article about DESK SET for a more in-depth look at that community of women:

  7. I've just come across your thoughtful piece. I'm glad you illustrated in Kate's films that the female stereotype is just that. Must admit I love the confrontation between Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer in The Women!
    I've been a Hepburn follower for a very long time and look forward to exploring your blog.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!