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:
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|
|Henry Kolker, Hepburn, and Doris Nolan in|
George Cukor's HOLIDAY
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|
|Natalie Paley, Brian Aherne, and Hepburn in George Cukor's SYLVIA SCARLETT|
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."