Feminism in film is usually approached through serious topics like the suffragette’s movement or sensational leaders dotting the 20th century. In the 1930s, however, feminism took a subtler form in romantic comedies, particularly the screwball comedy. While directors of screwball comedies do not make it a point to prioritize traditional feminist ideology and its goal to achieve the political and social equality of sexes, they consistently highlight ideas that emphasize major aspects of feminism. Romantic comedy’s seemingly unintentional insight into the concepts of marriage, sexuality, and gender roles fuels the feminist agendas in ways that empower female standing in society.
I will use the classic screwball comedy film His Girl Friday (Dir. Howard Hawks), to explore its perceptions of the changing female role in romance and marriage. The particular combination of romance and comedy allows for a subversion of the status quo not typically seen in more serious genres of film. Classic Hollywood before the 1930s presented female roles that might have strong personalities, but they remained in the confines of largely feminine personas.
The subgenre of screwball comedies was less afraid to present female characters who were desiring and pushy. They risked centrally stories and plot points around potentially negative characterization that might evoke comical but “unfeminine” sentiments towards female leads. The female lead might be unpredictable or even crass, but not in a way that alienate the audience from her desires.
Jill O’Rourke perfectly sums up that in screwball comedies “the man inevitably becomes emasculated and is ordered around by an independent, pushy woman who either doesn’t like him or likes him too much for him to handle” (O’Rourke). O’Rourke is saying that screwball comedies balances the strength of the women and the weakness of the men to put them on more equal footing, thereby elevating women’s standing and value in society. Director Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday has the female lead that perfectly illustrates this type of strong female personality.
Ace reporter Hildy Johnson is verbally and physically appealing to masculine behaviors. She is active in controlling the narrative. Even though it may seem Hildy is working under her ex-husband and former boss Walter’s careful manipulation, it was nevertheless Hildy who brought about the comic initiation by bringing her fiancé to Walter’s office. It can be logically surmised that her end goal was “that in order to prove that nothing has come between them [Walter] has… to arrange for her to free herself from her divorce” (Cavell, 164).
The proceedings were undeniably a battle of wits between two as her implicit desire to break off her engagement and remarry Walter unfold. It was even later revealed that she had wanted the chain of events to occur exactly how it did, that Walter would not “let her going without doing a thing about it.” Her desire was not to only be loved by Walter, but for him to demonstrate the lengths he would go through to sweep her off her feet. It is important to make a distinction between marriage and remarriage, as the two serve different functions in screwball comedies.
In the book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Stanley Cavell claims that the comedy of remarriage “shifts emphasis away from the normal question of… whether a young pair will get married, onto the question whether the pair will get and stay divorced, thus prompting philosophical discussions of the nature of marriage” (Cavell, 86). Most historians agree that the new emphasis on romance and dating, in combination with older notions of sexual propriety, led to the earlier and more frequent marriages among couples after the 1920s, and “Post-Victorian marriages were informed by a new valuation of individualism, personal satisfaction, and romance” (Gilmour, 29).
Hildy can be considered a representation of the Post-Victorian New Woman, characterized by her movement out of the private sphere into the public. Her pursuit for remarriage contributes to the notion that marriage does not only concern itself with familial duty and traditional gender roles, but also romance and the right for women to seek happiness. The concept of remarriage is in sync with feminist ideas of freedom and equality in gender roles.
According to Cavell, romantic comedies have two predominant narrative requirements: ‘that we discover, or recover romance within the arena of marriage itself; and that a pair be capable of discussing with interest not merely the promises of love… but the facts of marriage’ (Cavell, 54). He means that there is a clear link between the romantic couples’ friendship and success of the marriage that is not maintained by obligation.
These marriages had a new valuation of friendship, affection, and happiness. Thus, the emphasis for patriarchal families lessoned, and women and men began to see equality in the nuclear family. Post-Victorian era also welcomed a new mentality of sexuality in the confines of marriage. Although premarital sex remained taboo, the desirability of sexual pleasure within marriage was widely popularized (Gilmour, 30).
However, the Production Code caused censorship that consequently forced directors to explore sexual innuendos in attempts to portray sex in accordance to censorship laws. Creative methods were drummed up to imply intimacy between romantic couples in film. There is also a noticeable lack of children in any married or unmarried couples in screwball comedies, reflecting a historical period where sex is a standalone activity no longer attached to procreation (Gilmour).
Women like Hildy and Ellie are free to pursue romance and career outside the context of familial obligation. In screwball comedies women are more often the aggressors, signifying that female pleasure is viewed just as importantly as male pleasure. Screwball comedy films like The Lady Eve is almost explicit with the romantic couple’s displays of affection. Eve can be seen kissing and caressing her lover Charles and entering the bedroom in more than suggestive ways. In the words of Gilmour, “sex in these films is the stuff of comedy.”
Sexuality can be used as a device that drives character motivation, particularly in female initiators. Changing attitudes with the growth of feminism is in line with the gradual change in sexuality. It is more than likely that screwball comedy directors did not have the explicit intention of promoting feminism in any societal or political capacity. Nevertheless, the byproduct of slapstick sexual innuendos pushed forward the feminist agenda in ways that empowered females in all spheres.
On a superficial level, Hildy notably rocked two striped outfits, the first of which was a suit and coat signifying that she “is tenacious and classy, although – and quite charmingly so – she is not graceful” (Laverty). The second and more prominent outfit is comprised of a skirt worn as a suit, which Laverty argues is “a wildly designed piece that announces Hildy’s arrival back in the newsroom long before her tongue starts flapping” (Laverty). These costumes signify that in screwball comedies, women metaphorically and literally wear the pants.
Women in screwball have no problem rejecting frilly frocks in favor of comfortable clothing. They also do not shy away from moments that necessitate masculine aesthetics via cross-dressing. Ellie in It Happened One Night donned Peter’s pajama pants and button-up shirt after losing her own luggage. In screwball comedies, “cross-dressing is often accidental, impulsive or last-resort, but it always says something important about the characters’ hierarchy” (O’Rourke).
These moments of cross-dress does much to emphasize the characters’ strong wills and move away from previous feminine ideals to a more powerful position in relationships. It is important to note that these female leads are not masculinized, but are rather linked to comedy in a way that equalizes them in the eye of the film industry. These films also show that romantic pairs had begun to be equally empowered economically, as Hildy is praised for her excellence as a newspaperman and offered extra compensation for the quality of her work.
Walter loved and revered her not because he wants the trophy wife he lost before, but because she is a valuable contributor. Screwball comedies were not only accidentally empowering for women because it gave women prestige in relationships and the workplace, it also questioned men’s masculinity during a time when men were feeling their lowest. Women viewers found pleasure in seeing active female characters never punished or saddened by their success, but this was during a period of The Great Depression when women could find jobs and men couldn’t (Gilmour, 31).
This contributed to the undermining of traditional gender roles. What men considered masculinity at the time, namely the ability to succeed in the public sphere and put bread on the table, was thrown in jeopardy. Their status in the nuclear family lowered as unemployment increased and women begun to take on the role of economic backbone. Gilmour argues that comedies of remarriage could be read as text that, by strengthening the female protagonist, has the inevitable effect of problematizing the masculinity of their male counterparts.
In Wes D. Gehring’s Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, the balance in romantic comedies between what Gehring calls an anti-hero male and a dominant female gives the female more control of the action. Female leads often occupy a superior social or financial position but maintain femininity through her slapstick qualities. From there, the male lead needs to regains his masculinity by jumping through narrative obstacle courses set by the female counterpart.
These narratives can clearly be seen in The Lady Eve and Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey, both ending with the male protagonist entering a marriage they did not quite bargain for. Screwball comedy’s take on female roles in mainstream cinema had many positive yet unintended consequences on the feminist movements in its time. These directors can be considered progressive in their depictions of romance and strong-willed females during times of drastic change in societal values, and should be commended for the mark they have left on history.