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Home » 5th Season » A Tale of Three Species: The Man, the Woman, and the Communist in ‘Some Like It Hot’

A Tale of Three Species: The Man, the Woman, and the Communist in ‘Some Like It Hot’

By Lulu Eastman, VI Form

 

A Tale of Three Species: The Man, the Woman, and the Communist in ‘Some Like It Hot’

The 1950s were a time of deep cultural turmoil in the United States. In the era of the Cold War and the Red Scare, an environment of tension and confusion emerged due to uncertainty in the home and society as a whole. The Cold War era, clouded by an intense and deeply ingrained fear of communism, had Americans desperately seeking a standard of comfort or normalcy to turn to, and they found it in gender roles. Unease cornered women into their positions as housewives, and men were solidified as the family providers. Some Like It Hot, a 1959 film, was released amid a time of tension in American society, when gender roles and family life were strongly influenced by a Cold War-induced climate of fear and conformity.

World War II had brought in an age of empowerment for American women, who had gladly embraced the positions that men left vacant while fighting overseas. Though many women had worked outside the home prior to the war, this was only in traditional “female occupations”, and they were expected to leave the workforce when they became pregnant, if not as soon as they married. Between the short span of 1940 and 1945, five million women entered the workforce, many taking up positions historically reserved for men. Though their participation was vital to the depleted wartime workforce, women faced deep cultural opposition upon entering male dominated fields. Men were concerned that women may become too masculine, so in efforts to avoid this — while also reassuring the male populace — “some factories gave female employees lessons in how to apply makeup, and cosmetics were never rationed during the war”.[1]Even during wartimes, women were expected to keep up appearances, and were never to stray too far from their roles as objects of beauty. Once the war was won, American men returned to their daily lives, and women were fired and forced back out of the jobs they had briefly flourished in.

Women who were left jobless following World War II had few other options but to return to the home. Educated women especially found that they were “systematically excluded from areas like law, medicine, and business”, and many professional schools were closing to women.[2]For independent women, there was little opportunity for occupational advancement. To many, it seemed that the best opportunity to live a fulfilling and contented life was to find and marry a man with the potential to be a “breadwinner”. With the G.I. bill and generous loan policies for veterans, the post war affluence fostered an ideal environment for settling down and starting a family. Thus, public policy, to an extent, encouraged marriage and childbearing, resulting in the post war “baby boom”. Women had lost their freedom and independence as workers, instead trading their work gloves for aprons. Government policy wasn’t the only force in American society encouraging the growth of families, however.

When the Cold War began in 1947, a new age of fear and tensions gripped the American people. The constant looming threat of a nuclear holocaust was enough to put most Americans in an unrelenting state of anxiety. Retreating into the security of building a family was almost a coping mechanism for many fearful Americans, as they could preoccupy themselves with creating and raising children to become “Cold War “warriors” — scientists, mechanics, and other kinds of productive citizens, who would build a strong country and defeat the global enemy in the future”.2Still, nuclear destruction from the Soviet Union was not the sole source of unease for Americans in the 50s. The Red Scare was a plague that fiercely gripped the nation, and fear of communism was so deeply impressed upon the American people that many felt an intense need to be as apolitical as possible, to avoid any chance of being suspected of communist behaviors or ideologies. The image had emerged of an ideal American family — white, suburban, middle class, and raising upstanding citizens who would be prepared to take on anything, even nuclear war. The stability of the family was emphasized as the “essential building block of a strong and healthy society”.[3]Women were seen as the key to keeping the family unit strong and intact — a role considered crucial in the Cold War — and thus were deemed most valuable when at home, caring for their husbands and children. In this sense, traditional gender roles became a “matter of national security”.[4]Family roles became almost like a religion, a guarantee of salvation. Good, strong fathers and wholesome, virtuous mothers were the magical ingredients a family required to avoid any deviation from societal norms arising in their children. Upstanding parents with strong principles raised children who would not stray into moral disorder — unwed pregnancies, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, or any other kind of sexual deviancy, for example. There was a suffocating pressure to “conform to the ideal of the heterosexual nuclear family to avoid problems, which were markers of a lack of patriotic virtue”.2It was a time when any form of social dissent was attached to communism, and failure to blend in with the crowd could result in grave societal repercussions.

The 50s was also the decade of a burgeoning sexual culture for Americans. Objectification and sexualization of women became a commonly recurring theme in popular culture, and in many cases, sexuality was commercialized. However, this media that sexualized women and emphasized their beauty was predominantly aimed at the male populace. The first issue of Playboy Magazine was released in December of 1953, featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Many of these new “girlie” magazines became quite popular in the 50s, a reflection of the postwar movement of sexual liberalism. This new and more relaxed attitude towards sexuality was also apparent in many films of the 50s, which continued to push the boundaries of the Hays Code with their sexual themes. In most cases, sexualizing women was a matter of appealing to the male gaze, and women were expected to keep up appearances not for themselves, but to please men and attract a husband. In Ferdinand Lundbergs Modern Woman— a widely accepted piece at the time — he states that “it is natural to girls, part of their developing narcissism, to feel physical beauty as an attribute especially theirs and especially valued”.[5]Women were held to high standards of outward appearance, and were viewed by men as objects of beauty, mere pretty things to be obtained.

Billy Wilder’s 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, was unprecedented for its time. It featured cultural taboos such as crossdressing and homosexual subtexts, and addressed themes of gender and sexuality with an approach unlike any films that came before. The movie, which takes place in the prohibition days of 1929, begins with a chase scene. Members of the mob are seen evading the police en route to their speakeasy, which is unsuccessfully disguised as a funeral parlor. This illegal bar is where the two male protagonists are introduced. Joe, an impulsive and flirtatious saxophone player, and Jerry, a sensible double-bass player. The two musicians and close friends find themselves out of jobs when the speakeasy is busted, and matters only worsen when they find themselves witnesses to a mob hit. If they want to survive, they have to get out of town, and without delay. Their only option is to take a job with an all-girls band headed to Florida, which means they must disguise themselves as women. This twist, completely distinct for the decade, allows the film to offer a unique statement. Throughout the film, viewers experience the reality of living as a 50s woman, through the eyes of a man.

When Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, they are surprised by the struggles they face in their female roles. When donning their female garb for the first time, Jerry is shocked by the discomfort of the clothing. Of his heels, he remarks, “How do they walk in these things?”, and complains of his dress that “It is so drafty! They must be catching cold all the time”.[6]Finally, commenting on his short skirt, he laments, “I feel naked. I feel like everybody’s staring at me”.[7]Jerry is taken aback by the discomforts of being a woman that he had not even anticipated. When they board the train and meet the other girls in the band,one of the girls encourages Joe and Jerry to “take off their corsets and get comfortable”. Jerry is quick to respond that he doesn’t wear one, and the girl responds in surprise, “Don’t you bulge?”.5The two protagonists are quickly exposed to the reality of the beauty standards impressed upon women, including uncomfortable heels, drafty skirts in the middle of the frosty winter, and disagreeable corsets that pinch their waists into form.

Some Like It Hotalso offers many examples of male gaze, showing how men perceived women as sexual objects. When Jerry and Joe join the girls band, they meet the female protagonist of the movie, Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn’s character, much like the actor herself, is the epitome of the 50s glamour girl. When Sugar is first shown on screen, sultry jazz music marks her introduction, and as she walks down the train platform, the camera pans up her backside, focusing on her rear for a full five seconds. As she passes by, even the train reacts to her presence, blowing out steam in what almost seems like a catcall. Both Joe and Jerry are entranced by her, and much of the movie revolves around their competing for her affection and sexual favor. At one point, during a discussion between Sugar and Joe, Sugar remarks that even she doesn’t think she’s very bright. Joe responds, eyeing her body, that “Brains aren’t everything”.[8]In the end, Joe deceives Sugar to get her to have sex with him, making her believe that he owns a yacht and is the millionaire inheritor of Shell Oil. Rather than respecting her as a person, Joe sees Sugar as merely an object of beauty to be obtained, and he will go to any length of duplicity to manipulate her into giving him what he wants. Sugar, on the other hand, is hunting for a wealthy man to make her husband, so long as “he has a yacht and his own private railroad car”.[9]This materialistic portrayal of Sugar’s search for a husband reflects the societal values of the time, with a woman’s purpose being to find a husband and a man’s purpose as being the provider. When the Society Syncopators arrive at the Seminole-Ritz Hotel, they are immediately ogled by a group of elderly men sitting on the front porch. As they disembark their bus and make their way into the building, the men eye them over and size them up, reacting as if shiny new toys had just arrived on their doorstep. Throughout the film, this behavior towards women is proven to be anything but out of the ordinary.

Joe and Jerry are quickly awakened to this reality of being a woman. One of the rich old men, Osgood, immediately takes a liking to Jerry, and begins hitting on her before she can even make it through the front door. Jerry quickly becomes terse, and tries to shake him off, but Osgood is unperturbed continues to make passes at her. When they get on the elevator, Osgood sexually assaults Jerry off-camera. The film treats this as a casual and even comedic occurrence, but Jerry is deeply distraught. He hurries off to the hotel room he is sharing with Joe, and upon entering the room he throws his luggage on the bed with disgust. When he explains to Joe what just happened, Joe simply responds, “Well, now you know how the other half lives”.[10]Jerry protests that he isn’t even attractive, and Joe explains that “They don’t care — just so long as you’re wearing a skirt. It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull”.[11]By living as Josephine and Daphne, the two men are learning what it is really like to be a woman, and to face the degradation that they are subjected to on a daily basis. This realization is made even more powerful coming from a male perspective, and would have been eye-opening for theatre-goers in 1959. Through the use of male gaze as well as a unique perspective, Some Like It Hotstresses the extreme degree to which women of the 50s were sexualized and objectified in society.

The 1950s were a time when American society was dominated by tension, strife, and fear, conditions inflicted upon the populace by the Cold War and the Red Scare. These feelings translated into the daily lives of the American people, shaping their ambitions, desires, and roles within society. For Americans in the 50s, communism was a terrifying plague that could control your thoughts and actions — and if one were suspected of endorsing communism, that person’s life could be ruined. There was also the ever-looming threat of a nuclear attack, the fear that one’s life could end at any moment. American people were desperate for coping mechanisms to assuage their fears and provide them with a sense of normalcy amidst the stifling conditions of the Cold War. Gender roles, with all their standards and expectations of what one should and should not be, became this coping mechanism. If one could manage to look like everyone else, and project an image of perfect normality in his or her life, then they would be okay. The rules were simple, the mother is the gentle homemaker, the husband is the patriarchal provider, and together the husband and wife raise perfect little homemakers and anti-Soviet soldiers. This formula, however, was not as ideal as many hoped it could be. Inequality between men and women created tensions between the genders, and women were oppressed into states of submissive captivity. The filmSome Like It Hot challenged what Americans considered normal, by creating conversation about gender roles, sexuality, and what it truly means to be a woman. By delving into these topics from the perspective of men experiencing life as women, the film offered a new and unique viewpoint. The movie was able to highlight disparities between lives led by men and women, and the struggles and discrimination that, although faced by women every day, were typically overlooked. Some Like It Hotwas a revolutionary film that allowed audiences to view gender roles in an entirely unfamiliar way, prompting relevant and critical dialogue on social issues in 1950s America.

Lulu Eastman is VI Form boarding student from Winchester, MA. She loves art: particularly painting and pencil drawings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

“American Women and World War II (Article).” Khan Academy, 2017, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-7/apush-us-wwii/a/american-women-and-world-war-ii.

Lundberg, Ferdinand. Modern Woman: The Lost Sex. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947.

Getchell, Dr. Michelle. “Women in the 1950s.” Khan Academy, 2016, http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-8/apush-1950s-america/a/women-in-the-1950s.

May, Elaine Tyler. “Women and Work.” PBS, 1997, www.historylink.org/Content/education/downloads/C21curriculum_Unit5/C21curriculum_Unit5%20resources/Unit5_READINGS_WomenandWorkAfterWWII.pdf.

Wilder, Billy, director. Some Like It Hot. Amazon Prime Video, MGM Studios, 1959, http://www.amazon.com/Some-Like-Hot-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/B004778YJG?ref_=nav_custrec_signin&.

[1]“American Women and World War II (Article).” Khan Academy, 2017, http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-7/apush-us-wwii/a/american-women-and-world-war-ii.

[2]May, Elaine Tyler. “Women and Work.” PBS, 1997, http://www.historylink.org/Content/education/downloads/C21curriculum_Unit5/C21curriculum_Unit5%20resources/Unit5_READINGS_WomenandWorkAfterWWII.pdf.

[3]Getchell, Dr. Michelle. “Women in the 1950s.” Khan Academy, 2016, http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-us-history/period-8/apush-1950s-america/a/women-in-the-1950s.

[4]Ibid

[5]Lundberg, Ferdinand. Modern Woman: The Lost Sex. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947.

[6]Wilder, Billy, director. Some Like It Hot. Amazon Prime Video, MGM Studios, 1959, http://www.amazon.com/Some-Like-Hot-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/B004778YJG?ref_=nav_custrec_signin&.

[7]Ibid

[8]Wilder, Billy, director. Some Like It Hot. Amazon Prime Video, MGM Studios, 1959, http://www.amazon.com/Some-Like-Hot-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/B004778YJG?ref_=nav_custrec_signin&.

[9]Ibid

[10]Wilder, Billy, director. Some Like It Hot. Amazon Prime Video, MGM Studios, 1959, http://www.amazon.com/Some-Like-Hot-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/B004778YJG?ref_=nav_custrec_signin&.

[11]Ibid


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