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Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist
by Andrew Britton

Reviewed by M.E. Ladd

This is not a good biography…FYI. For a good Katharine Hepburn biography, try Anne Edwards’ A Remarkable Woman.

Star as Feminist doesn't lay out the particulars of Hepburn's timeline, but instead looks at what Hepburn represents, from her persona and publicity to her films. This book explores the meaning of Hepburn's choices as a woman and how they have affected her persona, publicity and sometimes conflicted with or have overtaken her films, their characters and their plots. This is not a good biography. But what this book does, it does great!

If you believe Hepburn's strengths as a character go beyond the normal laundry-list of accolades (ambitious, independent, self-determined, resilient) – as I do - you may be frustrated with the run-o-the-mill biographies and essays out there, each missing some sub-level of intelligence or layer of explication and theory on what makes Hepburn such an important icon of womanhood. Here’s where this book comes in. From her brief but severe unpopularity in the 1930s to her immense, indestructible, legendary status today, how we read Hepburn is significant, more than just another instance of overanalyzing our pop idols or another waste of weak theory on a celebrity obsession. Hepburn's legend drags behind it women's rights, liberal vs. conservative politics, and female gender identity throughout much of the 20th century.

Britton begins by defending Hepburn as a serious subject: his primary theory being that her radical presence (as a free-thinking, assertive, athletic, man's-pants-wearing, working girl) transcends her films. And although she’s not a true "auteur", discussion about her is valid because there are social issues she raises by direct result of her powerful persona. She, as a person, "forces her films to raise issues they can’t resolve." In other words, a simple madcap story about catching a leopard in Bringing Up Baby will carry a subtext about a woman’s role in the male/female relationship, even if this isn't an issue in the script, simply because Hepburn is involved. Sometimes her personality is so strong ("willful", if you will) her character "creates contradictions which impede her films". She’s trying to play submissive, for example, and it comes out subversive.

Britton compares early Hepburn roles to Henry James heroines (Daisy Miller to Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory) and he shows how independence and free-thought from these women are treated as affronts to acceptable society norms and by the end, without fail, these characters are thwarted or ruined, punished for being spunky and assertive.

Britton also discusses Hepburn as if her persona were a text to be read. (Are we sounding collegiate yet?) How, like the heroine in Philadelphia Story, Hepburn first received admiration in press for her unusual tom-boyishness and eccentricities. But when it was realized (in her press as in her characters) that she would be essentially un-tamable (and willfulness is acceptable only if it is ultimately tamable), the tide turned and she was seen as a shrew, a castrator, "hot blood turns to ice", her individuality now seen as arrogance and conceit.

Britton explores Hepburn’s relationship to the female communities in her films, from Holiday to Little Women to Stage Door, Hepburn often embracing her surrounding female community, often at the risk of a lover or despite a female community's rejection of her (non-conformist sister vs. conventional sister). In any case, her characters value the bonds between women when easily they could forsake those bonds for love. In Hepburn movies, honor and individuality always struggle with love.

Which brings us to a study of Hepburn’s sublimation of self in Spencer Tracy movies, where all issues of feminism and independence become pushed aside for almost reactionary endings. A feisty Hepburn character is "corrected" in all the Tracy/Hepburn comedies but one (Desk Set). Contrasted with the Cary Grant films, which are much more progressive, Hepburn/Tracy films show, if not outright antipathy to her feminism, condescension toward it.

Britton considers On Golden Pond to be the 10th Hepburn/Tracy film, with Fonda standing-in as Tracy. Britton considers this to be the most reactionary film of them all, considering Fonda’s "implicit anti-feminism", the "marginalized Hepburn character" and Britton’s reading of Fonda’s character as a reactionary conservative passed off as a heartwarming curmudgeon. My reading of the character was entirely different and here is the first place in the book I disagree with Britton as I took Fonda to be more ironic and bitterly mischievous. Your take on it will depend on how much of Henry Fonda you read into the character of Norman Thayer. Maybe Fonda had similar powers of overpowering his characters as Hepburn and I just didn’t catch on. I still prefer my version, which allows me to re-watch the film. For Hepburn/Tracy films, it isn’t so easy.

Concerning age and image: Britton studies the roles Hepburn chose as she started to age and compares these choices with Bette Davis. "Hepburn doesn’t play monsters; Davis doesn’t play feminists." This illustrates how "different their consciousnesses and positions were in relation to patriarchy."

Britton covers the problems with Hepburn's "Old Maid" films in depth, bringing Sylvia Plath’s poem "Spinster" into his discussion and contrasting the Hepburn-spinster-as-tragic films like Rainmaker and Summertime (where she must endure "an inexhaustible arsenal of degradation"), with the Hepburn-spinster-as-heroic films, like The African Queen.

To its credit, pop culture sometimes captures something so precise, something so complicated and mysterious about the experience of being women. Hepburn films consistently highlight the impossible struggle for women to be self-actualized and attractive simultaneously. Andrew Britton states:

"Hepburn’s ‘thirties performances continually ‘quote’ femininity in this sense, presenting it as a social category which the heroine must adopt in order to appear, for men, as a ‘woman’. Since Hepburn is a woman, this has the effect, conversely, of creating another model of femininity in which conventionally masculine properties are incorporated, and in relation to which the ‘feminine’ as defined comes to seem grotesque. Our sense of the natural is, as it were, inverted because Hepburn is playing the part. At the same time, in that ‘masculinity’ is socially assigned to men, Hepburn is able to raise, in the way in which she acts, the issue of a heterosexual woman who experiences herself in contradiction. The fulfillment of heterosexual desire, far from seeming synonymous with self-realization, appears in crucial respects at odds with it: desire for men imposes on the character, in her social situation, forms of behavior which conflict with those entailed in the fulfillment of other kinds of desire. While all these desires are felt with intensity, and renunciation means loss, there is no style, no role, no position in which the character can reconcile them; and if Hepburn’s early publicity is so preoccupied with using her to exemplify the category ‘individual’, her acting in the ‘thirties melodramas does nothing if not demonstrate the struggles and contradictions which the category conceals. There can be no unitary individuality because the social position in which it might be constituted does not exist."

Head spinning yet? I read this and said "Yeah! That's exactly it!"

Hepburn was considered a tomboy, athletic, self-actualized, aggressive, smart and ambitious, qualities seen in the 1930s (and still today) with traits perceived as masculine. She can't be self-actualized with masculine traits and still attractive in a "femininized" role at the same time.

In other words, say you determine that you, self-actualized, would be a funny, smart, hard-working, mated person with xyz other attributes and accomplishments. As a woman, when you get around to the mating part, you will have to tone down the attributes that may be smarter, or funnier because these qualities are masculine, unfeminine or unattractive, in any case a hindrance to the shortcut of hyper-femininity that the mating process demands. Therefore, complete self-actualization isn’t possible for a woman in a way that it is for a man.

Still don't buy it? Have you ever been in a bar with a girl friend who you knew was brilliant and she not only dumbed herself down but she acted like a clueless idiot to attract men. And the frustrating thing is it works. For those of us who value what wits we’ve managed to drum up in ourselves (which for me was a long, hard road), you just can’t dump it all in a dumpster before you walk into a bar because that’s the game of being a girl. Sound like bitter feminism? Take two equally attractive women, send them into a bar with instructions: you act real dumb, you act real smart. I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

In the end, Britton paraphrases Rex Reed's assessment of Hepburn: she "represents decision, order, character, taste, standards, integrity and determination." So if Hepburn, as an example, represents the exclusive choice between self-determination, character, ambition, and essentially the self-actualization of every possibility of you or coming across as attractive to men instantaneously, which would you chose? Don't answer that! And why isn't there man enough out there to accept a self-realized All? I can't say - but incidentally, the one most self-actualized woman in America, a woman named Katharine Hepburn, will soon leave this world as a single woman.

Tell us the results of your own Bimbo-at-the-Bar test!


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