Friday, September 21, 2007

THOUGHTS ON GENDER IN "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN"

(You can subtitle this one, "Reusing a School Paper for My Blog #1.")


Throughout Singin’ in the Rain Gene Kelly’s character Don Lockwood rejects the image of available, mature sexuality, represented by Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont. Furthermore, that kind of open ‘sexiness’ on the part of a woman is continually connected with a materialistic, money-hungry attitude. In the somewhat climactic “Gotta Dance” sequence, there is another ‘sexy’ woman (Cyd Charisse)—this one Kelly does go after. But, though she seems to be attracted to him and wants to continue dancing with him, she goes with the villain dangling a jeweled necklace in front of her. Aggressive sexuality on the part of a woman is very obviously associated with materialism.

Don passes over the glamorous—not to mention ambitious and gold-digging—Lina Lamont for the chaste, smart and tomboyish Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds. But before Kathy comes in the picture, Don is already ignoring Lina in favor of chumming around with his pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor). The opening “dignity, always dignity” origin story for Don includes Cosmo in every scene. They’re presented as closer than friends: a double-act, a package deal. The “Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love)” song-and-dance routine—with Don and Cosmo moving in unison, climbing onto each other’s backs and playing each other’s violins—hammers home the point early and often.


Kathy is apparently not only enough of a tomboy for Don to pay attention to her—she’s masculine identified from the first time we see her, driving her own car and wearing a short haircut—she’s self-sacrificing and willing enough to be in the background for him to keep paying attention to her. The film doesn’t only contrast Kathy and Lina in the realm of sexuality. It says that not only is Lina ‘sexy’ and Kathy merely ‘cute,’ and thus non-threatening, but Lina wants the spotlight and Kathy is willing to concede it, and Lina is evil and Kathy is good. No case, therefore, can be made that Don chooses Kathy over Lina because he merely finds her more attractive or more appealing. Kathy is the perfect woman as far as Don is concerned because she is non-threateningly attractive (looking cute and strikingly like a baby duck in the scene where she pops out of the cake and Don falls for her), and good, and willing to do whatever it takes to make Don’s career succeed, no matter how much she has to take the backseat for it to happen. Oh, and she’ll even hang out and pal around with your buddies, as evidenced by the “Good Morning” routine with Don, Cosmo and Kathy all clowning around together (Cosmo notably ending up with Kathy’s hat on—and Kathy wearing his.)

One final complaint: despite all the faults I have enumerated above, Kathy is introduced as being smart, opinionated and sarcastic—all good qualities from where I’m coming from. When Don drops into her car, she doesn’t even know who he is, despite the fact that he’s the biggest star in the world, and this is Hollywood. She tells him she wants to be on the stage saying of movie actors, “They don’t talk, they don’t act, they just make a lot of dumb show.” In short, she’s a radical, independent thinker. Then, the movie totally sells her out when her romance with Don begins. She even admits to buying “five or six” star magazines a week!

Question: is Kathy the precursor to the teen comedy roles played by Annette Funicello, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Hilary Duff and countless others over the years?

6 comments:

Robert said...

Well it's certainly obvious that Singin' in the Rain follows the good girl/bad girl formula. But I don't think we can blame the film for inventing it and thus being responsible for it's continued use.

Off the top of my head I can think of 2 pre-Singin' in the Rain examples of the same phenomenon. Contrast Sunset Boulevard's sexually mature (very mature), ultimately deadly Norma Desmond with Betty Schaefer (played by Nancy 'Wholesome' Olsen). Also I'm reminded of Lauren Bacall's portrayal of the sexually adventurous Amy North in Young Man with a Horn as opposed to (who else but) Doris Day as the less threatening choice.

And of course plenty can be chalked up to society (and men's) fear of mature female sexuality, but I think it also plays into the classic, conservative notion that long-term love with a spouse (an accessable best-friend) is preferable to meaningless sex with a diva. It's a concept believed commonly enough today that there are plenty of films reflecting it. Consider it society's fault, not Singin' in the Rain's.

After all, Singin' in the Rain's brilliance isn't because it has multi-layered characters and reveals human depth. It's simply a joyous experience.

Oooh, thought of another example. How about An American in Paris? Nina Foch's Milo isn't as evil as the other bad girls, but she is both sexually aggressive and much more materialistic than Jerry's preferred gal (Leslie Caron).

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Robert, thanks for answering the question I posed at the end of this essay. I hardly ever ask rhetorical questions, I usually mean to genuinely elicit thought and responses. As to the specific works cited:

1. The mention of SUNSET BOULEVARD was immediately provocative to me: what other ways are these two satires of Hollywood similar to each other?

2. I've never heard of YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN. Is it worth my time or only a good example of the phenomena in question?

3. I can only agree with you on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

By the way, I hope it's obvious that I wasn't blaming SINGIN' IN THE RAIN for anything. Nor would I "blame society," but rather individual members within. We'd like to believe, of course, that we can hold individuals responsible for the works of art they generate, but when talking about films-- especially one made during the reign of the the Hollywood studio system--this is rather hard to do. So I turn to the rather Bakhtinian idea of holding a text itself responsible... but hopefully not being reactionary enough to actually BLAME it for anything.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Ed,
Very interesting write-up of something I have frankly never really thought of with Singin' in the Rain. I agree with Robert that it is a joyeous movie and I wouldn't want to read too much into except to note, as both of you already have, that the "good girl" always seemed to be who the protagonist ends up with anyway.

And for what it's worth, while I can understand Gene not going for Lena Lamont (extremely entertaining from a distance but my god I can't even imagine how insufferable she would be in a relationship in real life) I would totally go with Nina Foch in a New York Minute over Leslie Caron's boy/girl ballerina.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks for your comments Jonathon (and for yours, Robert!) When doing an analysis such as this one, it's always dangerous to start interpreting the actions and choices of the characters as purely ideological--as if nothing could grow organically out of the personality of the character. If SINGIN' IN THE RAIN were real life, no one would criticize Don Lockwood for making the choice he did: Lina Lamont was annoying beyond belief and Kathy was cute as pie and had a personality to back it up. It is only when we are presented with these situations in fiction that we begin to consider what ideological worldview the actions of the characters could be combining to create.

Robert said...

While I want nothing more than to come to the defense of Singin' in the Rain as a harmless little movie (and it is) the character types of good girl/bad girl have been pervasive for the past century in all types of media. What man hasn't talked with his friends about what "type" he prefers: Ginger or Mary Ann? Hell, even on my own blog, this month I'm celebrating short-haired women of classic cinema. I'd be a fool not to admit that there is an element to the attraction based on non-threatening sexuality. Anyways this is a fantastic discussion that I've been happily pondering all day.

I also wanted to pimp Young Man With a Horn a bit. It's one of my favorite films of 1950. Sure it's not revolutionary like Sunset Blvd or Asphalt Jungle, but it's really a fine film. I stumbled upon it after seeing it featured in two quality documentaries (AFI's Visions of Light and Rob Epstein's Celluloid Closet).

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Robert,
I'm constantly impressed by your willingness to examine your personal life and your reactions to film in relation to it. Your comment on your own attraction to short-haired women relating to the issue at hand with SINGIN' IN THE RAIN hit home for me, as I, too, am obsessed with short-hair. Your recent re-review of LAST TANGO IN PARIS contained that same element of connecting your reaction to a film to your station in life. You called it the most self-indulgent thing you'd ever posted, but I thought it was great.