The Damsel in Distress

Film Form in Disguise

Cultural representations are socially constructed and perpetuated through popular media. This paper will compare and contrast the gender and sexual politics of popular film genres including the ‘temporary transvestite film’, as described by Chris Straayer, and the new romantic comedy.

An examination of the films Some Like it Hot (USA, Billy Wilder, 1959) and Enchanted (Canada, Kevin Lima, 2007) will highlight the obvious differences between the films, and genres they adhere to. After discussing the differences, the essay will focus on the less obvious, but revealing similarities, with regard to film form within each narrative. Through close analysis, the essay will demonstrate how both films reinforce conventional norms surrounding gender relations and sexuality through stylistic aspects such as comedy, physical appearance, disguise, materialism and consumerism, femininity as relating to fantasy and finally, masculinity. Although the films do enforce docility in terms of gender relations, the essay will conclude with an explanation of how each narrative leaves opportunity for alternative perspectives to evolve.

Chris Straayer refers to Some Like it Hot as a ‘temporary transvestite film’ (temporary trans film) in that the two characters take on a number of identities, both male and female throughout the course of the film. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) originally disguise themselves as Josephine and Daphne in order to join a female band on route to Florida, while fleeing a group of mobsters.[1] Joe later takes on an additional identity as ‘Shell Oil Junior’ (Junior) in order to impress Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), one of the women in the band they form a relationship with. Without actually watching the film, in consideration of its release date (1959), one can assume it represents a notable blurring of the boundaries between sexes. In comparison to other films released in the same decade, Some Like it Hot is in fact ahead of its time in playing with images of male and female sexuality. However, further analysis will show the dismal truth that films, both past and present, reinforce stereotypes about gender, regardless of whether they challenge them or not.

The film Enchanted, released decades later in 2007, begins with an animated interpretation of Giselle (Amy Adams) being swept away by Prince Edward (James Marsden) in an imaginary land called Andalasia. On the day of their wedding, Edward’s evil stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) disguises herself and pushes Giselle down a well in order for her to preserve her power. Giselle winds up in Manhattan, where the film unfolds and she ends up falling in love with Robert (Patrick Dempsey).

The film is commonly referred to as a romantic comedy, but is also considered by Yvonne Tasker as an exemplary expression of postfeminist ideology.[2] Postfeminism, as she defines, is a discourse relating to a set of ideas regarding how the world is organized.[3] Postfeminist discourses are expressed in a culture that narrowly defines normative notions of gender, and is categorically concerned with conventional modes of femininity.[4] It seems obvious therefore, that postfeminism itself embodies contradiction in culture. Enchanted, as suggested by Tasker, symbolizes some of the contradictions enshrined within postfeminist culture.[5] As she writes, and as further analyses will demonstrate, it is unsurprising that postfeminist media culture is intensely ironic in nature.[6]

Despite the difference in genre, and the fact the films were released decades apart and were, therefore, produced during distinct waves of feminism, Some Like it Hot and Enchanted are rife with contradiction. The extent to which similar narrative strategies recommend conservative gender paths is compelling.[7] In light of the fact both films were produced by men, a patriarchal construction of gender relations will become evident.

Tasker argues comedic approaches often cloak cultural uncertainty relating to specific subjects. Her argument is validated through questions of social inequality and gender.[8] In Some Like it Hot, the use of comedy creates and controls the possibility of homosexuality between Jerry as Daphne and Osgood (Joe E. Brown), a wealthy man, whom Daphne originally goes on a date with so Joe can mooch his yacht to impress Sugar.[9] Comedy is often underpinned by ideas about conventional gender roles expressed in mistaken expectations of men and women, as exemplified through Joe’s compulsion to convince Sugar he is a wealthy man. In Enchanted, the use of comedy diminishes the weight with which the film enforces a domestic role for women in contemporary society.

As Tasker states, comedy relating to gender roles often has to do with ‘absurd situations’ and ‘improbable couplings.’[10] Her argument is advocated in a scene of Enchanted where birds, mice and bugs invade Robert’s apartment after Giselle whistles for their help. She delightedly cleans his apartment alongside creatures commonly associated with disgust as she sings her “Happy Working Song.” She recites, “…pluck a hairball from the shower drain, to that gay refrain of a happy working song…while we’re sponging off the soupy scum, we adore each filthy tour that we determine.” Although the lyrics indicate irony, thus mocking domesticity, they also fantasize it and, therefore, fail to address the issue of social inequality regarding women’s work. As Tasker argues, ‘ironic knowingness’ is a central feature of postfeminist media in which traditionally feminine images of women are effectively cited as lifestyle choices rather than societal expectations.[11] Her argument clearly manifests through Giselle’s enthusiasm to perform domestic tasks.

Although the film can be considered empowering in the sense that Giselle ends up choosing to abandon her life in Andalasia, her decision emerges in accommodation to, and acceptance of contemporary societal expectations. [12] Throughout the film, her fantasized femininity is depicted as in need of containment.[13] This containment is partially achieved through a transformation in her physical appearance. Through costume, she transitions from a child-like princess to a woman. In the scene where Robert and his daughter meet Giselle, 6-year-old Morgan (Rachel Covey) is wearing her karate uniform, reading a book titled Important Women of History. Morgan’s attire is symbolic of her father’s attempt to rear her away from an enchanted girlhood, and toward self-sufficiency in contemporary society. When Morgan looks out the window to see Giselle in a wedding dress, knocking on a cardboard cutout of a palace in downtown Manhattan, the contrast in costume is obvious. Her extravagant wedding dress impedes her mobility, as does her fantasized femininity in the ‘real world’.

Giselle’s dress starts to come apart as Robert and Morgan struggle to fit it through the door frame to their apartment.[14] This scene represents a step in her transformation. The next morning, she designs a dress out of their living room curtains, an act that is, again, representative of her willingness to assume her domestic role as a woman. Closer to the end of the film Giselle is introduced to shopping and grooming by Morgan. Through this introduction, she acquires acceptable clothing.[15] In the scene where Robert revives Giselle with true loves first kiss, she is wearing an elegant evening dress, set off with straightened hair.[16] In this scene her character embodies beauty and is representative of an ideal femininity.

Physical characteristics are similarly symbolic in Some Like it Hot, but have more to do with disguise, as the film enacts temporary transvestism. The narrative focuses distinctly on tone of voice, body language and clothing.[17] Joe and Jerry as Josephine and Daphne are inadequately disguised. When Joe and Jerry appear as women for the time, the shot is strategically zoomed in on their legs, making it clear how hard they find it to walk in heels. The scene enforces the gendered expectation that men are not supposed to feel comfortable in heels. Scenes where Josephine and Daphne struggle with femininity are meant to remind the audience of the characters’ normative gender.[18]

Despite an unconvinced audience, other characters are somehow deceived by their feminine costumes.[19] As a result, heterosexual advances are made toward Josephine and Daphne as women throughout the film. They feel violated when men stare at their disguised characters, despite the fact they too ogle over women. The shock value of these advances is assured by the fact their disguises are so strategically unconvincing.[20] Straayer argues, “Fear of actual transvestism is what necessitates the convention of inadequate disguise.”[21] Through disguise, Some Like it Hot establishes actual transvestism as inadequate.

The use of disguise is also evident in a scene from Enchanted, where Queen Narissa emerges as a witch in order to sabotage Giselle once again. In disguise, Queen Narissa has a deep crackling voice, a large nose, stained teeth, and a hunched back. As such, her character can be perceived as gender non-conforming in this scene. Given that her intentions are to poison Giselle, the temporarily trans character in the film is depicted as evil. As gender non-conformity conflates with corruption, Giselle is depicted as clueless toward the situation, as she takes a bite of the poison apple. The scene not only corresponds to privileged perspectives of beauty but also relates femininity to unintelligence, as does the scene where Sugar tells Josephine how unintelligent she knows she is in Some Like it Hot.

Gendered expectations are also reinforced through a dependence on male characters. Daphne gets engaged to Osgood toward the end of the film. When Joe asks who the lucky girl is, Jerry enthusiastically responds, “I am.” In shock, Joe asks, “Why would a guy want to marry a guy,” to which Jerry responds, “Security of course.” The scene validates Straayer’s argument that transvestism is never pursued for pleasure in film, but rather as a necessity.[22] Although he attributes necessity in this case to Joe and Jerry escaping the mobsters, Jerry’s willingness to engage in transvestism indefinitely can also be attributed to the need for financial and social security. Despite necessity, Joe is against the marriage. He says, “There are laws, conventions…” to which Jerry interrupts, “You think he’s too old for me?” While the scene is undeniably funny, it shows the uselessness of Jerry’s desire to maintain disguise indefinitely.[23]

In terms of female characters, Sugar emphasizes financial dependence on men, as she searches for her Prince Charming, so to speak. Similarly, the first time Joe, disguised as Junior, talks to Sugar, she is impressed by the fact he supposedly owns a yacht. In Enchanted, Giselle and Morgan ‘borrow’ Robert’s VISA card toward the end of the film, in order for Giselle to prepare for the ball. The shopping spree scene establishes Robert’s ability to provide material comforts, a trait that is commonly gendered as male, and reinforced as such.[24] With purchases spread out around Giselle and Morgan as they talk in the beauty salon, it is clear consumerism provides a setting for intimacy. This is also evident in Some Like it Hot, in the scene where Joe and Sugar kiss on the yacht.[25]

Reflecting off of consumerism and intimacy, both films couple femininity with a dependence on fantasy. To refer back to the scene where Robert, Morgan and Giselle first meet, the book Important Women of Our Time, is set aside as Morgan races toward Giselle, who she believes to be a real princess. This scene confirms Tasker’s assumption that the film in general posits the “viability of princess-hood as an alternative to the troubled terms of ‘real world’ feminine achievement.”[26] While princess-hood is typically associated with children, Giselle clearly embodies a child-like woman bound up in fantasy.[27] The film prominently features her presence as disruptive to Robert. Through her oblivious femininity, she first jeopardizes his relationship and later his job.[28]

While postfeminism insists on female empowerment, Tasker argues strength can only be celebrated when figured in appropriately feminine terms.[29] Giselle becomes less disruptive, and so, more ‘acceptable’ only as she falls out of her fairytale fantasy, in adherence with capitalist consumer culture. In Some Like it Hot, Sugar’s character is comparable to Giselle’s. Even in scenes where she takes on a more erotic role, on the yacht or onstage singing for example, there is innocence to her sexuality. Innocence in this regard, indicates the necessity of male characters to liberate female characters.

After examining the representation of femininity in each film, the essay will now touch on representations of masculinity as similarly adhering to gendered norms. Robert, Joe and Jerry are portrayed as intelligent and independent men. Robert’s independence is enforced by his job, while his masculinity is enforced by his denial of true love, and his refusal to sing and dance. The same is affirmed for Joe and Jerry by the fact they are able to flee danger in the beginning of the film, first from the cops and then from the mobsters. However, in scenes where Jerry is disguised as Daphne, his intelligence and common sense diminish as he spends time with Osgood, implying that women are not intelligent in nature. As Straayer argues, rigid portrayals of masculinity are likely a result of stigmatization toward femininity in men.[30]

Although it is evident that visual narratives support traditional gender relations, both films challenge the re-organization of gender according to heterosexual coupling in the last few scenes.[31] Up until the end of Some Like it Hot viewers continually refer back to the boundaries of heterosexuality, as Joe and Jerry are only pretending to be feminine.[32] While the film does reinstate heterosexual relations with Joe and Sugar, it provides equal opportunity for viewers to exceed heteronormativity with the uncertainty of Jerry and Osgood’s future relationship.[33] The film ends with Jerry admitting to Osgood he’s not a woman, to which Osgood responds, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Further, the finale of Enchanted offers an alternative ending to mainstream fairytales. After Giselle is revived by true loves kiss, Queen Narissa, who has transformed herself into a dragon, snatches Robert up. It is Giselle who ends up saving his life. The scene casts Robert as a damsel in distress, while allowing Giselle to play the hero. By hinting at the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Jerry and Osgood, and by allowing Giselle to save Robert, both endings leave room for interpretation.

Bibliography

Chris Straayer, “Redressing the “Natural”: The Temporary Transvestite Film.” In Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1996), 42–78.

Yvonne Tasker, “Enchanted (2007) By Postfeminism: Gender, Irony and the New Romantic Comedy.” In Feminism at the Movies: Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2011), 67–79. Print.

[1] Chris Straayer, “Redressing the Natural: The Temporary Transvestite Film” (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1996), 42.

[2] Yvonne Tasker, “Enchanted (2007) By Postfeminism: Gender, Irony and the New Romantic Comedy” (New York: Routledge, 2011), 68.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tasker, “Enchanted,” 70.

[6] Ibid., 68.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid., 73.

[9] Straayer, “Redressing the Natural,” 42.

[10] Tasker, “Enchanted,” 69.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 76.

[14] Tasker, “Enchanted,” 76.

[15] Ibid., 76.

[16] Ibid., 74.

[17] Straayer, “Redressing the Natural,” 46.

[18] Straayer, “Redressing the Natural,” 46.

[19] Ibid., 47.

[20] Ibid., 56.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Straayer, “Redressing the Natural,” 44.

[23] Ibid., 55.

[24] Tasker, “Enchanted,” 77.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Tasker, “Enchanted,” 75.

[27] Ibid., 70.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30] Straayer, “Redressing the Natural,” 69.

[31] Ibid., 52.

[32] Ibid., 43.

[33] Ibid.

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