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Roman Holiday (1953): Not a tale of romance but of women’s liberation

Examining the iconic film under the feminist lens on its 68th anniversary.

Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) staring at shop windows in the 1953 film Roman Holiday.

As a young woman, I was always quite cautious with the so called “chic flick” or “rom com” movie genre. It was a bit of a love-hate relationship in itself. On one hand, my heart said it was ok to immersive myself in a love fantasy for an hour or two and on the other, my brain rejected the idea of comforting to gender stereotypes. Never has the term “guilty pleasure” better described a viewing experience (shout out to the whole Olsen twins filmography!).

Not much has changed since, to be honest. Except the fact that now I can better understand how I felt and I am more able to rationalize it. I’m even way more selective of these types of movies, knowing that although we’ve come a long way since, Hollywood still fails to acknowledge the nuances and complicated realities of sex, love, and relationships.

And out of the selected few I watch, every once I stumble upon a film that redefines the genre. Much to my surprise, my latest discovery was not released in our “modern, feminist days”, but nearly seven decades ago…

So what is Roman Holiday about?

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is a princess who finds herself in Rome on royal business. When she expresses her frustration with the little control she has over her life, those in charge give her a sedative rather than help. Shortly afterwards, she sneaks out of the embassy and into the real world. Her unstable state leads Ann to sleep on a bench in the street, where Joe (Gregory Peck) finds her. As a proper gentleman -and unaware of Ann’s identity- he helps Ann by letting her sleep in his apartment instead.

The next day, however, Joe discovers Ann is royalty. As it just so happens he is a reporter, he sees the opportunity for the article of a lifetime: exclusive insight into the unfiltered, real princess Ann. Thus, he conceals his own identity, pretends to ignore hers, and offers to show her around Rome. Though Ann initially declines and takes off, he eventually convinces her to take the day off and enjoy the city sights with him.

Over the course of a blissful day full of adventures, Ann and Joe form a bond that is sealed with a kiss on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, that evening Ann comes to terms with the fact she can’t further escape her life and asks Joe to drive her near the embassy. On his end, Joe realizes he genuinely cares about Ann and decides against writing the exposé.

The couple has their final farewell the next day at a press conference, where Ann realizes Joe’s true identity and they come to an implicit agreement that the events of their day together will remain secret.

I know what you’re thinking, “but Thais, this is textbook ‘chick flick’! You said it was a revelation!”. I promise it is, we just need to dig a little deeper.

Beyond the plot

First, let’s look at the historical and cultural context when this movie first came out. In the 1950s, USA rose from the ashes of World War II to step into the start of historical domestic and international events, like the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. The country was consolidated as a military and political power and the economy was booming. Prosperity reached such unprecedented levels that I can easily imagine previous generations thinking people were now living like royalty. For many, life had never been more comfortable. Stability and tradition were the ideal, not just in economy, but also in society. Women’s primary role as wife and mother was encouraged and expected, even for those who had joined the workforce during the war. And so, inside those suburban homes full of things there was something more essential missing for women: true freedom.

So I see princess Ann as a symbol of the (mostly white) women of that decade, living seemingly perfect lives over which they had little to no control and with increasingly unrealistic expectations to fulfill. It strongly caught my attention that in the film, even when Ann voices her needs, they are dismissed and ignored. Of course she reaches a breaking point! It makes sense that the most viable solution for her is to escape the system (if only momentarily).

On the other hand, Joe is not really a love interest. His legitimate role in the story is as a partner in crime: a man that is not there to impose his wishes and expectations of Ann. A feminist ally before that was a mainstream thing, if you will. He acts as an enabler of Ann’s free will. She’s curious and hungry to make her own decisions, she asserts herself by going into the unknown and coming out of it more confident that ever. She tries new things and even fails at some (a few driving lessons are in order!) without ever being discouraged or judged by Joe. He is a supportive anomaly in the system that rules Ann’s life.

Ann explores her freedom by walking around Rome alone, shopping and changing her style spontaneously. All seemingly mundane decisions and yet significant. “Retail therapy” is a well-known coping mechanism is our capitalist societies that while not particularly effective in solving a problem, it still boosts confidence and happiness. Likewise, a hair cut is a big deal. When you think about it, hair is one of the most visible expressions of our identity and one of the few physical traits we can change relatively easily and fast. As Coco Channel famously put it, “a woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” And that’s exactly what Ann did.

At the end of the day, the princess goes back to establish a “new normal”, fully accepting she has a duty to her family and her people, but at least taking leadership in her own terms. No longer a pampered girl but a grown woman, who knows who she is and what she is capable of.

My takeaways

Far too long only perceived as a style icon, Princess Ann should get more credit for being a feminist symbol. It’s inspiring to see a woman prioritize her needs and assert herself in a world where female lives are constantly under pressure and policing.

I wound up with some renewed hope in the romantic comedies. While I would not define the film as the perfect allegory to women’s liberation (it does still have that scene where Joe and Ann discuss her doing domestic chores for someone *cue eye roll*), it is a really good one. Specially for its time. Not only that, but from the purely cinematic lens, it is beautifully shot (can’t beat that black and white), portraits very charismatic characters, and it pulls all the right emotional strings without getting (too) sappy. So much that I dare you not to shed a tear with that ending.

Speaking of that ending: it’s the best part of the whole experience. It disrupts the conventions of its genre to serve the story. It is a calculated decision not to have Ann end up with Joe like hundreds of Hollywood films have taught us over the decades. It’s not there for “twist” value, but reinforcing that the story is not about getting the guy at all, but about a woman getting her life back. It’s not about finding love in another, but within herself.

In a world that expects docile dames, may we all find our inner Princess Ann.

Thais Bogarín is a content nerd, cinephile, and intersectional feminist. Follow her on Instagram @tha.is.in.das.haus

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