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Friday, May 9, 2014

A DELICATE BALANCE: The Enigmatic, Androgynous Power of Katharine Hepburn

Kate the Great as photographed by Ernest Bachrach.

*In conjunction with The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon of May 10-May 12 2014 as hosted by Margaret Perry.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that Katharine Hepburn was an extraordinary human being. There are many ways in which one could analyze this “extraordinariness”-- her talent, her humanitarianism, her courage-- but at the end of the day, the commonality exposed in all areas of her life and livelihood was that she was, unarguably, a woman without compromise. Indeed, she was a woman who refused to play 'woman' or be labeled, constrained, or predetermined by any outstanding social statutes regarding “expected feminine behavior” or such attempted assignations upon her person of the female gender role. It wasn't that "Kate" colored outside the lines; it's that she flat out ignored them. They didn’t exist, whatever these line separated between rich and poor, government and people, and most intriguingly, men and women. As for the latter, her unapologetic trespass over gender lines illuminated her as an unexpected force of nature on the screen and an accidental-on-purpose groundbreaker. 

Taking to the Skies like the guys in 
Christopher Strong.
With Kate, the sky was the limit in terms of just what she was capable, (as was expressed in one of her most androgynous roles in Christopher Strong). The way she played this game of mixed sexual power, her duality of the masculine and feminine (here discussed in the most conventional terms), evidenced itself in her decisions as an actress, and in a strange fashion, allowed her to indulge in an almost asexual fortitude that was absolutely atypical compared to the majority female performers of her day. She produced through her natural efforts an elevated, intellectual, and still romantic cinematic hero. Notice I didn’t say “heroine.” In her fashion/presentation, her acting style, and her explorations of love on the screen, she was one of a kind by being two of a kind: embracing both the male and the female stereotypes and melding them into one. She fused them so perfectly that the audience wasn’t even aware that she was leading them by the nose right into the future. She was herself a living testament to sexual equality.

The effect of her unspecified gender and for lack of a better word "sexlessness," (not sexiness-less) was most effective on film, of course, where her persona was indulged through the eager mass consumption of her work. Our conceptualization of sexual identity in any regard is forever in flux, which is to say that one’s sex does not necessarily define his or her gender and never has. However, we do try, as is our nature, to establish certain modes and codes of conduct in our daily interactions to diffuse the tension such unlabeled sexual confusion can cause. Ergo, the “effeminate” male and the “masculine” female are generally viewed as contradictions in terms, as their behaviors, and not necessarily sexual preferences, work in opposition to certain societal dictates and preconceived notions of “male” and “female. The meaning and power behind various cultural and sociological symbols, and the subliminal or even overt stories they implant in our subconscious, the ways in which they have and will continue to manifest within each era, are never totally synchronized, though the typical assignation of the female into the subordinate and domestic role seems to have maintained the most lasting and perpetual of impressions-- with few exceptions.

Kate in the stage production of "The Warrior's
Husband," which exemplifies not only her
rebellion against submission but an example
of her early twisting of gender roles.
From the genesis of "Genesis," the overwhelming consensus that women are the “weaker” sex-- in physical, mental, and emotional terms-- but also the most sexually dangerous-- temptresses bearing the fruit of life and turning all (heterosexual) men into legions of Tantaluses --- has throughout history, literature, art, and film, made "Her" a thing honored, adored, feared, and most desperately contained, if only to protect her from becoming a danger to herself. She is objectified, she is conditioned, and she is given very little freedom of movement on her journey of self discovery. Her “self” has already been structured into an easily duplicable system to which she is expected to abide. Though, it must be said, men suffer the same limitations and pressures in terms of proving their masculinity and worthiness both to their brethren and the women to whom they are expected to dominate with great "authority" and "confidence." It is a never-ending balancing act between desires, lust vs. loins, with little space for expansion. Even the sacred structure of the nuclear family couldn’t prevent its eventual implosion.

With this background, returning to the ‘feminine’ label, does it not make sense, after being subjected to such deliberate and unconscious sexual programming that one of the most liberating things a woman can experience is the rejection of her designated femininity through her indulgence in typically masculine behaviors? To do so is immediately empowering. It is to overcome preconceived limitations and walk comfortably in trousers (literally and figuratively) after being tightly bound and  handicapped by bodices and petticoats. Conversely, while the male emotional state must remain in conflict due to his inability to express himself through anything other than aggression, he can still not stoop to the level of feminine behavior, whose demure presentation would be viewed as debasing. The crassest example of this is the allocation of, pardon me, “pussy"-- the flowery term describing the female genitals-- as the lowest of lows when it comes to insults.

Dietrich being devious... with a wink.
But I digress. Coming to the point, in terms of cinematic presentation, the alternating and contrasting depictions of the masculine-feminine or the feminine-masculine in film leave quite an impression on the viewer and are generally displayed as tongue and cheek comic relief, indicating that in reality such sexual tradeoffs are incorrect. Still, like a pink elephant in the room, the manifestation is unexpected, exciting, and at times quite divine. For example, the dominating eroticism of a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich vs. the immediately homophobic presentation of the femme man as comic relief (Gary Cooper’s butler in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or James Cagney’s tailor in The Public Enemy), both toy with yet maintain the assertion that the exhibition of female qualities in a man is debasing, as women by nurture are the denigrated sex, but the exploration of the masculine is the highest of compliments.

In keeping, at the end of Morocco, Marlene still has to don a skirt and traipse after her man (again Cooper) to prove her worthiness of womanhood, and the more macho Cagney and Cooper, in their respective films, have to in various ways exude more male confidence to negate and thereby make fun of the homosexual, “girly-men” in their films. The message left behind is that such sexually incoherent gender trespassers are inadmissible in reality. Play with these delineations as one may, as far as symbolism is concerned, a man must still “be a man” and a woman a woman in order for the world to turn.

Perfect fusion of Kate's both masculine and
feminine beauty.
But Kate? Kate's 'musts' were of her own making. She went right ahead with her perplexing manifestations of both "womanliness" and “manliness.” However, whereas Dietrich donned a top hat in self-indulgent and comic provocation or Louise Brooks cross dressed in happenstance to only further elaborate upon her potently sexual girlishness, Kate wore pants because she literally “wore the pants,” which is to say that she was ultimately the lord and master of her own life. Her attitudes were not those of a woman out to prove a point. There was no agenda behind her choice of trousers over skirts, and she vacillated between both options on the screen with total ease. She looked eqally at home in any wardrobe, and not just because of her complimentary, trim physique, but because her posture was that of a confident being and not a costumed creature in dress-up. The only role she ever played was herself.

She wore makeup, certainly, but this only enhanced her natural beauty. It never exaggerated her features to transform her into a living doll. Imagine the clownish mouths of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or the exploitation of such ultimate cosmeticized sex icons like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Their faces were elaborate fictions, labeling them as creatures of lust while simultaneously hiding the soft, fragile human being beneath. In effect, it was dehumanizing. As such, Monroe as a pop-icon has legions of fans who have never seen her films and don't know or respect her work. In contrast, Kate’s face was never fraud, and more particularly as she aged, she embraced her flaws, warts, wrinkles, and all and wore them nakedly, which is why she continued working with regularity while other actresses of her time did not. She was able to go from the ingenue of Morning Glory to the aged, defeated Queen Hecuba in Trojan Women, because she had never painted herself in broad strokes (pun intended). She exhibited no physical vanity, unless this was specific to the character. Her identity as a woman was not plastered on her face and there upon advertised like a billboard for her purchasable  sexuality. Again, few recognize the continuing crucifixion of Monroe as a product, which forces her to interminably, while Kate remains unmarketable.

Still vibrant.
The same is true of her more casual presentation. Kate was able to more directly inhabit the threads of the typically masculine gender, because on her they too were clothes without labels. They said nothing about her identity and were not a calculated social movement bourn upon her breast like a badge of political anarchy. So, in Pat and Mike she jaunts about in athletic wear while jogging and playing tennis (again, more male associated actions) and in Sylvia Scarlett she goes full drag to “disguise” herself, but in so doing never seems to be in disguise nor incongruent, because she never defined herself by typically feminine nor typically masculine gestures. She remains the perfect hermaphrodite, attractive and intrinsically interesting in her bare faced, ornament-free, “Plain [John]” suit of clothes. One could just as easily imagine her punching her timecard at the mill as pressing trousers at home. (Hers, not her husbands).

In fact, much fun has been had utilizing Kate’s seeming ignorance of certain female sexual queues. The idea of her performing token domestic roles like folding laundry, vacuuming, or cooking seem immediately comic-- especially when it comes to cooking. These tasks may be "woman’s work," but they are not something a "working woman" has time to do. Kate absolutely fell into the latter category. She didn’t cook. She didn’t clean. Even when she is folding laundry and unpacking in Stage Door, she seems confused by the motion and making a trivial joke of it-- What a silly function it is, performing these ‘chores,’ she seems to say. 

Kate was equally indefinable as an actress, being neither the Gal Friday nor the femme fatale, and she rarely, rarely played mothers. The maternal instinct was totally lost on her. It wasn’t in accordance with who she was, and her portrayals of a mother on the screen could definitely feel unnatural (State of the Union), if only because such a display was irrefutable proof that she was absolutely a female who had at least once been penetrated/dominated (figuratively and literally) by a male force. (Though my guess is that she was on top). In any case, "Mom" was far too distinctive a title to be placed upon her. To be a mother would immediately erase her chameleon-like abilities as a gender blender and sell her incredibly malleable abilities short. Mostly, it would remove her androgynous Sainthood. Audiences didnt like Kate in a form fitting box. They wanted to see her ram her head against the wall 'til it gave. In truth, her audiences would be less surprised to discover that she had actually knocked up say Colin Clive or Fred MacMurray than they would to find her sitting in a rocking chair with a fat belly, knitting booties for "Junior." 

Alice Adams
Even in perhaps the “girliest” of her roles, that of Alice Adams, Kate may have presented a woman of grace and possessing other erstwhile symbolic examples of her femininity-- an interest in fashion and flowers, the intent of landing a husband-- but she also undoes any possible feminist insults such token symbols could inflict upon her person by choosing to make Alice's determination and drive the fundamental issue of her story. She never comes off as hopeless, delicate, or helpless. She isn’t a girl sitting by the side of the road, showing a little leg, in the hope that her hero on a white horse will trot up and whisk her away. Most importantly,  she’s not a “dizzy dame” searching for social validation through marriage. Instead, she’s a warrior, albeit in taffeta, with a concrete goal-- to establish for herself a life of romance and beauty, one which society tries to deny her due to her low social status, poverty, and family. Therefore, her romantic sensibility is more rebellion than romance. 

Love was a basic human right to Kate’s heroines, but not one she necessarily was compelled to indulge in-- unless the fruits offered were substantially appetizing. As such, men were easily determined by her as useful or expendable. She seemed to just as easily love ‘em as leave ‘em. The primary issue was that one didn’t waste one’s time. She would get around to it, "love," when she got around to it, which separated her further from some of the more obsessive women of the era who used to devote their time to either landing the love pup, getting over the guy that got away, or getting revenge on the skunk. The depictions of this woman were best showcased by "dames" like Joan Blondell or the perpetually lovesick and ever man-centric Joan Crawford.

Holding her own with or without Bogie in The African
Conversely, in most cases regarding her interaction with the opposite sex, Kate consistently presented herself with a bewildering but befitting androgyny, at least until she found the proper partner. In any case, she checked her typically "feminine charms," (cleavage, eye-batting), at the door without eliminating her sex drive. This wasn’t an effort consciously done, at least not in the way Kate presented it. As opposed to tough broads like Stanwyck, whose characterizations were often those of a jaded woman who had taken herself off the market in an “I’ll be damned if another man gets the best of me,” kind of way, Kate didn’t withhold her sensuality purposefully. She was merely too preoccupied with other, more interesting things to operate under such a mentality, which rendered her at the point of her own asexual oblivion. Anyway, men weren’t a threat to her or her happiness, as she never made a social distinction between herself, as a woman, and men in general in the first place. As such, she never gave a man, nor anyone else, power over herself. In Stage Door, while most of the other actresses are focused on “date night” and catching a beau, Kate is more intent on building her career. In The African Queen, she is a spinster unashamed of her spinsterhood, and only through the presence of Bogart considers that, having already devoted her life to selfless missionary work, she may be ready to indulge herself a little as a personal reward, since the situation has thrown a man in her lap anyway. Previously, any man would have been a mere distraction from her "calling." The ingredient of danger, the real attraction for her, makes him more interesting.

Sex, therefor was a maybe and not a necessity in her decision making. She had bigger fish  to fry. When her curiosity was peaked, and she did indeed find the great, white whale worthy of her attentions, she would use whatever means she had to possess him-- her ‘means’ being honesty, loyalty, and the innocence of her affections.  She did not “seduce” in the typical sense by using her physical presence to lure a partner. She offered. She let ‘it,’ her attraction, be known. This is me, fella. Grab it if you want it. We see this in the way she clings to Jimmy Stewart after their late night swim in A Philadelphia Story, “Hello, Mike,” rolling into his neck or the way her eyes are naked and open, staring at Rossano Brazzi in Summertime, telling him everything and leaving nothing unturned. In these moments, she is a child-- a changeling. She is a sexless spirit and a reflective soul asking recognition from another. 

Herein is the vast distinction between her approach to “wooing” and that of the typical female screen personality, the clearest evidence of which can be observed in the fact that that it was she who typically played the wooer-- not the guy. While studios liked to promote submissive good girls and "tits-first, ask questions never" sex goddesses, Kate was a slip of a woman that, had she been allowed to wear her standard choice of khakis and an old shirt, would have completely faded into the background amongst Tinsel Town’s more voluptuous treasures. As such, in her characterizations, her lack of these typically obvious female signifiers-- large chest, wet mouth, wide hips-- forced her to transcend her gender again to become the amorous instigator. This, in a way, was an apology for her her unapologetic indulgence in her own androgyny.

Sylvia Scarlett
The most obvious example of this is Sylvia Scarlett, the film in which Kate falls in love with and is tested with earning Cary Grant’s love in return, while in crossdress. Without the distraction of cosmetics and veneer, she is left with nothing but the revelation of the depths of her love and genuine respect to earn his. In Little Women, she is the headstrong Jo March, who eschews the standard role for women by refusing to marry Laurie, the boy who would have made her an eternal girl, and instead endears herself to the older, more educated Prof. Bhaer who challenges her mind and fosters her growth as a genderless human being. So too is her fate in Mary of Scotland, wherein she suffers the sexless life of a Queen-- thus making her the sole ruling King-- to whom marriage is politics, leaving no room for the usual female flirtations of youth. The man she truly desires, Fredric March, she must bind to her through reason, understanding, and true compassion, because she has a job to do and cannot exhibit her affections in the conventional sense. 

Perhaps the simplest way to say this is that Kate did not submit herself at any point to objectification, especially in terms of obtaining a man’s love or, at the very least, his attention. More bluntly, she led with the thing between her head, not her thighs. She did not "tease" in the physical sense. If she, with her strange duality, was going to win a partner, she had to come at him from an unexpected place. She worked from the inside out, pulling them apart and rearranging them like a puzzle, and in doing so opening their minds to the revelation of herself-- a different product of “woman” than they had ever seen before, as she was ultimately half man. 

With Fredric March in Mary of Scots
The effect was perhaps even more compelling than the standard experience of a male character falling in love. With Kate, he didn’t know he was falling until he had landed, face to face, with her. The ride was over just as the new one beginning, and his heart was already a lost cause, for where again would March, Franchot Tone, Bogart, or Grant find so fascinating and brave a sphinx to contend with again? Who could offer any of them so perfect a relationship? After all, what is a “couple,” whether heterosexual or homosexual, but a perfect blending of the genders and a sharing of each other-- becoming one another? Kate left immediate room for her mate’s further expansion and growth with her, because she had already arrived at the place of gender equality on her own and offered him the space to share it. Love with Kate, therefore, was on another level. It wasn’t “I am woman; you are man.” It was, “Here we are, two human beings. Now what?” The possibilities were endless.

Despite this description of Kate’s asexual presentation, one could hardly say that she wasn’t sexual. One of the most fascinating aspects of Kate’s screen presence was indeed her sexuality, her marked sensuality, and her enthusiastic desire, the evidence of which only works to further exaggerate her male-female conundrum. For the masculine, she is consistently the predator and a potently sexual one at that. She is always direct in what she wants, whether she has selected Grant’s lovable, overgrown boy buffoon as her next meal or the equally direct but close-to-the-vest Spencer Tracy, with whom oceans of philosophical dialogue passed in mutually appreciative stares, which indicated all the ravenous lovemaking that the camera, due to censorship, could not.

What differentiaties Kate from her contemporaries is actually her unemotive approach to the mating ritual. She is cut and dry and unencumbered by analytics. Her head was never spinning with wonderment about what lied within a man’s mind or his heart. She thought like a man herself. She had the ability to separate sex and love, and as such, in the realm of romance, led with an intellectual foot. This, a typically masculine demonstration of the head and groin approach (vs. the heart and gut of the female) is best exemplified in her partnerships with Grant, with whom she made four films-- Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, Sylvia Scarlett, and A Philadelphia Story. In all of these films, whether he knew it or not, Cary was her sexual toy-- whether we were witnessing the effect pre- or post-consummation. The latter film would eventually exhibit the toppling of Kate’s sexual methodology when her Tracy Lord has to surrender her macho behaviors to wind up with Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven.

With Cary in her net in Bringing Up Baby
Bringing Up Baby, a screwball comedy about a wild feline-- the leopard “Baby”-- could be interpreted as a parallel between Grant’s learned Dr. David and Kate’s blasé Susan, in that she is the real wild thing that has come into his life and is, as a result, spinning it into complete disarray. However, the ‘bringing up’ can refer only to David, who is little more than a baby-fied nerd whom the feral and comically unpredictable Susan must bring up to her level. While the more educated of the two characters, David is clueless, helpless, and even infantile in operation. He is equally sexually immature. Yet, at no time does the audience experience any confusion regarding the fact that the more poignantly carnal Susan wants to rip his clothes from his body and take him to task, no matter how daffy the presentation of her erotically charged affections. She leads David by the nose, being perpetually one step ahead, walking backward, ultimately waiting for him to catch up, reclaim the caveman instincts he left behind for the starched life of an intellectual, and shag her brains out properly. 

The bride wore shame.
Susan as the sexual aggressor, which was typically the male role during this cinematic time period, keeps David utterly befuddled and trapped in her manipulative game-- her creative sport of foreplay-- during which she preys upon and uses his sense of decency and responsibility the same way that male figures are typically portrayed as preying on the female sex’s maternal instincts and romantic eagerness. The result is David’s utter shaming and emasculation. While Susan cleverly creates a maze that will ultimately coax David into the marital bed with her whether he likes it or not-- “here, kitty, kitty, kitty"-- he is left to wander aimlessly in a frilly, white robe akin to a woman's wedding night negligee. It is Susan's purposeful costuming of him. She dresses him for the part and challenges him to change genders. When he leaps up and shouts the immortal retort to May Robson, “Because, I just went GAY all of a sudden,” it is a loaded statement. Due to the confused gender roles of the film, David is, in effect, a quasi-homosexual: he is a male attracted to a female who is in turn wearing the masculine gender. It’s not a sexual awakening; it’s a nightmare! And, ultimately, a turn on.

Naturally, as Kate represented herself in all her roles, she was consistently looking for an equal, or at least her perfect opposite, which was difficult considering her duality. Lovers, husbands, and boyfriends were faceless and interchangeable. A true sparring partner, now that was the real goal, and when she found a worthy opponent, she dug her claws in-- even if he needed a little coaching along the way. In Baby, in order to amp up David’s maturation process, we see Susan's comic shenanigans in the jail scenes. She and David have been locked up as local loons in the town jail, and it is Susan, not David, who uses her wiles and physical prowess to save the day. This she does by posing as an imaginary gangster’s moll, which causes a destruction so she can make her exit.

"Swingin' Door Sue makes her play in the pen'.
It must be noted that during this process, Susan inhabits the mannerisms and vocal intonations of a man-- a gangster, not his mill. She slouches, makes the choice to sit about-face on a chair, and leads with the shoulders-- not the hips. She’s a lampoon of Al Capone not his mistress. Cracking jokes with the big boys, she makes her getaway, finds a faux Baby, and returns to the jail, proving that she and David are not insane but genuinely were scouring the town for a lost leopard. Unfortunately, fake Baby is a mean Bitch, and in effect a sacrificial offering to David. When the cat goes wild and poses a real danger to Susan's life, he must finally step up and play the hero, protect his woman, and save her-- though it is clear that she never really needed his help. It is almost as if the effort is done simply to boost David’s confidence and temper Susan's own intimidating effect on him. This one act of heroics makes it safe for David to be with her, because he has already proved that he is a Man, even if not as big a man as she.

The combination of these two talents is beyond pleasurable, however one notices that their medley of sexualities only works in comedy. In reality, their chemistry doesn’t make sense romantically. They are more like a brother and sister at play. Who can recall them even kissing? If they did, it didn’t leave much of an impression. Kate’s masculinity was really too much of an accidental threat to Grant’s own, as he increasingly throughout his career devoted himself to the image of his sharp-dressed man seductiveness. He was Bond before Bond. (And nearly was James Bond, but that’s another story). This prototype that would be solidified in his Hitchcockian performances would and could not be dominated by any woman. As his career progressed and he distanced himself from the handsome clown of his youth, his performances took on a bit more of a sinister air (Notorious, North By Northwest) as his emotional detachment, the same seen in Kate's romanticism or anti-romanticism, began to invade his demeanor. 

Dressed down and chumming between takes.
As such, they were really mirror images of each other, not fuseable counterpoints. The result of this-- Grant having transformed totally into this put-together, macho person-- was their last collaboration, A Philadelphia Story, a film that works perfectly but somehow feels wrong. While the couple of Tracy and Dexter duel for domination in their failed relationship and eventually reunite, the hoped for Hollywood ending, the resolution rings false. Neither one is ever really going to submit to the other. They are too in sync to be compatible. The greatest chemistry produced in this film was actually that between Kate and Stewart, whose is sycophantic passion is illuminated by Kate’s luminosity. He comes to adore her, but he knows his place-- beneath her, beside her, basking in her light. Unfortunately, her Tracy “doesn’t want to be worshipped; [she] want(s) to be loved.” She sought a partner in toto, one who would not idolize her more than she idolized him back. Interestingly, she would find him in the man she had originally hoped to cast in A Philadelphia Story...

Tracy and Hepburn
Nowhere better was the perfect exchange of Kate’s other gender and elevated romantic expectation met and fulfilled than with Spencer Tracy. Their first coming together (pun may or may not be intended) was beyond perfection. The story behind their offscreen romance has become mythical of course. It was a legendary companionship and extra-marital affair that lasted from their teaming on Woman of the Year until their respective deaths. (Kate naturally outlived Spence, as was her way). Their rapport onscreen is beyond skepticism or gossip. We have the evidence of this consensual beauty. Perfect opposites who complimented and exaggerated the better, worse, and lesser indulged qualities of each other, their onscreen companionship-- at its best-- was poetry.

Examining the films of Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a trilogy of their best works-- the young couple, the married couple, the aged couple-- you witness the endurance of their chemistry: the way they move around and adapt to each other, compliment each other, battle each other, and mostly just love each other. In their pairing on the screen, there is never any question of that love, and there is neither any question that in her roles Kate was never more sincerely romantic as an actress than in her films with Spence. It is the only time you truly see her vulnerable.

A date so good, they didn't want to let go...
This is interesting, because in a way, Tracy and his intense, every man masculinity,was perhaps the first beast that Kate’s film females were truly impressed by or in awe of. In their films, she moves away from her feigned girlishness and coquettishness and spars with her partner in a continuing trade of domination/submission. Their early scenes in Woman of the Year-- their first real date at the bar when they get drunk together, that first cab ride home-- feels like an intrusion into very private and honest moments. With her eyes and manner, Kate’s entire being seems to curl up like a cat in Spence’s lap, where he lovingly and tenderly offers safety for the expression of her total inamoration of him. 

Most importantly, it is a fair trade. Tracy is just as enticed by Kate’s strong-headedness and ambition as a worldly working woman, someone form whom he can learn something and experience more of life, as he is thrilled at seeing the revelation of her secret charms and hidden sincerities. His duality as Kate’s fellow asexual counterpart is his ability to take on, in the film, equally more feminine manifestations. While her gaze is fixed, he often casts his own downward, bashfully-- searching clumsily for words on the table, for example. When he first asks her out, she challengingly meets him head on, forcing him to walk backward at her show of intimidation (and up the stairs at that. Oh, George Stevens... I heart you). It’s a cat and mouse game with her showing precisely what she’s made of to ascertain if Tracy is willing to put on his gloves and face her, again, like a man. She is also ultimately more successful than he in the film-- she has a higher education, higher breeding, she comes from money and makes plenty of her own, speaks several languages, etc. He, comically, goes to her business gatherings and stands aside like her socially incompatible wife and arm trophy. When she adopts a son, it is he who takes care of him. It is also he who has the heart in the relationship. He’s the woman trying to break through to the unattainable fortress of emotion in Kate’s masculine facade. 

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Kate is ready to pounce on her prey, as ever, on the first date, but it is Tracy who makes his innocent exit. He doesn’t want to lose a future with this woman by indulging in the heated superficialities of immediate sex. Kate wants his “cookie;” he won’t give it to her. He plays his cards in order to win a wife and not a temporary lover, just as women are perpetually coached to guard their carnal treasures: “Men of the world only want one thing,” “When they get what they want, they never want it again,” etc. Spence's card up his sleeve is-- to borrow the philosophy of modern comedian Steve Harvey-- that he already “thinks like a man,” because he is one. So, he doesn’t fall into Kate’s more typically male sexual traps.

In the end, Kate has to surrender her position as the sole pillar of strength and her independent, career-focused lifestyle to accomodate her role shared position in their marriage. She is, by title, his wife. She must, therefore, embrace her femininity. Naturally, this makes the modern feminist cringe a bit-- a woman’s salvation was always in an apron in the studio era. The ending would be more insulting, however, were it not for the equal balance of Kate and Spence's sexual-chameleon qualities. In the beginning, Tracy was willing to play the wife as much as the husband; Kate was never willing to do the same. It is therefore only fair that she must surrender some of her authority to embrace and offer him equal tenderness. She must give as well as get. While one can’t help but feel that she will never, ever be comfortable in the kitchen-- not after the breakfast scene that destroys any illusion of her culinary abilities-- one feels that she will at least be consistently willing to bend a little, and in turn, to compromise and fuse her androgyny with Tracy’s own.

Spence and Kate, post-slap.
In fact, Kate seems happy to do it. While she certainly has the carriage of a woman who bows to no man, you also get a sense from this pair’s playfulness and flirting that she wouldn’t mind letting her guard down and getting a spanking or two from the only man in history who could knock her off her guard. Fittingly, Tracy does slap her right on the tush in Adam’s Rib, which instigates a brilliant quarrel on the rules of consensual S&M, gender roles, etc, etc, etc. Had the slap been a sexual slap, it would have been one thing. However, in this scene, the two dueling lawyers are genuinely debating each other, and the resentment and use of masculine power attached to Tracy’s slap goes from being an acceptable form of foreplay to an assertive sublimation of Kate into the role of the weaker sex. She rebels against it. Thus, the matter of contention in the whole film: the compromise between the sexes and the establishment of peace in between.

At ease.
This is an extension of Woman of the Year. The married couple battles in the bedroom and the courtroom for the determination of just exactly who the "man of the house" is. The end is a justified compromise: Kate wears the pants in court; Tracy at home. Their roles become switched a bit in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Spence playing the fixed stick in the mud, and Kate the more emotional and amenable matriarch-- the curmudgeon vs. mother earth. Their mental ping-ponging remains in tact. Of course, this exchange exists in all of their films, perhaps best witnessed in Pat and Mike, wherein Kate is the athlete who is accepted for the collision of her masculine-feminine nature by Tracy, who specifically fosters her androgyny as her trainer. As ever, he wants the best of both worlds in one woman. In Desk Set, they are again competing professionals-- Kate leading with her limitless intelligence and encyclopediac mind and Tracy with his technical expertise, neither being able to outdo the other. The formula works less when their delicate balance-- a wider establishment of Kate's own-- is found not in the middle but on opposite ends, with Kate taking on the token suffering wife roles in Sea of Grass or Keeper of the Flame. These example, as it turns out, were playing totally against type for her if not totally for him. When their playfullness is lost and thus their almost psychic understanding, so too goes the emotional connection the audience has with them, but mostly with Kate. We want to see her wearing both the pants and the skirt in her usual 50/50 ratio. 

What we can gather from this (very longwinded) description of Kate’s fluid indulgence in her own identity and her total lack of allegiance to stereotype is that this was in large part the quality that made her work so resonant. One never witnessed Kate as a cliche. She eschewed the word. When one can be impersonated, one has reached true distinction. When someone puts on a Katharine of Arrogance accent, everyone (with some level of film knowledge) knows who is being lampooned. This is both the reason for her success and the reason why it is so impressive. The fact that she wasn’t a “type” should have made her un-castable. Hollywood doesn’t like to think or create. It likes Model-T stars and stories. Yet, Kate’s desexualized personage and un-homogenized acting style,made her range run the gamut from A to Z to the far stretches of the universe. (Yup, you were wrong about that one Dorothy Parker).

Kate transcended material, general audience expectation, and direction, meaning that she spread herself in every possible way across the mortal landscape when it came to her interpretations regarding the human heart, human ugliness, and humanity period. She was both old and young, comedic and tragic, flawed yet beautiful, and-- yes-- man and woman. She was, in her art, the upright and the upside down triangle, the token symbols of the masculine and feminine, creating an interesting specimen of the eternal figure eight-- infinite possibilities. No beginning, no end, just an experience.

The epitome of the androgynous allure. She is
indefinable and everything.
Katharine Hepburn's films last because she made them real by offering all facets of herself without shame. She was whatever she wanted to be, and all of that offered with the one-hundred percent generosity of her spirit. 

She was a great guy. And one Hell of a lady.


  1. This is such a great in-depth analysis. Thanks for participating, Meredith!

    1. Thanks, lady! I was honored. Anything for Kate. :)

  2. The article is mesmerizing. I had a great time reading it. Thank you for this thought-through analysis of an "absolutely fascinating" persona.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It definitely took a little elbow grease to get it finished in time. She's too complicated to write about in brief, hahaha. I appreciate you visiting. :)

  3. What a thorough and fascinating examination. It made me think of Tilda Swinton. I'd never thought of them together before, but she too has used the power of androgyny in fascinating ways, and I can easily see Hepburn playing Orlando, among many of Swinton's other roles.

    1. That's a great parallel to draw. Tilda definitely incorporates the same aspects and is a talented actress herself. I'd love to see Kate as Orlando! Hahaha. AMAZING!

  4. A wonderful and in-depth post. I'm happy to have discovered your blog through this blogathon (that's the point, right?!), and I can't wait to read more.

    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad you got something out of it. I wish I could do such essays regularly, but time rarely permits! But please do check out my glossary and introduce yourself to past articles and tidbits. It's all about fun and movie love. I appreciate you visiting. If you have a blog yourself, I will certainly stop by. :)