The Second Greatest Sex, George Marshall

‘The Second Greatest Sex’ Is No ‘Lysistrata’

By focusing on “love” rather than “sex”, Hays Code-era musical comedy The Second Greatest Sex was trying to communicate a deeper meaning about how the emotions and thoughts of women ought not to be controlled.

The Second Greatest Sex
George Marshall
October 1955 (US)

George Marshall‘s 1955 film, The Second Greatest Sex, is based on Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata, originally performed during 411 BC in Athens, Greece. However, instead of being a proper adaptation of the play, it borrows certain plot elements from it to convey its take on Lysistrata‘s social message through humour. The film, as a musical comedy, tries its best to entertain the audience by bringing out dance forms such as ballet and tap dancing alongside songs with chucklesome and rhythmic lyrics, but it somehow fails to do justice to Aristophanes’ play due to how much it diverts from it. 

While Lysistrata starts with the women of various cities in Greece deciding to abstain from all sexual activities with the men around them to dissolve the Peloponnesian war (see also Spike Lee’s 2015 film, Chi-Raq), The Second Greatest Sex, on the other hand, concludes with a scene similar to Lysistrata. In The Second Greatest Sex, the women of three Kansas towns in the United States — namely, Osake, Jones City, and Mandaroon — emphasise how they will never “love” their male partners if they are forced to return to their homes without the resolution of their masculine strife.

Some might argue that by focusing on “love” rather than “sex”, the filmmakers were trying to communicate a deeper meaning about how the emotions and thoughts of women ought not to be controlled. Yet, since there is explicit mention of Lysistrata in The Second Greatest Sex — something that even the chorus of women sings about before gathering together within a fort to teach the men a lesson — the change in important dialogues hampers the overall impact that the play had aimed to create on its audience. 

Furthermore, unlike Lysistrata, which is extremely sexual in terms of its dialogues, any and all discussions about sex and sexuality are completely dismissed within the Hays Code-era film. The first time the viewers are introduced to the theme of sexual intercourse is when the woman protagonist, Liza’s (Jeanne Crain) brother, Newt (Jimmy Boyd), inquires about the meaning of sex in front of their father (Bert Lahr as Job McClure). The father replies, “Sex is something we just don’t talk about.” When questioned further, he, just like the women in the climax scene, provides a definition for “love”. To this, Newt compares the symptoms of love to those of chickenpox — adding hilarity to the exchange. 

After the aforementioned scene, Newt becomes the one around whom all discussions about sexual intimacy become centred. Nevertheless, he never receives a straightforward answer whenever he asks, “What is sex?” After a point, Newt’s line of questioning and its reactions cease to create a comical effect. Instead, they make viewers wonder why the filmmakers could not be more creative with such repetitive dialogues. 

Another thing that The Second Greatest Sex does differently from Lysistrata is it propagates numerous gender stereotypes about men and women. It begins with a chorus of women singing about all the men of their town who have gone off to settle disputes in neighbouring towns. In that scene, a woman sings, “What’s the use of feminine charms if they’re not held in masculine arms?” The play attempts to portray Greek women as headstrong individuals with agency, and the film aspires for the same portrayal. A few scenes later, this attempt is undermined when the protagonist, Liza’s fiance, Matt (George Nader) sings, “What good is a woman without a man?” And once again, the women in The Second Greatest Sex are deemed dependent on men. 

The stereotypes are reinforced when a man, who refers to himself as a ‘travelling man’, kisses a woman without her consent. She swoons instead of challenging his conduct. Furthermore, Liza is constantly pushed by her family to marry Matt despite her reluctance to do so. 

Contrary to what the viewers might assume from its title’s similarity to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 seminal work, The Second Sex, The Second Greatest Sex isn’t a reference to the female characters but rather the male ones. However, a woman’s strength, in the film, is equated to how serviceable she can be to a man, and she is lauded throughout just for that. In other words, if men are, indeed, shown to be “weaker”, it is solely due to their dependence on women. If that logic is thoroughly analysed, it becomes clear that women, this way, are still “othered” in The Second Greatest Sex, no matter the message of reconciliation in the film and Lysistrata‘s final climatic scene.