You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Patronizing Feminism in ‘Woman of the Year’

Woman of the Year suggests that a woman’s public success is predicated on her lack of femininity.

It’s all too easy to forget just how strange a film George Stevens’s Woman of the Year really is. The movie is, of course, remembered for a great many things, very few of them having anything to do with the film itself. First and foremost, it’s remembered as the first collaboration between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They would go on to star in eight more movies together and this film also marked the beginning of their legendary romance, which lasted until the end of Tracy’s life. Their interaction on this film exudes a magnetism that is indeed palpable.

Second, this is the follow-up film in Hepburn’s comeback of the early ’40s. She just recently appeared in a truly remarkable film, The Philadelphia Story, with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart — a film that salvaged her cinematic reputation. Hepburn had a rather strange relationship with the movie-going public. She once claimed that she had an angular face, an angular body, and angular mind.

Although she won critical acclaim and astounding success early on in her film career, audiences soon tired of her rather peculiar charm. Critics and viewers alike found her too austere, too forbidding, too self-assured and haughty to be relatable. She just wasn’t the kind of figure that one could immediately identify with; even fans of her work acknowledged that her allure harbored an adamantine coldness and reserve. She certainly sparkled, but with the glittering rigidity of ice. By the late ’30s the movie studios lost faith in her and she was relegated to rather tepid period or costume pieces. Studio executives felt that she was on a pedestal, or perhaps a high horse, and that she would have to be toppled to be liked.

And so, The Philadelphia Story provided the perfect vehicle for her reformation, or perhaps her reclamation. It opens, after all, with her being knocked literally on her ass. Indeed, the entire film can be read as an allegory for the rehabilitation of Hepburn’s image. She portrays a woman that appears to be too perfect, too self-sufficient to be loved. Owing to her presumption of moral wholeness, she was unable to sympathize with the failings, the alcoholism, of her ex-husband whom she clearly loved. She plans to marry again and is to wed a man who is as perfectly irreproachable as she is — but he is a cipher, a bore; and the implication is that, insofar as she is not like him, so she is.

She is redeemed, of course, by her ex-husband but only after the appearance of her moral perfection has been punctured, after her moral character has been brought down to earth just as she had been driven to ground physically in the opening of the film. Thus, the film tracks a kind of reverse apotheosis — she is a goddess made woman and therefore more human, lovable, and relatable. She is improved through the lowering of her station, so to speak.

Woman of the Year, in the version that was actually released (the original script having ended differently), follows a similar trajectory. Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a newspaper columnist writing about international politics. She is touted as the most famous woman in the United States after Eleanor Roosevelt. She appears on the radio, is fluent in an untold number of languages (she speaks Russian, German, Spanish, and Greek), was educated at the Sorbonne and other illustrious universities, socializes with ambassadors, political dissidents, and refugees from concentration camps, and seems to be in all ways unassailable.

By the end of the film, we find her in the kitchen attempting to make breakfast for her man, Sam Craig (Tracy), in an effort to save their marriage. She fails miserably at these quotidian household duties. She puts yeast in the waffles so that it bubbles forth maniacally from the iron, struggles with the lighting of the stove, drips egg yolks all over the counter and her fancy shoes, and somehow sets the toaster so that it rockets burnt pieces of bread skyward. The entire sequence (roughly the last 20 minutes of the film) is an egregious waste of film stock and a test of even the most indulgent modern viewer’s patience. But as Stevens makes abundantly and cynically clear in an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s new edition of Woman of the Year, the conclusion was inserted as a crass attempt to curry favor with ’40s-era audiences who found Hepburn in general — and her character in this film, in particular — too severe, too unwomanly.

That moment in the Stevens interview is remarkable. On the one hand, he is markedly proud of the fact that he hit upon a solution to what we might term “the Hepburn problem” that the producers and writers seemed unable to devise. He clearly sees it as a tour de force. On the other hand, he acknowledges that, at best, the scene panders to its viewers. In essence, the film gives up on Tess. This woman who is good at everything, who had just been honored as the “outstanding woman of the year”, fails at being a woman — or at least fails to measure up to the implicit notion of what constitutes a woman in this sequence. The Philadelphia Story might have brought Hepburn down a peg or two for its audience, but it didn’t humiliate her; the ending to Woman of the Year, however, is an act of ridicule.

And yet this ending is not as “tacked-on” as it might seem to those who abhor its cynicism but otherwise adore the film. The film as a whole does not paint Tess in the kindest light. Her character is deeply cynical, self-serving, and grotesquely inconsiderate. You might not notice that at first (and may even dispute it while reading this). The camera loves Hepburn in this film. Rarely (all too rarely) has she appeared this attractive, this electric, this engaging. Stevens lovingly frames her figure throughout the film and casts her visage in a hazy aureole that marks her as desirable but not unapproachable; Hepburn renders her dialogue with her characteristic sharp delivery but here it is tempered by a subtle pliancy.

But look more closely and you find a cruelty to her character. That ending is prefigured by a line Sam delivers just as Tess leaves to collect her “woman of the year” award. He tells her that if he were a reporter covering the event the headline would suggest that the “woman of the year” was no woman at all. In any normal context, this chastisement would be absolutely horrid, a mere demonstration of male ego unable to accommodate itself to the success of a woman. In this case, however, the admonishment is warranted and the reason behind its justification is perhaps the clearest reminder of just how strange and troubling this film is.

Consider Chris (George Kezas). Chris is a young child, a Greek refugee. Tess announces to her relatively new husband Sam that she thinks the troubles in their marriage might be alleviated by expanding their family. Sam is delirious with joy, believing Tess to be pregnant. She quickly disabuses him of this notion and escorts Chris into the room. Chris speaks no English but can immediately tell that Sam is less than enthused by the idea of Chris living with them. It soon becomes clear that Tess had only brought Chris home because she is the chairperson of a committee seeking to place Greek refugees. Someone on that committee suggested that it would be a good idea for her to take in one of the children, so she did — perhaps out of a sense of duty, but more likely in an attempt to save face.

She takes no particular interest in the child. We see him abandoned in a bedroom full of toys that he doesn’t play with, books he can’t read, a baseball and mitt that serve no purpose in that he has no other children around, no friends with whom to use them. Sam’s admonishment, which might seem unforgivably callous out of context, is uttered in disbelief when Tess prepares to depart for the banquet in her honor while planning to leave Chris unattended for the several hours she and Sam would be away. When a shocked Sam castigates her for her utter lack of concern, Tess is nonplussed, insisting that the child would be asleep for most of their absence anyway. Tess views Sam’s unwillingness to leave Chris to his own devices not as the mature decision of a caring adult, but as a petulant refusal to support her in her moment of recognition. But, of course, for Tess, all moments are moments of recognition. She’s accustomed to being the center of attention and sees her preeminence as a natural hierarchy of her existence.

Many critics claim, including writer Claudia Roth Pierpont in an interview featured in the Criterion edition, that the film presents an ideal version of a successful woman, liberated from social mores that only serve to reinforce male domination, an icon of feminism that demonstrates that a woman can be vital, charming, and sexy and still maintain an integral role within the public sphere. To these critics, the slapdash-slapstick ending signals a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to follow through on the courage of the film’s convictions.

The vicissitudes of Hepburn’s career and the unwillingness of the public to accept a woman achieving a level of prominence that outstrips the accomplishments of her husband (indeed the accomplishments of most men) conspired to put Tess back in her place in a reversal that either gives the lie to the film’s presentation of Tess before that unfortunate ending or reveals the ending to be a copout, an appendix that in no way suits the tenor of the film. Pierpont attempts to read the ending against the grain — assuring viewers that Tess will not succumb to domesticity and will continue her brilliant career. No doubt that is so — but so what? It doesn’t solve the very real problem at the center of this film.

The issues surrounding this ending and the film as a whole are far more complicated, and far more troubling. There’s a rotten core to Tess that has been there all along. The film leads us to suspect that there’s something inhumane and indeed inhuman about her. Our initial introduction to Tess comes via a radio quiz show in which she’s heard declaring that the country ought to give up on baseball, given the seriousness of the wartime conditions throughout the world. Sam, hearing the program while sitting in a bar, insists that baseball is symbolic of American freedom and therefore it’s contradictory to give up on the representation of the very thing the troops are fighting to protect. Tess fails to see the connection because she lacks a certain human warmth. The film suggests that Tess’s success as a public woman is predicated on her lack of femininity.

Sam takes her to a baseball game for their first date. She is at first aloof and disinterested but by the end of the game she’s shouting, sharing peanuts with another attendee, bantering with the crowd, and thoroughly engaged. She’s capable of human warmth, but she has to be guided in order to express it — and that guidance seemingly has to come from Sam. Again and again she only comes to realize her inconsiderateness through Sam’s interventions. In the case of Chris, she fails to recognize her heartlessness until Sam abandons her and returns the boy to the orphanage.

What are we to make of this portrayal of Tess? This public figure, externally concerned with international humanitarian issues, is incapable of something resembling maternal care and even common sense when it comes to looking after a child. This wildly successful writer and commentator pales in the face of the basic domesticity of the kitchen. Her outward characteristics (her eloquence and obvious education, her wit, her good looks) are seductive, but nearly every glimpse into her soul represents a vacuity that would be appalling in any other film (any film not so obviously enamored of Hepburn). To “seduce” literally means “to lead astray”. That’s what the film suggests, in its indirect and subtle way, that Tess threatens to do to her admirers (women and men alike) — she threatens to lead them astray. She must be steered back to the right path by Sam.

Characteristically, she overcompensates. She promises to give up her career, learn to cook, and be a good and subservient wife to Sam. Even her submission to the film’s domestic imperative is an external show of force of will. Sam recognizes that would never work. He begs her not to go to extremes. He insists that he doesn’t want Tess Craig any more than he wants Tess Harding. Rather he wants “Tess Harding Craig”.

It’s supposed to be a moment of triumph, a realization of the best of both worlds. But any woman (or intelligent man) watching the film will recognize that the burden of achieving that tour de force, that seemingly impossible fusion of personalities, that attempt to “have it all” falls entirely on the shoulders of the woman in question. To my ears, it’s the filmic equivalent of the old Virginia Slims ad: “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Congratulatory and infantilizing at once, that ad and this film recognize achievement with the patronizing air that deflates what it ostensibly praises.

Criterion Collection presents a Blu-ray edition of Woman of the Year complete with a plethora of extras. The restoration of the film is stunning and brings out the crisp acuity of Stevens’ approach to shooting scenes. For all of its rich complications, this is a subtly gorgeous film. Criterion includes a new interview with George Stevens Jr. (the son of the director), a 1967 audio interview with Stevens himself (worth contemplating), an interview with Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss (probably worth skipping), an interview with Claudia Roth Pierpont on Hepburn (worth disputing), a 1984 documentary on George Stevens, and another documentary from 1986 on the relationship between Tracy and Hepburn. Finally, there’s an essay in the liner notes by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

RATING 6 / 10