The following is a critical essay I wrote concerning a film titled His Girl Friday and the way it portrayed women and American society.
Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want
(Because Women Can’t Have It All)
Film and American Culture
June 22, 2012
The 1937 film His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks, is a screwball comedy entangling the lovely Hildy Johnson, sweet Bruce Baldwin, and charismatic Walter Burns in the story of an escaped convict, Earle Williams. This story happens to be the breaking news story of the decade and Walter wants his newspaper to have the most exclusive report, which can only be written by the best reporter in town, Hildy herself. The catch is that Hildy, Walter’s ex wife, is engaged to be married to Bruce the very next day, and she has convinced herself that she is done with the media lifestyle and wants to settle down with Bruce, who is everything Walter isn’t. However, she gets dragged back into this world by Walter, who always seems to get what he wants, most often at the expense of others, and is reminded of how great she is at this job. Through the film it seems that she falls in love with it, and Walter, again while covering the story. This film poses the question of what a women’s ultimate fulfillment is, and asks if women can achieve such without compromising to some degree; the answer is most women can’t.
The main characters in this film have distinct personalities that make it easy for the viewer to analyze the cultural issue being presented. One of the most highly debated issues in the 1930’s-1940’s, and even still today, is that of compromising for women in either the workplace or in home life. This issue is introduced to the audience through the strong character of Hildy and the decisions about her career and marriage she must make. Hildy tells Walter that she is marrying Bruce because she wants to settle down and live an easy life, that of a housewife. If Hildy were to marry Bruce, she would be an equal in the marriage and Bruce would most likely treat her like gold, but she would not be able to work the job she had for so many years and that she was so successful at, which is why she tells Walter that she is quitting. If she wants the job and success in her career, she can not marry Bruce. This is made very clear to the audience in the scene where Bruce has just gotten out of jail and Hildy is frantically typing the breaking article. Bruce even tells her, “I don’t think you love me anymore,” and she nonchalantly keeps typing and gives him an automated response to the extent of “Sure I do,” not even recalling having this conversation once she finished typing her piece. Clearly, Bruce needs an abundance of attention and affection, like his mother gives him, which Hildy could provide if her only objective was to be a good wife to him. However, once she has felt the accomplishment she still has in her career after breaking this story, it will not be easy for her to give that up in exchange for being a housewife.
Hildy says that she was never happy with Walter because he never paid her enough attention and always chose work over her. She reminds him that he even did this on their honeymoon, choosing to cover a story over enjoying his time with her as newlyweds. Hildy now has the opportunity to be happily married and live a nice, quiet, normal life with Bruce, but as she covers the story she remembers why she loves the job; she loves a chase. She realizes she would not be happy settling down and is drawn back to Walter because life with him is exciting, and she notes the success they have in the workplace together. If Hildy were to be with Walter and not quit the job, she would be respected in the workplace because she is talented; however, she would never be an equal in their marriage. In the end, Hildy gives in and decides to remarry Walter, who tells her they can go on a honeymoon twice as long as their first one was supposed to be, in Niagara Falls, where they were supposed to spend their first week of marriage. As soon as these words come out of his mouth he recalls an important story they just have to cover on the way, and Hildy reluctantly agrees to all his ways. Walter is not any different than he was the first time she married him, and that can be seen simply by his attitude about remarrying the woman he “loves.” He doesn’t ask her to be his wife again on bended knee, or for that matter, he doesn’t propose at all, another sign he doesn’t respect her as his wife. We know that while Hildy may be fulfilled in her career, the decision to marry Walter again is going to be unfulfilling, if not detrimental to her sense of self-purpose.
Walter is an interesting man. In the beginning of the movie it seems that he loves Hildy and truly admires her work, but as the movie progresses we see that he is extremely conniving and deceitful to everyone around him, even his friends and Hildy’s fiancé at the time. He is clearly a powerful man and always gets what he wants. Walter never has to compromise, which insinuates to us that American men do not ever really have to compromise in their lives. As American women, we are told we “can do anything men can do better.” I remember seeing a Gatorade commercial with Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan competing at various sports, advertising this slogan and the phrase has stuck with me, as catchy jingles often do. While this saying is sometimes true when it comes to certain stereotypical things, cooking, sewing, or playing baseball, if one is to examine the life of a man against the life of a woman overall, there is one contrasting element that stands out. Men never seem to have to compromise. They can have it all. They can have the successful career, power in the workplace, and then when it becomes time to go home, they have built a successful home where they are revered and respected by their partner and children as head of the household. This is the common life of an American man and such an all-inclusive success in all these areas of one’s life is very rarely seen in American women, who either must compromise in the workplace or home life.
The situation presented in this film causes me to wonder why it is that women always have to choose one or the other. What does this forced compromise say about American women? Are our successes measured differently from that of men? Can we never achieve great things when competing with men? If so, does that make us somehow less than men? Are our roles in society predetermined or can we really be whatever we want to be? This film suggests that a woman’s success is either in her career or in her marriage, and in both Hildy has to answer to a man, whether he is her husband or her boss. This implies that while she has the choice of what to pursue, a marriage or a career, either way she will have to answer to a man, and ultimately, Hildy, like other women, is going to be unhappy in part with either decision she makes. Complete satisfaction is not an option for her as it is for Walter, who will remain successful in his career, whether or not he remarries Hildy, or for Bruce, who will most likely find the perfect housewife or happily live with his mother forever. Complete fulfillment for a woman is not an option in this film for Hildy or in most American women’s lives because as women, we must decide what aspect of our lives is important and which we can give up on, where we are willing to compromise, a sacrifice American men do not have to make.
Referenced Gatorade Commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zV12k6k9W4Q