Death of the Critic

The Surprisingly Progressive Gender Politics of Some Like it Hot

Written by: Tom Blaich


It is not always an uplifting experience to look back to the past and how we treated people differently. Unfortunately there is a history of treating marginalized groups poorly in the United States. Basically if you weren’t a straight white male, you got the short end of the stick in many cases. And this is very evident in looking at films. Film is, in essence, a snapshot of the time in which it was created. Looking back you can see the proliferation of ideas throughout American culture simply by looking at actors on screen or the actions they take and the statements that they make.

Look at the 2007 movie
Superbad, for example. In it, one character is consistently referred to as “faggle” for the majority of the movie, and its played entirely straight for laughs. The idea that the young man is being insulted as a homosexual is supposed to be funny to audience. But in the last 8 years, our culture has experienced a pushback against this kind of language. “Fag” isn’t being used in comedies anymore. And if it is, the movie is lambasted for being insensitive.

And as our culture moves forward we begin to tackle new issues. And it would be fair to say that our cultural consciousness is currently focused on trans issues. For many people the very idea of a trans person makes them uncomfortable. So it might seem weird to say that some of the most progressive portrayals of trans people on screen came from 1959.

1959 was not exactly a progressive time for America. To say that there was a power divide between those in control (the WASP,
White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male) and those not (gender and sexual minorities, racial minorities, etc.) would be a severe understatement. So when a movie like Some Like It Hot came out, it should have surprised people with how progressive its gender politics were.

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The movie follows two musicians, Joe and Jerry who witness the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and are forced to flee to Florida to escape being silenced by mob boss Spats Columbo. The twist is that to flee to Florida they must pass off as women and join an all female band headed to the state for several weeks. Cue the two men walking on screen in drag, passing rather admirably. Their effeminate figures are clad in dresses, as they stumble and wobble in heels towards the train, wigs pinned up on their heads.

Cue one of the most progressive films of the last fifty years. And at a time when the Motion Picture Production Code, more popularly known as the Hays Code, was still in effect. This code prohibited or warned against many acts in film, from “Pointed profanity- by either title or lip- this includes “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ”” to “any inference of sexual perversion”, “the use of firearms”, “Man and woman in bed together”, “deliberate seduction of girls”. (Lewis 302)
This code was in an effort to keep the public morally sound by not showing them lascivious acts:

“General Principles. 1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” (Lewis 304)

So when you have a movie like
Some Like It Hot, which blatantly spits in the face of many of its rules, things get very interesting. You have two main characters who drink and gamble during prohibition. You have mobsters gunning people down, men and women in unmarried relationships. Women drinking. Crossdressing males characters being hit on by male characters. A homosexual relationship., etc.

In many ways the release of the film heralded the downfall of the production code, which had already been weakened. “A year after 
Some Like It Hot was released, the head of the MPA began suggesting that some sort of classification system might work better than a censorship system that no one was paying attention to. In 1968, his organization finally shifted from restricting filmmakers to alerting audiences, using the film-ratings system we know today.” (NPR)
What is amazing is the way in which the filmmakers took the stereotypes normally associated with characters and inverted them is amazing. A prime example is the main character Marilyn Monroe who plays the ditzy “Sugar”, who here tends to fall in love with too many unmarried men, forming sexual relationships with them until they leave.

And when we are first introduced to the female cast of characters we are given a sharp dichotomy. As they are lined up outside of the train they titter and laugh amongst themselves, but once onboard, all inhibitions are dropped. You see women removing their hose and talking of taking off their corsets. Off color language is flying and we hear a woman attempt to make a vulgar joke about a one legged jockey “riding” a woman.

This is not the image we saw of women in the 1950s, or even now. Which is the amazing thing about this film. The film wasn’t progressive
for the 1950s. The movie is still progressive today, giving us a more complex portrayal of the relationship between men and women than we basically ever see on screen. They do this by avoiding the stereotype.

In the book
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavsky, the director Torstov and the main character have a discussion on stereotype after the actor botches an attempt to play Othello on stage.

‘There, that shows you how the very worst kind of acting starts,’ said he, when I had finished. ‘When you were preparing for the exhibition performance you approached your role from the point of view of impressing the spectators. With what? With true organic feelings, that corresponded to those of the person you were portraying? You did not have any. You did not even have a whole living image, which you could have, if only externally, copied. What was there left for you to do? To grab the first trait that happened to flash into your mind. Your mind is stored full of such things, ready for any occasion in life. Every impression, in some form or another, remains in our memories, and can be used when needed. In such hurried or general descriptions we care very little whether what we transmit corresponds to reality. We are satisfied with any general characteristic or illusion. To bring images to life, daily practice has produced for us stencils or external descriptive signs, which, thanks to long usage, have become intelligible to everyone.‘That is what happened to you. You were tempted by the external appearance of a black man in general, and you hastily reproduced him without ever thinking about what Shakespeare wrote. You reached for an external characterization which seemed to you effective, vivid and easy to reproduce. That is what always happens when an actor does not have at his disposal a wealth of live material taken from life. (Stanislavsky 28-29)

Stereotype is laziness. And the avoidance of it leads to inherently better films. And that is something that has somehow been forgotten over the last fifty years. The reason that this film truly stands out is that it takes this advice to heart. The two cross dressing men wrestle with their own sexuality as they are surrounded by all of the women, having to deny their own desires for their own safety. But they don’t prance around screen. They don’t embody the “fairy” stereotype of the cross dressing man so common within films of the last several decades.

And most interestingly enough is the relationship between “Daphne," Jerry’s female persona and the millionaire Osgood Fielding III, who falls for Daphne and attempts to woo her. And he successfully does, if for the wrong reasons. Daphne agrees to marry him on hope that upon revealing that he is actually Jerry, a man, Osgood will divorce him and he will be able to get a tidy settlement from the man. But instead he falls deeply in love with him, leading to the climax of the movie. As they are speeding away from a gunfight on Osgood’s boat, Daphne attempts everything she can do to convince Osgood to break their engagement.

In the background, Joe, formerly Josephine tries to convince Sugar that he isn’t the right man for her. That he will just give her another “fuzzy lollipop” (SLIH). He had attempted to seduce her by adopting an alternate identity while in Florida. So he was Joe, Josephine, and also a man named Junior, a supposed heir to Shell Oil in hope of fulfilling her desire for a bespectacled millionaire. But his plan backfires, and upon her realization that both her friend Josephine and her love interest Junior were in fact the same person, through a goodbye kiss from Josephine, she fell in love. And here he was desperately trying to make that not happen.

This goes alongside the conversation between Daphne and Osgood, who tries every excuse she can to get him to not marry her. And particularly interesting are two of the reasons that she gives. One obvious and one less so. She says that she has been living with a man for the last three years out of wedlock. She admits to “living in sin” as some might say, but he doesn’t care. He loves her and accepts her for who she is.

She says, “I can never have children.” (SLIH) which is a standard by which many measure a woman. In many conversations about transsexuality a woman is someone who can give birth, who can bear children. Only a biological woman can bear children, or so the argument goes. And it’s a rather common problem that women face. Because of this rather rigid definition of what being a woman is, many women who are infertile feel lesser.


And the final lines of the movie really do look very interesting in the context of modern discussions of transsexuality. “Well you don’t understand Osgood. Oh. I’m a man.” Of course, in this movie this situation is being played for laughs or humor. But the way in which the humor is being used is important.

There is a oft repeated “rule” of comedy, that you should only punch up. This is in reference to who you make jokes about. A middle class white man can’t make jokes about poor people, because then they feel cruel or mean. But he can make jokes about the 1%. They are above him. A black man can make jokes about white people, because of a history of systemic racism and bias against them. But a white man cannot make a joke about black people, for it feels racist.

There are some exceptions however, and that is in the handling of the delivery of the joke itself. If we aren’t laughing at these people, but instead laughing alongside of them, the joke changes. It feels less cruel. And that is what is being done here. We feel sympathy for Daphne, but also for Osgood, who has fallen hopelessly in love with her. And he proves it.

He responds to her statement about her sex, “Nobody is perfect.” Leaving Daphne/Jerry baffled. This is where the audience laughs, but it is also where we can think. Here Osgood is proclaiming his love for someone who, to him, is a trans character. He is not concerned with being “gay” or “straight” he simply loves Daphne. Which is radical when we look at trans characters on screen now. This kind of statement doesn’t happen with trans characters, because they are always treated as being on the fringe. But here, it is different. Here a man can love someone else, regardless of what others say, and that is a lesson that has somehow escaped us for the last 50 years.

Works Cited

Lewis, Jon. Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry. New York: New York UP, 2002. Print.
Mondello, Bob. "Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On."
NPR. NPR, 08 Aug. 2008. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Some like It Hot. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. MGM/UA Entertainment Co., 1959. DVD.
Stanislavsky, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. New York: Theatre Arts, 1948. Print.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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