The 1940 film His Girl Friday is hailed as one of the greatest movies in American history, namely under the “screwball” comedy genre. It is the story of a rowdy and powerful editor named Walter Burns and his pursuit of winning back his-ex wife and former star reporter, Hildy Johnson. Intertwined with trying to win back his star reporter, the biggest story of his career arises with the persecution of convicted murderer Earl Williams. As much as Hildy yearns to leave her professional career for a domestic lifestyle, when Walter convinces her that she is the perfect reporter to get the story on Earl, she promises this will be her final job at the Morning Post. In the film, Hildy Johnson, played by actress Rosalind Russell, displays two versions of femininity. One side of her character thrives on being the competent and powerful workingwoman, while the other side displays the traditional domestic woman with qualities of passiveness, attractiveness, and vulnerability. Her character in His Girl Friday will allow me to analyze the female gender by seeing how her gender role is portrayed, challenged, and eventually formed by the end of the story. By bringing forth the arguments in the essays of David Denby, Tom Powers, Marcia Lieberman, and Allan Johnson, I will further explore this film’s notion of the feminine ideal using Hildy Johnson as my main focus.
When Hildy gets the assignment of investigating the impending persecution of Earl, she must decide which side of femininity she is to portray; that is, she can no longer show docile, pretty, and passive qualities if she is to beat out the other male reporters. In Allan Johnson’s essay named “What Is This Thing Called Patriarchy?” he makes the argument of how a man’s patriarchy could be threatened by a powerful woman, but the woman in power may also have to make sacrifices involving her femininity to achieve greater status than some men. He writes, “For her to assume real power…she must resolve a contradiction between her culturally based identity as a woman, on the one hand, and the male-indentified position that she occupies on the other” (Johnson 250). Johnson also makes an important point by saying that women who strive for superiority must choose between “who she is and who she ought to be” (250). Hildy is a woman by nature, but considered a newspaperman but almost everyone else. In the film, Hildy Johnson makes that transition and choice throughout the film in situations when sometimes it is necessary to be behave like a woman, and sometimes necessary to possess masculine traits of aggression and control. From the opening scene, the viewer can see how fast Hildy Johnson switches between the two feminine identities. Months after their divorce, Hildy comes to Walter at the Morning Post office and tells him of her impending marriage to the loyal insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin. She is an attractive woman and her overall appearance is very well put together. She speaks softly to Bruce, obviously infatuated with him, and has the clear image of a woman in love. As the scene progresses and Bruce leaves, almost instantly Hildy’s image of traditional femininity disappears. She is no longer the woman playfully talking with her beau, but instead she is the confident and powerful “newspaperman” shuffling through the busy Morning Post office. As she heads to her ex-husband’s office, every worker acknowledges her with the esteem a man of authority would normally get, especially in those days. In fact, she is thought of as one of the guys: takes a cigarette from Walter, drinks, cracks bawdy jokes, and is completely engrossed in her career as a reporter. The men in the office even tease her manliness by acknowledging her real name, “Hildegard”, which is obviously feminine. By doing this, Hildy becomes almost “unsexed”, as Allan Johnson puts it, because she is placing her typical female cultural identity beneath her position of power as a competent news reporter...
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