The Philadelphia Story came out in 1939. At the time, although women had the right to vote, it was still largely agreed that women were to be viewed and treated, not as independent actors, but as defined by their position as part of a family unit. Although the war broadened America’s horizons in terms of what women were capable of—everybody is familiar with Rosie the Riveter—it was widely assumed that everything would go back to “normal” when the boys came home. Viewing The Philadelphia Story from the present time, the themes tend to present more as issues of class, or even issues of self-awareness, than issues of gender politics, however, one may argue that The Philadelphia Story qualifies as a feminist movie, within context.
Feminism is one of the fields of critical studies that arose along with studies about race and class: this category of critical studies flattens issues of class, as does Tracy. Tracy inhabits her class because she was born there; her definition of class is behavior-oriented, not wealth and family oriented. As one example, there is an Uncle Willie floating about, pinching women’s bottoms, and while in one of today’s movies, the pinch-ee would punch him, and in The Philadelphia Story he is tolerated; in a conversation with Mike about class, Tracy compares Uncle Willie unfavorably to the night watchman, using ‘class’ as the value by which she is judging him. So while Uncle Willie isn’t flattened by a punch, his class-status is flattened by Tracy.
It’s also clear throughout The Philadelphia Story that Tracy is very strong willed: her ideals are of paramount importance: when Dexter, as her husband, didn’t appear to hold to her ideals, she divorced him. Her value structure changes throughout the film to embrace true nature over appearance, but she embraces this value structure just as passionately, once again booting out the man in her life (Kittredge) in favor of it! This emphasis on her values coming before her relationship with a man is a feminist ideal.
The Lord family is basically composed of women: the adult women are living fairly happily on their own, because of their values. If they miss the men in their lives, it is because of their affection for them, not because they need them. They may prefer them, emotionally. But preference is a matter of choice; and the power of choice in a relationship is the definition of power, even if it is equal power. Tracy assumes her power to choose, and to state what she wants: when her fiancée refers to her as a Goddess, as someone to worship, she demurs, and states that she wants to be loved. Similarly, after the party, with Mike, she has the power to state what she wants; as well as with Dexter. Her ability to choose denotes a condition of power, or at least of equal power, which is a feminist ideal.
Tracy is portrayed as more intellectually nimble than most of the men represented in the movie. Early into the movie when Mike attempts to interview Tracy, even though Tracy knows who Mike is, she has the upper hand in the interview because she’s clever and quick-witted, and she knows how to divert attention away from a question so that it never gets answered. Tracy takes control of the interview, even uncovering information about Liz that Mike himself didn’t know. Her control over the process causes Mike to grumble, “Who’s interviewing who here.” When she and Mike are drunk, she finds his weakness and uses it to get him to keep playing with her instead of closing down and going to bed. In the morning after the party, it’s clear that Kittredge isn’t able to even see Tracy’s point of view. The slew of studies done regarding how women are portrayed in film show that a woman who outshone the men around her intellectually was not a theme one was likely to tire of at the time of The Philadelphia Story. The notion that women are equal to, and occasionally superior to men, intellectually, is a feminist ideal.
At the end of the film, Mike asks Tracy to marry him; one of the first reasons she gives him for ‘no’ is that ‘Liz wouldn’t like it.’ This affinity and respect for other women is feminist in that it flies in the face of the sexist definition of women as oriented towards men, and in competition with other women.
Another feminist ideal is that of embracing your true self, rather than a social construction of yourself. When Tracy and Mike wander back out of the woods in the morning after the party, Tracy in Mike’s arms, Dexter warns Kittredge not to believe, “the implications of what he sees.” Tracy ultimately breaks off the marriage; she expected Kittredge to know her well enough to trust her basic nature and instincts. She also realizes that she had done to Dexter what Kittredge was trying to do to her: control the appearance of her behavior, without a nod to her true self. She chooses to marry Dexter in the end because he does see her true self. When Kittredge demands as a condition of marriage that Tracy never drink again, Tracy refuses, saying that she’s rather fond of who she is when she’s drunk; she senses that she’s truer to her nature then.
And finally, The Philadelphia Story establishes immediately that Tracy is of independent financial means; that’s unusual itself for most women in the world, and is one factor in favor of the film carrying a feminist label. And although her means came from her family (specifically, no doubt, her father), she’s in full ownership of them. Financial independence is a feminist ideal, even if only to insulate women from potential abuse.
The Philadelphia Story. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Ruth Hussey NAME>), and John Howard. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1939.