The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A case of classic gender stereotyping

with 13 comments

Every woman needs a strong man in her life or she’ll just run around like a headless chicken, plucking her eyebrows to perfection but not taking responsibility for the necessities of life.

Every woman needs a father or later on a husband to guide her and bring her a sense of security. Women just can’t manage when they’re on their own. They need to be taken cared of.

This view on the genders is quite common in the world of movies, but it’s not as dominating as it used to be. Nowadays we get to meet young women who can care very well for themselves, such as Hanna in the movie with the same name or Ree in Winter’s Bone. But the further back in film history we go, the more likely is it that the main female character will have a guy at her back to protect her.

Sometimes I can disregard of it completely and enjoy the movie for what it is anyway. I put it in a historical context and I tell myself: “It’s OK. That’s how life was back in those days. They really couldn’t help it and seeing the movie through your modern glasses is meaningless.” Especially if there’s a dance number or some other aspect that delights me, I can forget about and forgive the gender stereotyping.

But other times I can’t.

I can understand why the stereotypes are there; I don’t judge anyone for them, but it makes the view less enjoyable for me. Watching blatant sexism for one and a half hour eventually gets to me.

And sadly enough this was the case for me with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.


The story goes like this: there is this rich, spoiled girl with overly plucked eyebrows who runs away on an impulse, defying her wise father, to marry a jerk who just is after her money. She’s spotted on a bus trip by a reporter who in exchange for the exclusive scoop to write about her offers her manly protection during a long bus trip. Eventually they fall in love and after a few mandatory complications built on a misunderstanding they end up marrying each other with the blessing of her father. She’s safe once again under the protection of a new man in her life.


This movie is considered one of the biggest classics of all time, an iconic rom-com, which took a grand slam at the Oscars that year. It’s still loved by many, many film buffs and I’m perfectly aware of that I’m in a minority as I’m bitching about it.

Peter Bradshaw, critic at The Guardian, called it “fresh as a daisy” and “As buoyant and elegant as bubbles in a glass of champagne” when he reviewed it last year, claiming that it “survives triumphantly because of its wit, charm, romantic idealism and its shrewd sketch of married life”.

I wish I could just agree with him. I wish I could enjoy the champagne and throw the gender perspective out of the window, but I can’t. Once I got the thought about it in my mind, it kept nagging me.

I don’t know why I was so picky about this one while I often can disregard of the stereotyping in older movies, but I think it might be that I just had expected more from Capra. More of the idealism, more of the radicalism that makes me love It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr Smith goes to Washington so much.

All I can do is to sadly recognize that this one misfired for me. Iconic classic or not.

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, US, 1934) My rating: 3/5

Written by Jessica

November 18, 2011 at 1:00 am

13 Responses

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  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read somebody refer to Capra as a radical. Usually he is sited as the ultimate director of American traditionalism.


    November 18, 2011 at 1:40 am

    • To be honest I have very little knowedge about Capra’s place in film history. I’m sure you’re right about that. But in this time when cynism rules I actually think his message is radical. Sort of. But in a different manner.


      November 18, 2011 at 7:24 am

  2. I find I have decreasing tolerance for films that completely use women as means to ends or that are just super macho. Now, there are certainly times when others will see a problem that I won’t because these things aren’t always cut and dried, but it is one of the quick ways to get on my bad side as Capra did with this one.


    November 18, 2011 at 7:37 am

    • I still feel a little bit bad for bashing an old movie like this one. They didn’t know better back in those days. But yeah, it is a bit off-putting. And in modern movies it’s harder to disregard of it.


      November 18, 2011 at 7:50 am

  3. Once in a while I find I have issues with this, too – rewatching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as an adult, wow. There’s a lot of misogyny in there with a smile and a song. But I still enjoy it anyway. With It Happened One Night, I always saw it as more a class thing rather than a gender thing. Not that Claudette Colbert needed a man because she was a helpless woman, but that she was a spoiled heiress who had no idea how to make it in the real world without someone more savvy around.

    Jandy Stone

    November 20, 2011 at 1:10 am

    • I got it pointed out as well. However that aspect gets pretty lost to me due to the gender issue. Imagine they had switched the genders on the characters. That would have made for a better movie.


      November 20, 2011 at 8:48 am

      • An ordinary woman aids a clueless, spoiled rich man? That sounds almost like Arthur… except that movie also has the man protecting/rescuing the woman.


        November 23, 2011 at 3:48 am

        • I guess this story has been done many times in various versions.


          November 23, 2011 at 7:54 am

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  5. […] You will hear me barking at basically everything, even at a classic such as It Happened One Night. […]

  6. Great post, Jessica! I had never seen anyone tackle this movie from this perspective. Very interesting.


    July 10, 2012 at 6:04 am

    • Thanks Fernando! Again: I don’t know if it’s fair since it’s s old. But it’s how I felt.


      July 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

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