Friday Hoyden: How to Hoyden Hepburn

Oh, I have enjoyed dipping into this over the last couple of weeks.

Karen Karbo has tapped into the rich vein of enduring fascination with Kate the Great, taking a delightfully fresh approach to a much examined life. She uses quotes and anecdotes from and about Hepburn judiciously and examines the implications with a fond but clarifying eye.

Karbo also uses language wittily, which is an ability devoutly to be wished for in the author of a guide to Hepburning:

She was inimitable, and we want to be that way too.

It’s not a big book – ten easily digestible chunks of chapters, a timeline and a reading list which is was the only disappointment for me – offering only biographical sources on Hepburn and her peers rather than a list of other books which offer advice and guides to home hoydenry. Here are the chapter titles:

  1. The importance of being brash
  2. Strive to defy categorisation
  3. The necessity of having an aviator in your life
  4. How to stick to your knitting
  5. The impracticality of marriage
  6. Making the most of a dysfunctional relationship
  7. Some thoughts on denial
  8. Fear management, the Hepburn way
  9. Thinking like a legend
  10. Twenty-two ways to get your Hepburn on

If you experience a frisson of alarm at a couple of those chapter titles: be reassured. Karbo is never obvious, patronising or traditionalist in her interpretation of Hepburn. Hepburn was egocentric, opinionated and imperious as well as iconoclastic, daring and athletic. She is not an easy person to either encapsulate or emulate.

Here’s a taste from the second chapter, Strive to defy categorisation :

Hepburn, the Master Contrarian


Hepburn was not a feminist. She was a Hepburnist. She was all for the cause of Katharine Hepburn, and in that this cause shared anything with the ideals of feminism, she was all for it.[…]
When questioned about it, as she frequently was, she was dismissive. She claimed not to know what all the fuss was about…Surely she was being disingenuous,attempting to play off her refusal to become the poster girl for the movement. Or perhaps growing up Hepburn was similar to growing up in a family of football players or classical musicians; as an adult you never quite believe that the whole world doesn’t share your family’s passion. Her family was so progressive, with women’s rights in the very air at her childhood home in Hartford, she might well not have known what all the fuss was about, and why hordes of women were claiming her as their idol. It’s doubtful; Hepburn didn’t miss much. As Nietzsche said “the thinking man is not a party man” and Katharine Hepburn was never a party woman.

I have a lot of sympathy for strongly individualist women who simply don’t find the collective nature of most feminisms to be their cup of tea. As long as they are at least truly pro-equality and don’t descend into anti-feminist remarks, they’re still one of the good ‘uns in my eyes. Kate the Great remains a good ‘un.

Title – How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great
Author – Karen Karbo
Publisher (Australia)Hardie Grant Books, Prahran, Victoria
Publisher (USA) – Bloomsbury USA, New York, NY
ISBN – 978 1 74066 621 3 (hardback)

Hepburn has always been a rallying point for the culture wars as well, dating to her early androgynous bobbed hair and preference for huge trousers held up with pins being viewed as an alarming departure from the dutiful daintiness expected of a starlet, her various affairs that she refused to display any shame for, and particularly for her enduring extramarital affair with Spencer Tracy. In later years her relationship (through her mother’s activism, not her own) to pioneers of the Planned Parenthood movement is a reliable outrage attractor for the anti-contraception/abortion/sex education crowd. A little over two years ago I wrote a post about how one group seriously proposes (in a very weaseling way) that Hepburn possibly made a deal with the Devil in order to guarantee her Hollywood success!

Hepburn of course would have brayed at the thought, said something memorably cutting, and then forgotten the numbskulls entirely as she headed out to her daily swim. We could all do with following that example sometimes.

Categories: arts & entertainment, culture wars, gender & feminism

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Oh wow. I want that book. Thanks for reviewing it!
    (I’ve run into that quote from Lion in Winter about five times so far this week – “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it Justice.”)
    Annas last blog post..KITTEH!

  2. She delivers that line so – just so. One of her greatest performances.

  3. Ooh, I LOVE me some Hepburn. I can never take my eyes off her in any film she’s in. Definitely putting this book on my reading list.

  4. Karbo writes of how this was one of the Hollywood studio system’s frustrations with how to best showcase her: she had this face absolutely made for the camera, but she had defined deltoids! She strode! She couldn’t look convincingly demure! The studios wanted to tame her on film, but mostly they ended up chastising exactly those qualities that we now find iconic.
    There were a whole series of films she did where she was this dashing independent woman full of verve, but the mores dictated that she couldn’t end the movie still as a woman in control of her own life, so the characters either died (horribly, of course) or married blancmanges at whom she was required to bat dewy eyes in the closing scene. Then of course there were all those old maid movies where she was resourceful and resilient but still deep down apparently pining for a wedding ring.
    There really are a lot of Hepburn films where you have to enjoy the Great Kate moments and then grit your teeth while Hollywood punishes her for them.

  5. Well it has to be better than the other Hepburn obsession. The Audrie Hepburn obsession usually centers around being extra feminine and extra thin.

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