Friday Hoyden: Katharine Hepburn

This is a repost: first published March 30, 2006 as Hepburn and Mephistopheles (before I’d got into the Friday Hoyden habit). I’ve taken this opportunity to correct my original misspelling of her given name, and I’m very happy that the website I snarked on then still exists for you to … enjoy.

Hepburn and Mephistopheles

…is the title of an essay, actually an obituary, that I came across while searching out some images of the estimable hoyden-about-town Katharine Hepburn.

Oh. My. Spag. Just read the caption in the obituary for this photo below, which is carefully nearly neutrally phrased, but the actual article leaves one in no doubt that trouser-wearing women are damned:

Katharine Hepburn on set with director Lowell Sherman - she is wearing jeans and a belted coatHepburn’s opinion on equality in dress became notorious
in Hollywood, and she wore blue jeans on the set at a time
when this was considered a revolt against decent dress.
Above, with director Lowell Sherman.

The site Tradition In Action , of which the obituary forms part of the “CULTURAL: Women in Society” section,

is committed to defend the perennial Magisterium of Holy Mother Church and Catholic traditions. TIA also works for a restoration of Christian civilization, adapted to contemporary historical circumstances.

TIA are the natural allies of Mel Gibson’s brand of retro-traditionalist Catholicism, and while they might be slightly more genteel than Mel’s dad Hutton Gibson, they want much of the same things.

TIA has a statue of Charlemagne with Roland and Oliver as their site logo, but far from being in the vanguard of the enlightenment or even the honest empire-building of the Crusades, this mob is stuck firmly in an idealised Victorian age, and as regards women in society, of the most petit-bourgeois kind. Dr Marian Horvat particularly despairs over women wearing trousers, let alone seeking any sort of societal recognition outside family life: their logo really should be a pair of asparagus tongs.

Of course, during the Victorian period, despite Horvat et al’s fantasies, most women did in fact work outside the home. If skilled, they worked as seamstresses, milliners, laundresses, cooks. If educated, as schoolmistresses, governesses, bookkeepers. If unskilled, as factory workers, field hands, housemaids. The few families who could afford to get by on a single wage were headed by prosperous tradesmen, businessmen, the landed gentry and the nobility, all of whom employed married women from less well-off families to cook, clean, make and mend around their homes.

But Horvat lives in a rosy glow of faux-Victoriana, where all women dressed neatly and with dignified elegance because they never had to dirty their hands, where men live a public life and women a private one, and this life segued neatly into picket-fenced June Cleaver suburbia, where everything was just so niceuntil the feminists came and ruined it all. Especially women like Hepburn’s mother, who with Margaret Sanger co-founded Planned Parenthood.

Cop a load of this on Hepburn:

Since we have wandered into Goethe’s celebrated poem, permit me to sketch an imaginary, but perhaps not so improbable Faustian scene. It is the 1930s, and the wily Mephistopheles is chuckling over his new tool to ensnare women from moral and upright lives: Hollywood. Yes, the devil was doing quite well finding new romantic models for young women to move them away from family life and responsibilities. He had now, for example, the smoldering, languid and aloof “grande dame” style of a Gloria Swanson, to buttress the soft, fragile, and helpless Victorian heroine.

The time was right to strike a deal with this strong-minded woman hell-bent on becoming a great star and writing her own ticket. You can have it all, perhaps he whispered in her ear about this time. All the awards and honors you can imagine, all the romances you want, all the fame possible in this life. I’ll give you 100 years – give or take a few years.

A pact like this is perfectly plausible [ed note: !], and it would explain many things. Whether a deal with the devil was made or not, something changed about this time. …

Yes, apparently all the plaudits that came Hepburn’s way after her dedication to her craft, personal discipline and canny marketing culminated in the triumph of The Philadelphia Story and her reinvigorated Hollywood career can only be explained by a Mephistophelian pact rather than strength of character and purpose. The gloating in the final paragraph is painful.

I don’t know if the ending of Hepburn’s story followed Goethe’s happy ending with the salvation of Faust’s soul, or Marlowe’s more grim and realistic finale. One thing is for certain, it didn’t follow a Hollywood script. It was a private and final account rendered by the revolutionary woman to the God she didn’t believe in.

I know hoydenish me is not the audience for whom Dr Horvat writes: she is preaching to the Traditionalist Catholic choir. Still, it’s stuff like this that made me a freethinker.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, work and family

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Is that Dr I see before her name? Where ever did she get the time to study for a PhD? /pointless snark. Isn’t it funny how it always applies to other women not themselves?

  2. That website is possibly the most disturbing I’ve read in a long time. The comments on physical appearance are truly obnoxious.

  3. Frighteningly, her PhD is in history. Boggle.
    The website is truly disturbing, and they don’t make the slightest effort to conceal that. From Horvat’s introduction to her ”Catholic Manual of Civility”:

    This gives a small taste of the delightful lost fruit that used to be freely given to the youth.
    A lost fruit, yes, because the kind of manners set out by such Catholic civility books have fallen into disuse after the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and are rarely found today. The modern man extols what is spontaneous and easy; the Catholic gentleman of the past measured his every act and word. The modern man treats every man, woman, and child equally; civility moved the Catholic man to honor his neighbor with the respect and esteem owed to him, taking into account the factors of gender, status, rank, and profession.


  4. The modern man treats every man, woman, and child equally

    Yes such a failing of modern society that. She obviously wishes for the old days, where men like the previous parish priest here let doors slam in the faces of women with strollers (namely me). I don’t think it was malicious, it just never occurred to him to hold a door open for a woman with a stroller. More used to having people hold them open for him I suspect. And don’t get me started on fit young priests striding across airports while seventy year old nuns struggle along behind with their luggage. Smug self righteous pricks. Sometimes I really wish that heaven existed so that they could get the surprise of their sheltered little lives when the nuns went straight to heaven and they went to be reeducated in how to treat people nicely. Yep, that’s the type of society I want. Not.

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