01 January 2013

Gender roles in Kate & Leopold

So, I was watching the chick-flick Kate & Leopold the other day when I was PMSing and lonely and apparently in the mood to fulfill ALL THE STEREOTYPES by eating pudding (made from almondmilk: warm, wintertime alternative to ice cream) while curled up in front of the space heater and ready to cry at the drop of a hat.

Those of you who know me know I'm very feminist, present as butch (short haircut, unshaven legs, typically masculine clothing choices), and hate gender roles. But despite all this, I love this movie. Why? I'm not quite sure I understand it myself, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about it.

First of all: Hugh Jackman is probably one of the most attractive Hollywood actormen out there. So there's that.

First, tho', the problematic aspects of the movie. It presents chivalry and the 1800s as impossibly romanticised ideals, whereas pretty much every century was terrible for women--most especially poor ones. Chivalry as an *ideal* respects all women, but in *practice* reinforces the madonna/whore dichotomy and presents only very specific women as desirable, worth pursuit, and the others as dirty and subhuman. Chivalry also doesn't play much into the idea of consent or enthusiastic consent. Women are (theoretically; again, not in practice necessarily) presented the opportunity to say "no" to a proposal, but must endure expressions of affection from all potential suitors until given a proposal to say "no" to--and, of course, she could never initiate a relationship or propose to someone herself. Not to mention of course that back in those days women were bartered and traded as property between fathers and suitors for favors, riches, political ties, and maintenance/improvement of class or status. The women in the beginning of this movie, hoping for Duke Leopold's proposal, don't love him or even know him, but he's encouraged to marry one anyway, for the money. While I appreciate that the movie disapproves of this and seems to be holding up love--consensual relationships based on mutual affection--as the ideal, they play it alongside chivalry while ignoring the fact that chivalry CREATED the conditions under which Leopold is originally expected to operate.

Okay, so he's transported to the modern days via time-rift-plot-device and meets Kate. Leopold is seen as desirable because he treats Kate "like a lady," standing when she enters or leaves, writing her pretty notes, saving her purse from a thief while on horseback, making her romantic meals, and "defending her honor" from a sleazy boss trying to get into her pants. He's intelligent, super good looking, and kind. He also speaks in pretty, archaic phrases and seems particularly innocent, due to his childlike wonder at the world of the future.
I don't find Kate particularly attractive, so I don't understand his attraction to her. She's your typical sarcastic, white, beanpole Hollywood starlet--not my type, but I'm not judging anyone who likes that. I appreciate that she's competent and independent, working a demanding job and taking charge when she needs to. Her relationship with Leopold is *supposed* to throw her dissatisfaction with her rat-race life into relief, but I feel like this wasn't terribly clear... it seemed to me she liked and WANTED her job, especially the promotion her boss dangled in front of her. Yes, he wanted to sleep with her and was using the promotion as leverage, but I thought she was (rightfully) upset and frustrated at his sexism and horribleness rather than upset and frustrated at the job itself. When she went back to the 19th century to be with Leopold, I was like, but...! you won't be able to work anymore! WHAT ARE YOU DOING I THOUGHT YOU WERE FEMINIST?

Not to mention, they only know each other for a MAX of one week (because he has to go back thru the rift "on Monday" before it closes, not "next Monday" or anything like that), and it seems clear to me that the inherent misogyny of the 19th century will cause future strife for them, despite not being obvious right away. He says very gender-essentialist things and does stuff like insist on a chaperone for her boss-date or say women wearing trousers are "plain." While it *looks* like he's getting over it as he gets to know Kate, when they're firmly back in the 19th century and surrounded by the misogynistic cultural pressure, will he really present as an anachronistic feminist? I doubt it. She will become his property. Beloved property, but property nonetheless.

I feel like the movie is trying to say to women, "look! Wouldn't it be so nice to just be taken care of rather than busting your ass to take care of yourself? Wouldn't it be nice to marry a sweet, gorgeous gentleman who will protect and defend you so you can just wear pretty dresses and entertain all day? How romantic! *swoon*"

And, okay, this is a legitimate (if unrealistically romanticised and problematic) fantasy, but... This isn't me at all. Why do I love this movie then? I don't want to be in Kate's place--and most women watching chick flicks like this, they want to be in the woman's place, getting the guy, being taken care of and protected. That's the fantasy. Then I realized... I want to be in Leopold's place.

I want to wear the awesome clothes he's wearing. I want to write the pretty notes, know the meanings of all the flowers, cook beautiful meals to nourish my beloved. I want to swoop in for the rescue, defend m'lady's honor and expose sexist, womanizing creeps for what they are. I don't want to treat women as property (obviously) or romantically pursue someone who isn't likewise pursuing me, but... I have to say, some gender roles seem lovely. In my case, however, those gender roles I want are firmly masculine. So, does that still make it a gender role?

It's confusing. I'm both attracted to Leopold physically while wanting *his* place in the romantic equation, not the place opposite him. I don't want to defend and pursue *Kate* tho'. Just, someone. Someday.

Gender roles are such an interesting problem. I'd like to code them, rather than male or female, as feminine and masculine. I wish women were free to be masculine without reproach, and men to be feminine. It's *different* to want masculine gender roles and to want to be a man (which I unequivocally DO NOT want).

I don't know. Romance is a funny thing. What do you guys think?


  1. A smattering of mostly minor (I think) points:

    - I don't think Chivalry as such *created the system of gender roles described, but was itself created/developed in response to their pre-existence, in part as a philosophical protest/amelioration, in part as a system of support to rationalize those gender roles amongst the nobility, and, later, the bourgeoisie. You can see the transition from idealism to cynicism in the first (Guillaume de Lorris) and second (Jean de Meun) parts of Le Roman de la Rose...

    - I forgot that Leopold *cooked (never saw it the whole way through, though I'm a sap for Rom Coms) - how gender-subversive for his supposed era...

    - Gender-essentialism is bunk. There are admirable traits and deplorable traits. Men and women may possess any number and combination of both, and, though we do tend to express them in culturally-gendered ways, possess and express them we do and must. The trouble is with the cultural gendering that tells people how they're supposed to be who they are.

    1. thanks for your input!

      As for your number one, I'm afraid my knowledge of European history is limited more to the general than the specific, so I don't know all the names you mention. I think you're right, though, in that chivalry didn't necessarily *create* gender roles. I do think, however, it ultimately enforced them, in the same sort of way that the great chain of being enforced the class system and peasantry. Perhaps in some incarnations chivalry was meant to raise women up into respect and honor. What it ended up doing was raising up only the Virgin Mary, female saints, religious virgins, and female nobility, while heaping scorn on women who actually had sex and children and lived real, non-idealized lives.

      I don't think Leopold cooking is as much gender-subversive as it is class-subversive. Seems like he'd be the kind of guy who would have servants do all his cooking and cleaning for him, even as his fortune dwindles away into nothing. The women of the nobility certainly never got their hands dirty in the kitchen either... But, yes, he's a confusing character in that he seems quite willing to give up certain gender roles and put aside any oppressive masculine authority--and even some of his antiquated ideals like re: the chaperone... he obviously didn't call for one when he was spending time with Kate alone as their relationship progressed.

      Your third point was quite eloquent. Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly.

  2. I think the film, like most films that entertain a "fantasy" reality,implies the happy ending and all the particulars, partially because these movies are not intended to be VERY well thought out... but to evoke archetypal scenes, and emotions from the viewer. I think that if they've stated that Kate is at all a feminist, and if Leopold truly loves her... and that he IS changing... "All things are possible." Right? I assume he WILL take a stand for her equality in the 19th Century... If a movie with such simplicity does not imply the ending-turned-sour... why expect it? If the film were more a drama and less a romance, I might agree that the plot didn't seem entirely believable or to have the best message for women. In this case, however, I don't see the stretch. The basic plot-line is, ITSELF, already out there. Also, gender roles like being the "rescuer," and the one who is "learned," and "wise"... (not REALLY gender specific, in my opinion) are present in all people. What mother wouldn't risk her life to save her husband or her child? What husband wouldn't comfort and nurse his sick wife or child back to health in times of illness? Each of these would TECHNICALLY by societal standards be fulfilling a *masculine* or *feminine* "role" right? I think, if we are all trying to be pure of heart and mind and do our best to be who we are... whats the problem? :)

  3. This is all very interesting...I'd have to think more before I could say anything useful or intriguing, BUT, I can at least agree with you that Hugh Jackman is indeed gorgeous. Mayhaps his face speaks to the sheer power of beauty and how that plays into all of this? I dunno...but thanks for a thought-provoking read!