Censorship • How can a film with feminism, adultery, gay characters, and attempted murder get by the censors under the Hays Code? • Because the filmmakers use cinematic devices to neutralize these complex themes. They are dealt with in a comical way and under the “competing values” doctrine, the double “happy ending” compensates: love, marriage, and heterosexual happiness wins out in the end. Hooray for Hollywoodland!
In Flagrante Delicto • Dating back to at least ancient Greece, husbands could justifiably kill men who slept with their wives—in flagrante delicto—the theory of defending one’s property. • At least three American states—Texas, Utah, and New Mexico—had statutes that provided a complete defense to homicide for husbands who caught their wives in flagrante delicto. • Juries often bought the defense even in states that did not have such statutory protections. Indeed, fathers and brothers were similarly acquitted when they killed an unmarried daughter’s or sister’s seducer. • “Temporary insanity” was often added to the defense to ensure victory. • Though men mounted successful in flagrante delicto defenses, women rarely if ever used it. • Amanda: “An unwritten law stands back of a man who fights to defend his home. Apply this same law to this maltreated wife and neglected woman—we ask you no more—equality.”
Spencer Tracy as Adam Bonner • Upper-class, educated, relatively progressive for the times. • Assistant District Attorney in charge of prosecuting a working-class woman who attempted to murder her adulterous husband. • Ultimately represents the dominance of men, the law, and hierarchy.
Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Bonner • Yale educated attorney, able trial advocate, and an ability to handle elegant dinner parties and obnoxious neighbors with grace and skill: a success in both the public sphere (where men traditionally reigned) and the private sphere (where women are expected to be the masters). • Though there were very few female attorneys at this time (women comprised only 4% of all attorneys in the 1950s and 1960s), the message was unmistakable: women can have it all… but where are the kids? • Amanda’s outrage over what she sees as a double-standard moves her to defend the woman her husband is prosecuting. • Amanda’s strategy: women are equal to men. She parades strong females in front of the court and urges the jury to reverse the gender roles of those involved so that they may do justice. • Amanda: “There’s lots of things a man can do, and in society’s eyes it’s all hunky-dory.”
Feminist Film? • Intelligent, female, legal professional, protagonist. • Surrounded by male colleagues aware of and comfortable with her knowledge and her status as she competently argues a point of law or confidently traverses the corridors of power. • Lesson: viewing female lawyer films is a progressive, positive—even feminist—experience. • This is true to some extent and only on the surface. • A deeper examination reveals that ultimately, these films “turn against” the female lawyer in order to position her as a threatening or ineffective figure, if only to neutralize the threat she poses in the end.
Law as Metaphor • Law is used throughout the film as a metaphor for male dominance. • Adam: “Contempt for the law, that’s what you’ve got. It’s a disease, a spreading disease…. The law is the law…. You start with one law, then pretty soon it’s all laws, pretty soon it’s everything; then it’s me.” • Justice, on the other hand, is used as a metaphor for female submissiveness. • Is it possible for males to be submissive and females to be dominant? • If gender roles were reversed would equality be achieved?
The Recognition of Justice, but Triumph of the Law • Kip Lurie: “Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called ‘inbreeding,’ from which comes idiot children and more lawyers.” • Why does the gay character Kip, flirt with Amanda? Why is this included in the film? • At first, Adam seems to have no problem with it but later threatens violence. Why the seeming reversal? • Adam is the law-and-order (male) character but his threat to go outside the law for justice (with a licorice gun!) demonstrates the fallacy of her courtroom argument. • Amanda who is the justice (female) character but who gives law-and-order reasons to Adam in this scene demonstrates the ultimate triumph of law (male) over justice (female) so that even Amanda realizes this.
Hierarchy in Law and Life • The film refuses to conform to traditional notions of hierarchy: • Man over woman; • Dominant over submissive (other); • Law over justice. • Yet at the same time, it does not completely repudiate traditional power structures: • Adam remarks: “You’re cute when you get causy.” • Ultimately tax and property law bring Adam and Amanda back together. • Amanda has learned only to joke about running against him for judge. • For its time, the level of equality portrayed in the film was remarkable and reflected the post-war (and therefore post-Rosie-the-riveter) “New Woman” discourse going on in America. • However, because the narrative ultimately turns on Amanda, we see the classic model of feminism losing out to mainstream liberalism: limited independence—a narrative that is present in most female protagonist films and nearly every female lawyer film.
Credits • Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, Reel Justice (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996) 92, 202, 217. • Lucia, Cynthia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005). • Spelman, Elizabeth V. and Martha Minow, “Outlaw Women,” in John Denvir, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996) Ch. 13. • Suggs, Jon-Christian, “Adams Ribs: Get ‘em While They’re Hot,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture. • Tushnet, Mark V., “Class Action: One View of Gender and Law in Popular Culture,” in John Denvir, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996) Ch. 12.