1950s Sex Comedies: The Unromantic Rise of Toxic Masculinity

August 17th, 2021

By the late 1940s, romantic comedies began transitioning into a new subgenre, retaining a few of the signature screwball traits but with a definite shift of tenor. Instead of the playful sparring that brought females and males together, the contention between them grew less amicable and, in some cases, downright mean-spirited, gradually driving them further and further apart. So much so, that by the 1950s through the mid 1960s, screwballs fell by the wayside in favor of a subgenre of the romantic comedy often referred to as the “Battle of the Sexes” films, or simply “The Sex Comedy” as dubbed by author Tamara Jeffers McDonald in her influential book, “Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre.” In it, McDonald defines the sex comedy as a subgenre that “pits woman against man in an elemental battle of wits, in which the goal of both is sex. Only the timing and legitimacy of this differs from gender to gender, with women wanting sex after, and men before or without, marriage.”

We also see at this time a greater emergence of capitalism infiltrate the genre. Frequently set in big cities like New York, the sex comedies offer an array of expensive eye candy from high fashion, fancy cars, swanky night clubs and restaurants and, let us not forget, the decadently tripped-out bachelor pads (the first wave of the contemporary “man cave”). While these components certainly add visual allure, like any form of advertising, they have an agenda, one that not only permeates current romantic comedies but has shaped our society’s expectations about gender and sex, economic status and physical beauty, power and status, romance and marriage, often in deleterious ways. That agenda, I would argue, is White heteronormative male supremacy.

Sex Comedies, alongside the emergence of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine, introduced us to a whole new approach to “ideal” masculinity, or more aptly put—“toxic” masculinity, in which men treat seduction as a power play, prioritizing the feat of conquest and reward of no-strings-attached heteronormative, male sexual gratification, often by tricking or otherwise manipulating an unwilling, unsuspecting female. A particularly disturbing example of this new lifestyle being sold is depicted in PILLOW TALK (1959) in which a lothario, played by Rock Hudson is “the kind of bachelor who has a single switch in his living room that turns out the lights, puts on a romantic record, and locks the doors—and a second that automatically unfolds the bed in his sleeper couch,” as described by Saul Austerlitz in his American Film Comedy book, “Another Fine Mess.”

The locked doors are a particularly chilling detail. This movie is intended to be a comedy yet it’s aggrandizing rape. And we wonder how incels and the #metoo movement came to be.

Meanwhile, the female counterparts in these films tend to fall into one of two categories: the “good girls” played by the likes of Doris Day, or the often ditzy, voluptuous and/or blond sexy golddiggers, most famously and iconically represented by Marilyn Monroe. Both seek marriage but with distinct motivations.

Austerlitz wisely observes that Day’s characters desire sex but only in the context of true love (and presumably the promise of marriage), whereas Monroe’s characters exhibit no notable sexual desire, viewing seduction as no more than a means to an end—the financial security of wealth. Contrariwise, the men in these films are more interested in doing whatever it takes to conquer Monroe yet, more often than not, by the time Doris Day arrives at the moment of willing consent, confident in her suitor’s genuine love of her, it’s the men who shy away from “having sex with a good girl like her.”


And it gets worse. This toxic masculinity is not limited to the male characters’ methods and motives for female seduction. Relationships with their family members and colleagues and friends are no more admirable. In FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950), the title character is unhappy about his daughter’s pending marriage not because he’s concerned that she’s marrying a controlling know-it-all whose every opinion she mindlessly adopts as her own but, rather, because the dad, the original controlling know-it-all in her life, can’t stand the thought of being replaced. He is not motivated by his daughter’s happiness and welfare but his own, thus pitting him against his future-son-in-law, his daughter and his wife in his efforts to make somebody else’s life choice all about him.

Upping the toxic ante still more, Rock Hudson’s character in PILLOW TALK, upon learning his best friend is smitten with and even proposed marriage to a reputably beautiful but “hard-to-get” woman Hudson has never met in person, undertakes an elaborate scheme to make her his next conquest. Not only is he preying on an unsuspecting, presumably virginal woman, he is willfully betraying his best friend. Nice guy.

There is, however, at least one film from this era that slipped through the patriarchal cracks and bears mentioning because it is deceptively feminist-friendly even if it does fail to pass the Bechdel Test. GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is not, as one might gather from the premise, about two women looking to score husbands. To the contrary, it’s about a friendship between two lifelong friends who help each other through thick and thin as they negotiate their respective approaches to romance. We learn via an early dialogue exchange, that both self-supporting professional women (they’re showgirls) have previously given their hearts to toxically masculine men with bad results. Now one, Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) is just seeking fun with guys she finds attractive, a goal pursued in a fabulously gender-role-reversed scene in which Shaw ogles scantily clad, objectified American Olympic male swim team athletes in a Busby-Berkeley-style, campy musical number, while the other, declaring “it’s just as easy to fall [in love] with a rich man as a poor one” has done just that. While it may be a stretch to believe that the stunning, young blonde bombshell, Lorelie Lee (Marilyn Monroe) would fall for a bumbling, submissive, old dufus like Gus Esmund (Tommy Noonan), their dialogue and interactions over the course of the film indicate their mutual love and respect for each other is legit. And though Monroe is often stereotyped as the quintessential dumb blonde, her insightful dialogue repeatedly indicates she’s simply playing an unfair system to her advantage rather than become a victim to it, like when she says—

 “I can be smart when it’s important, but men don’t like it.”

Or when she exposes the hypocrisies of patriarchy by unapologetically asking—

“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”

Perhaps even more illuminating is when she speaks from the perspective of what a good woman is supposed to aspire to be: a good mother—

“If you had a daughter, wouldn’t you rather she didn’t marry a poor man? You’d want her to have the most wonderful things in the world and to be very happy. Well, why is it wrong for me to want those things?”

Disguised as a light confection of a romantic musical comedy about two men-obsessed women, is in fact, a brilliant satire featuring two savvy female friends who help each other overcome the pitfalls and limitations of life as a woman in a patriarchal society.

Perhaps this surprising gem of a film provided a spark for what was to follow in the later 60s and 70s. Up next from me, an exploration of the “radical comedies” of the second wave feminist movement.




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