Male Domination in 1960s Rom-Coms

January 10th, 2023

In the Sex Comedies of the 1950s, we saw manipulative men going to extreme and often toxic measures to lure reluctant women into bed. However, by 1960, with the emergence of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution (not to mention Kinsey’s earlier report declaring, “Yes, people, women actually do have and enjoy sex), that outdated storyline would no longer fly. So, to overcome this pesky obstacle, a number of romantic comedies from this era shifted their focus. Rather than update the female love interest’s point-of-view, they demoted her to a secondary character and made it all about the leading man. THE APARTMENT (1960) is one of the earliest and most notable examples of this new trend. In it, Jack Lemmon plays Bud, a low-level employee at an insurance company who, in exchange for the promise of a promotion, lends out his apartment to several of his higher-ups, enabling them to carry on their extra-marital affairs. Despite the fact that he shows no remorse for his role in the exploitation of the female staff at his workplace or the betrayed wives of his colleagues, Bud’s presented as “a nice guy.” In fact, he only regrets his participation once he learns his boss is carrying on with, Fran, his office crush. And not because he knows his boss is only using the woman Bud supposedly cares about, but because he wants her for himself. As such, he plays the victim, ejected from his apartment at all hours of the night and down in the dumps because the girl he fancies prefers somebody else. Even when he returns home to find Fran in critical shape after a suicide attempt (provoked by the realization she’s been duped by her conniving lover), Bud continues to put his own needs above hers. Rather than taking the potentially dying woman to a hospital, he turns to a neighbor to help him  to ensure the matter won’t go public, thereby protecting his boss’s reputation and Bud’s shot at promotion. To his credit, by film’s end, Bud eventually quits his job in protest against the toxic environment of his workplace. That said, he makes no effort to report  or put an end to this bad behavior, so he hardly qualifies as a hero. Nevertheless, he’s treated like one. For his lack of effort, he still gets the girl. Talk about a Hollywood ending.

More troubling still is HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965), likewise starring “nice guy” Jack Lemmon. This time his character, Stanley, drunkenly marries an Italian stripper who jumps out of a cake at his best friend’s bachelor party. Unable to annul the marriage after gleefully consummating it the night before, he publicly fantasizes about killing her, depicting in his popular syndicated comic strip how he’d drug and hide her body. Rightfully perturbed, she gets revenge by faking her own death, for which he’s tried in court, the obvious suspect to her murder. No matter though. When he pleads “justifiable homicide,” blaming the nightmare of married life and wives in general for his actions, the all-male jury unanimously acquit him with a round of applause and carry him out like a hero on their shoulders (seriously, folks – I am not making this up.) Soon after, his wife returns home upon which he informs her that, due to double jeopardy, he can’t be retried for her murder. Now, you’d think most women would be turned off by such a blatant death threat, but not Stanley’s stripper wife. She seduces him on the spot, thereby rekindling his interest in her and providing the so-called happy ending.

Personally, I’d argue such a plot is neither romantic or comedic, but fortunately as this new breed of male-driven romantic comedy continues to evolve, both the male and female characters depicted within evolve along with them, introducing a bold new breed of female love interest that tip the scales of gender balance yet again. But we’ll save that topic for next time when we delve into Independent Women & Needy Men in 1970s Rom-Coms…




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