Reel Women: ’60s Sex Comedies

This month’s Reel Women is dedicated to a brief blip in the generic morphology of the romcom known as the sex comedy. Between the large-budget movie musicals of the 1950s that replaced sex with song, and the notoriously bleak cinematic landscape of the 70s in which, it seems, only Woody Allen bothered to produce romcoms (a sign that the genre was, indeed, on the rocks), the sex comedy reigned with the sugary self-assurance of a pre-Nixon world. With an aesthetic that I can only describe as what mid-century Hollywood imagined middle America imagined New York to look like, it brought glamour to middle class sex.

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Dedicated to the sexual exploits of the newly urban and distressingly unmarried boomer generation, the sex comedy—like all romcoms—attempted to deal with a lot of anxieties about gender, sexuality and class by marrying them off. Despite its name, the sex comedy is exceptionally chaste. Although its characters talk more explicitly and soberly about sex than almost anywhere else in American cinema before them thanks to the Hays Code, they never actually move beyond a theoretical discussion of the mechanics of premarital sex. Two decades earlier, audiences saw more bed-hopping in the screwball comedy than they would find in these movies. Instead, sex in the sex comedy is tasked with both emblematizing a new politics of gender parity while also providing the occasion to force those politics back into the home, ensconced within a loving and now sexually-fulfilling marriage.

The postwar decades saw a perfect storm of cultural and political agitation around sex and the sexual practices of heteronormative Americans. Both Playboy magazine and Alfred Kinsey’s second and most controversial report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, debuted in 1953. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1962, and it became increasingly clear that the happy housewife was a myth and teens and women were having all kinds of sex despite the Leave It To Beaver-ish representations of family life. The Pill was released in 1961, and individual states began rolling back their abortion bans throughout the 60s, eventually culminating in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. Freud’s theories on sexuality were so permanently in the water that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a joke—or a straight-faced observation—about Oedipal desire. In other words, despite our vision of the 1950s as a supremely traditional, family-values oriented time—a nostalgic fantasy manufactured by the TV cowboy in the Reagan White House—it was actually as volatile and anxious about the institution of marriage as we are now.

The sex comedy is a pastiche of mid-century gender politics, a precious remnant from the early days of the Second Wave written from the other side. Metabolizing feminist concerns over professional equality, sexual freedom, and unmarried independence, the sex comedy solves these problems through hetero pairing rather than political activity—or rather, the only political activity in these films is marriage itself. In fact, the heroine is both a straw feminist and a romantic lead, seeking equality with her male professional rival while succumbing to the selfsame as a love interest.

This is how the sex comedy goes: an attractive white woman living in the big city with a burgeoning career but a dour love life develops a personal or professional animosity, erotic in intensity, with a faceless man who has made it his purpose to crack her frigid self-possession through tricks, foul or fair. Once the hero accidentally discovers the luscious body belonging to his competition—in this world, the demure, musical comedy stylings of Doris Day are treated as the most sexually inspiring thing in Manhattan—he is forced to mask his identity in order to seduce her. Disguised as a sensitive, gentile, sexually mild drip, he manipulates the heroine into seducing him until his ploy is revealed and she declares that she will never forgive him. But by then, it’s too late. She has succumbed to his charms and is obliged by the power of her own sexual desire to quietly ignore his betrayal and ride off into the sunset with him.

Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in Down with Love | Image from fanpop.com

Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in Down with Love | Image from fanpop.com

If you’ve seen Down With Love, a loving, beat-for-beat send-up of the genre, you know the rhythm.

Like most romcoms, these films don’t pass the Bechdel test. In fact, in this world, there is only room for one respectable middle-class girl in all of Manhattan. Every other female character is either a middle-aged maid who provides our heroines with the only thing that will pass for girl-talk in these movies, or they are showgirls, actresses, and French women whose apparently casual sexual relationships with the male lead disqualify them from true femininity. It’s almost as if our heroine wins by default of being the only virginal choice left.

Virginity itself is a strangely ambivalent category in these films. Although the heroine’s relative chastity is the very thing that makes her the heroine, it is also a source of shame or contempt. One of the first exchanges between Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk ridicules the barren bedscape of the heroine, Jan:

Brad Allen: Look, I don’t know what’s bothering you, but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.

Jan Morrow: I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.

Brad Allen: Ohh, that’s too bad.

Even more notably, the heroine of Sex and the Single Girl spends most of the movie attempting to hide her virginity from the hero whose purpose it is to ruin her business as a sex therapist by revealing her as a romantic novice. The heroine’s fastidiousness about sex in these films is meant to betray an unenlightened prissiness that is unacceptable even in marriage and must be hijinks-ed away before her sexuality is safely ensconced in matrimony.

The sexual politics of Sex and the Single Girl are even more striking because they are directly tied to the real life cultural landscape. Named after the advice book of the same name by Helen Gurley Brown, who would later go on to found Cosmopolitan magazine, it follows the exploits of a woman named Dr. Helen Gurley Brown (Natalie Wood) who writes an advice book called Sex and the Single Girl. Her book, which advises single women to own their desires and have affairs with married men, is a controversial sensation and attracts the attention of a tawdry magazine journalist (Tony Curtis) who wants to write an exposé proving that Dr. Brown has never taken her own advice. Turning the book into a sex comedy means turning Brown herself, an instrumental figure in the Second Wave, into a naive priss in need of a husband. These movies trope feminism in order to reify tradition, celebrating the new sexual freedoms afforded to white middle-class women at the same time that they seek to put them in their place.

Meanwhile, male sexual dysfunction is a crucial plot device. In their attempts to seduce the heroine, the heroes of these films always adopt an impotent, sexually unassuming persona. Through a series of phone calls in Pillow Talk, Brad convinces Jan that the sensitive cowboy he is pretending to be is gay—“there are some men who…how shall I put this? Well they’re very fond of their mother. They like to share bits of gossip. Collect recipes.” This conversation is made all the more cruel by the fact that Rock Hudson was gay in real life. And Tony Curtis’s Bob shows up to Dr. Brown’s office as an impotent patient in need of therapy in Sex and the Single Girl. It seems that without an impotent straw man, the empowered straw feminist is neither empowered nor, finally, transformed into a wife.

These films seem to want to turn masculine vulnerability into a farce—it becomes simply a role played by a cocky alpha—in order to protect masculinity from true vulnerability. The type of vulnerability, say, made possible by a feminist politics. Although the trajectory of the sex comedy is from career woman to wife through the crucible of normative sexuality, it must get there by queering the masculine. A recurring gag throughout Pillow Talk involves Brad hiding from Jan in the office of an obstetrician where he distractedly attempts to make an appointment and convinces the doctor that he is, miraculously, a pregnant man. The last shot of Pillow Talk is not of the happy couple, but of Brad being dragged into the doctor’s office after cheerfully declaring that he’s “going to have a baby!” He may have gotten the girl and returned to his alpha persona, but, the movie seems to say, he is still a little queer.

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