The Joy of Subverting Gender Norms
Every time I watch the late 50s classic comedy Some Like It Hot, I get something new out of it. The first time I watched it, I got a kick out of seeing two men endure and develop sympathy for all the shit women have to go through, such as walking fast in high heels, and warding off unwanted advances. “Welcome to how the other half lives,” Tony Curtis’s character says after he and Jack Lemmon have safely ensconced themselves in their hotel room to escape the skirt-chasing wolves.
The second time I watched it, I appreciated the commentary on how people marry people of all genders for a myriad of reasons: “Security!”
The third time I watched it, I died over all the sublime double entendres: “This is where I get off” and “Most of the time I slap it,” had me rolling.
What I’m really enjoying on this last rewatch is how the movie shows the joy and freedom that comes with disrupting gender expectations.
The story set up: Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and have to get out of Chicago to elude the mobsters who want to “silence” them. Their only ticket out is to join an all-female band embarking on a gig in Miami, Florida. They disguise themselves as women to join the band and avoid detection by the mobsters who’ll be searching the country for two male musicians. One of the female band members is uber femme Marilyn Monroe. Hijinks, of course, ensue. Oh, boy, do they.
As soon as everyone’s all aboard the train to Florida, the movie plays with gender roles. The women in the band are a boisterous, bawdy bunch. In comparison, Curtis and Lemmon pretending to be women come across as uptight and schoolmarmy. The bandleader Sweet Sue (who is anything but sweet) has to prod them to “goose it up a little” during rehearsal. That’s when the two men start to loosen up and have fun with their role. The women already know how to have fun. They party right under the manager’s nose and tell raunchy jokes. (The DVD commentator said he has no idea how one particular joke got past the censors.)
Marilyn Monroe’s character is another version of the standard so-called vulnerable, “brainless blonde” she tended to be typecast as. Yet here that archetype has some contradictory characteristics. For example, she was the one who was sexually in control, while Lemmon and Curtis were all dreamy-eyed and a-flutter. She was also a hard-drinking woman, hiding a flask of booze in her garter and spouting the famous line “I can stop anytime I want to. Only, I don’t want to.” In a sobering instance of art imitating life, Marilyn Monroe was going through real substance abuse challenges at the time, according to commentary. She was also pregnant during filming, and miscarried shortly after the movie wrapped. So I don’t wanna hear any more of that bullshit studio chatter that they were worried about filming her because her body was “deteriorating”. She glows with sex appeal, her tits look amazing, and I’ve been trying to perfect that shoulder shimmy of hers since the first time I saw this movie.
As the movie develops, it becomes apparent that Jack Lemmon’s character’s starting to enjoy the freedom of not having to be a man. When he’s frolicking with the women on the beach he displays a sort of physical freeness that comes from not being concerned with appearing masculine. As he slips back and forth between Daphne the woman and Jerry the man, his transitions become easier, leading him to contemplate a future for himself he’d never envisioned before. It’s a beautiful arc to watch, and I really love how Jack Lemmon embodies it.
I think one of the reasons I love Some Like it Hot is that explorations of gender roles really resonate with me. I believe that we all have masculine and feminine traits, and yet at the same time can be impacted by societal conventions to our own detriment. Rules about the value of masculinity and femininity, and how they should be presented, are often restrictive and downright harmful. I’m basically a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers kind of woman, but I also enjoy wearing colorful makeup and love the fairy princess aesthetic of pink and lace and flowers. At times in my life I’ve been taken aback by comments, usually from men, about how I am either not feminine enough or too feminine. And I’m just like, seriously, can’t I just be me? Something about watching all of these contradictions in a movie like Some Like It Hot is illuminating and freeing. The very notion of playing at being a woman demonstrates how a lot of this dance between masculine and feminine is just that: a dance, a performance, an expression. Witnessing and breaking down this interplay, analyzing all of these pieces, can show us the tools we have at our disposal to express ourselves, and all the different ways each of us can say, “I just want to be me.”