I like old movies sometimes. I like their perceived quaintness, looking back at them from the long view of the louche future. I like seeing the different manners and mannerisms of an older world, I like seeing the creaky film effects and sets, the flimsy-seeming jokes and quips, the crumbling traditions, the way people talked and even walked, what they wore, what they drank, what was considered cool or cruel, sexy or stuffy. It’s all exotic and yet tinglingly familiar, like when you come across photos that you’ve never seen before taken in the house you lived in as a child.
Also, I like Audrey Hepburn—big fan of “Wait Until Dark” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Grew up watching her in “My Fair Lady,” the VHS version that required you to switch to a second tape during a mid-movie intermission.
I did, however, re-watch “My Fair Lady” this past year as an adult. Post Ecofeminism course during my master’s program. Post LBGT literature course in undergrad, post lots of new reading, post new politics, post new conversations, post new challenges to antiquated norms. Post inner awakening, post inner evolving. Post learning evermore to question the stories we’ve all been given about who we are and who they are and what it means. And I was rather horrified by the film, its assumptions about women and its treatment of the relations between men and women.
This experience with “My Fair Lady” should have given me a hint about how I might react to “Roman Holiday,” a decade-older film with a scripted crowd-pleasing romantic fuzziness to it, but it didn’t. As I said, I expected to enjoy it.
My disappointment hit very early in the film.
The first troubling aspect about “Roman Holiday” that I find worth mentioning is when Audrey Hepburn’s character Princess Ann is upset, and her guardian hurriedly calls the doctor. This woman is upset, she’s not smiling and kind and docile, there’s obviously something wrong with her, call the doctor! Predictably, her feelings are referred to as “hysterics” (if you don’t know what the trouble is with that word, you might be jumping the feminist-literature shark by reading this essay).
The film begins with Princess Ann. It’s all about the princess and her life. It seems like it might be a movie actually about a woman.
Then—enter the dashing newspaperman played by Gregory Peck. Mr. Joe Bradley is a newspaperman from back when there were literally only newspapermen, and we needed no other gender-inclusive term to describe that job. Mr. Bradley’s role is to fix and take care of Princess Ann, of course. And the way he does this is by patronizing her, of course. Managing her like she’s a child, talking to her like she’s a child, chiding her oh-so-gently like she’s a sometimes naughty and dim-witted but overall innocent and lovable child. In fact, the storyline is a perfect platform for patronizing: The knowledgable and street-wise man shows a woman the world for the first time. Adorable.
It’s even more adorable how he shows the princess around without asking her opinion about anything. He physically grabs her by the wrist and drags her places. Once Mr. Bradley takes over the film, Princess Ann becomes pretty much a prop. The woman is never making up her own mind about where she’s going and what she’s doing—unless she’s ordered by Mr. Bradley to do so.
Oh, and that Mr. Bradley can do no wrong. He’s helping to cure Princess Ann’s hysteria, making her charming and kind and eternally pleasant again. He sticks his hand in a hole in an old wall that legendarily bites people’s arms off if… I can’t remember why it’s storied to bite people’s arms off, and it doesn’t matter. He sticks his arm in the hole and screams and fights and pretends the hole has grabbed him and bitten his hand off, and the princess shrieks in horror and freaks out, naturally, and then—it’s all a joke! His hand is still there! Haha, she laughs, falling all over him, you absolutely terrified me, you funny man, you’re so hilarious and cute! I just love you!
Look, sometimes it is fun to be tricked and emotionally manipulated, and sometimes it’s not fun. Yet it’s hard to envision such a normal-seeming scene in which the gender roles are reversed, wherein the man is ecstatic and laughing and moony-eyed just moments after the woman has made him shriek in panic from believing her hand has been cut off.
All of these troubling points about how “Roman Holiday” was scripted and directed and sold to audiences are only a small sampling of the film’s gender-equity issues. These were the moments I decided to note. I’m skipping over all the princess-etiquette and sexual innuendo stuff. I’m skipping over the main plot line, which concerns the literal commodification of a woman’s feelings, desires, love interests, passions and body.
In fact, the movie’s only legit moment, I’d argue, is when the princess decides to get her hair cut short, before she commits her time to the newspaperman. This moment stands in the film, as it has in reality for me, as an important symbol of the hero’s controlled release from others’ expectations and others’ claims of ownership over her personhood.
And that, folks, is a bit of the trouble with “Roman Holiday,” which could be more aptly titled “Cornered Woman in a Corner.”
Lastly, I’d just like to say—I don’t get what the deal is with this movie. Putting its lady-problems aside and trying to appreciate it for what it is, I must admit it was one of the duller movies I’ve seen.