Saturday, 17 January 2015

On Desk Set and the Implications of Identifying Genre With Gender

I guess I should start by giving a little bit of background on the history behind this awful movie and how I came to be acquainted with it. It all started when I was registering for my classes during the summer and encountered a film class simply known as "Selected Topics". From the description it sounded like an extension of the great film classes I had been taking over the previous year, with a randomly-selected group of film-related topics being covered in more detail. Unless it turned out that they were going to be spending several weeks talking about why Jean-Luc Godard is the greatest director of all time, it should be okay. Boy, was I wrong?

Instead of an interesting film class, it turned out to be a dull, boring media studies class. I found it horrendous and could barely concentrate. At first it seemed to be just a matter of me being confused by it not being what I expected, or me not fitting in. After listening to the testimony of a classmate, I've been led to suspect it was just a poorly-run class. Eventually after a few weeks and a guest lecturer I could not keep up with I decided I couldn't take it anymore and dropped the course. I still have yet to find anyone who had anything positive to say about it.

It did not help that the class in question was three hours long, and the few actually film-related topics were dull at best. Instead we spent a lot of time talking about the internet and computers. We talked a little bit about how computers are shown on film, but the professor kept insisting on showing clips from cheesy movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Rollerball when she could have gotten the same idea across through a good movie about artificial intelligence like, oh I don't know... 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Every couple of weeks, there would be an actual screening, and for the short period of time I was there, every single one was boring. There was one infuriating one in particular that helped draw the line, and that was the movie Desk Set. This was a movie that drove me insane. When I heard Katherine Hepburn was in it I was excited, hoping that maybe she could bring something good to this movie, but instead it was a film with a production history that indicates it to have been made by misogynistic idiots and in general was so bad that even Katherine Hepburn couldn't make it at all bearable. Even more repulsive is that this horrendously sexist movie somehow has a 7.3 rating on IMDB. I would have given it a 5.0 if I were feeling generous, but only because there were one or two scattered moments of actual humor, though they were few and far between.

I should get into a bit of the history behind why we were forced to watch Desk Set. Prior to the screening, we were discussing the history of computers, and it turns out that computers and women have something of a history together. Back in the olden days there was a much stricter division of labour between men and women. It was normal for some jobs to be considered "men's work" and some to be considered "women's work". There was no middle ground. Job advertisements could legally say "men wanted" or women wanted, and it didn't matter how qualified you were for the job, if you had the wrong genitalia they wouldn't take you.

There is a story in the field of astronomy about one Edward Charles Pickering, an American astronomer in the late 18th and early 19th century who got so annoyed with the incompetence of his male colleagues that he told them "my housekeeper could do a better job than you" and brought her in just to prove it. Said housekeeper turned out to be brilliant, and went on to assemble an entire team of female "computers". Edward Pickering and his "computers" would make some of the most important astronomical discoveries of all time. The term "computer" literally originated with groups of trained women like those under Edward Pickering whose jobs consisted of "computing" data.

By the time actual computers were being developed, women were playing a crucial role as they were the ones feeding it data and essentially programming it. Computer programming, of all the possible jobs at the time, was considered "women's work". Unfortunately, the media of the time tried to cover it up, pretending it was a man's job in order to avoid shocking a public that could not handle the idea of women having a part in such an important development.

However, this was the influence behind Desk Set, a movie which aimed to address concerns of women at the time. The film's story concerned an engineer hired to deliver a computer to a resource department in which a group of women apparently spend all day collecting random facts and receive calls from various people asking all kinds of weird questions (basically a more primitive and convoluted version of Google). The women are naturally concerned that having a computer that might be able to do all the research for them could leave them unemployed, but when the computer (finally) shows up it turns out that nobody is getting fired. That's basically the whole story, and all it needed to be. They even personify the computer as female in keeping with the way programming was often considered "woman's work".

Check out this amazingly advanced technology!

That's not such a bad aim, is it? There were some very valid concerns in the 1950's that computers would replace people and leave them unemployed. Women who were already having a difficult time making it in the workplace would have every right to be worried, and it therefore makes sense that companies would want to alleviate those concerns, perhaps by making a film that demonstrates how they can co-exist with the computer. So we want to make a movie that appeals to women and touches on some issues they can relate to, fair enough. However, there is a line between making a movie that is relevant to issues commonly faced by women, and making a film based on absurd misogynistic biases. Desk Set crossed that line and beyond.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers concluded that the only possible way they could make women want to see their terrible overly elaborate computer advertisement was to make it as a romantic comedy. This wasn't just an issue of the movie being a product of its time. They consciously sat down, discussed every possible option, and concluded that female audiences will never go to see anything besides a romantic comedy or something with a romance in it. Apparently they honestly believed that romantic comedies were "women's films". As someone who has enjoyed multiple romantic comedies simply for being fun movies with good humor, I find the implications of this idea particularly offensive. The whole idea of a "chick flick" needs to die.

The idea of identifying genre with genre with gender is easily debunked if you actually talk to some people who have seen some movies. When I took my class about action cinema there was a very large number of women present, and I've known a few women who love action films. I've even encountered a handful of women who are, much to my bafflement, die-hard fans of Sean Connery's James Bond films despite the blatant sexism. I'm not entirely sure I can understand women being fans of Connery's Bond any more than I would a black viewer citing Birth of a Nation as their favourite movie, but the fact that women are in fact attracted to these films shows that attempting to identify "men's films" and "women's films" is absurd.

The sad thing is that this idea still persists today. To provide a simple example, we still have toy divided up into those for girls and those for boys. Girls get to play with princesses, and boys play with trucks. If a boy is seen wearing pink or with a Barbie doll there's something wrong with him. I was very much a victim of this marketing campaign and brainwashed by it (amusingly, though, the Barbie movies were something of a guilty pleasure I had at the time, even if I wasn't always ready to admit it).

As a kid, I was in large part alienated from the Disney animated films (with a handful of exceptions such as Peter Pan and The Aristocats of all things) because of the "Disney Princess" franchise. That left a large number of movies that turned out to be pretty good when I finally gave them a chance seemed cut off from me because I was led to think they were "girl's movies" and that I wasn't supposed to watch them. It didn't help that the whole franchise depicted the "princesses" as submissive women who existed for no reason besides to find a prince.

While this is true of Snow White, many of the later Disney animated films have made a conscious effort to create better images of women. They even play on it in Frozen, where the "true love" required to break the spell turns out to be between sisters, and not between a man and a woman. Despite all this, the "princess" franchise persists and completely strips strong female characters like Belle or Mulan (who wasn't even a princess to begin with) of their dignity.

I don't see why gender-based marketing is necessary in this day and age. Why can't products be aimed toward boys and girls simultaneously? Maybe it's about time that boys started realizing that there was nothing wrong with them liking princesses, and that maybe they aren't always the best role models for girls. It also implies that, much like Desk Set, the only way to attract women is if there is a love story. Why does a woman have to find her man? Why can't a woman find her woman? In fact why does she have to find anyone at all?

Desk Set is a perfect example of this sexist marketing in action. The filmmakers consciously sat down and concluded that no woman would go to see the movie if it were a drama, a science fiction movie, a film noir, a crime thriller, a musical, or a detective story. All the movie was intended to do was address issues that concerned women of the time, and that is all it needed to do. Instead, it barely even touches on them focusing instead on the romance between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The romance gets to an absurd height at the end when Tracy actually enables the computer's self-destruct button to prove his love for Hepburn, making the entire film completely pointless and un-doing the message it set out to present.

If these people really wanted to appeal to female audiences, what they should have done is focus on addressing the issues relevant to women in 1950's America. There was no reason why there even had to be a romance between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. I almost wonder if the movie could have worked better as simply a drama with a strong female protagonist. Take out the pointless romance with the guy who as far as these women are concerned might just be putting them out of their job, and instead perhaps focus more on the bonding between the female employees and their concerns the changes that could come from bringing in a computer. Once the computer finally comes in (which should have happened a lot earlier) we can spend some time looking at how it make it makes their work more efficient.

That could have been a good movie, maybe even one that would still be relevant today. It would have been simple and to the point, directly addressing the concerns of its audience in a serious fashion, creating characters they can relate to. Instead, the film was made by a group of misogynistic idiots who actually thought that no woman would ever go to see that movie. They decided the only logical way to do it was to make a goofy romantic comedy (and there absolutely had to be a romance, apparently).

It completely detracts from the movie's messages, especially when Spencer Tracy tries to prove his love for Katharine Hepburn by destroying the computer, making the entire movie completely pointless. Even disregarding the sexist implications of the film, Desk Set is a poorly written, poorly-directed, and just plain poorly-executed mess. Katharine Hepburn's talent is sadly wasted. She could be a very funny woman, Bringing Up Baby being a perfect example of a hilarious movie she starred in. Here, not so much. Add to that the fact that the movie is based off of an offensive and extremely sexist preconception that needs to end, and you are in for an excruciating experience.

This post was written for the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently


  1. When Richard Sumner tells Bunny Watson "I'll bet you write beautiful letters" I think it is the most wonderful way I have ever heard "I love you" expressed in the movies or real life.

    A lot of your arguments about gender based genres speak to me. In a TCM interstitial focused on Brando and "On the Waterfront", actor John Turturro says of the movie that " even has the romance so women can enjoy it too." Much to my surprise my husband started shouting at the TV about what a jackass the guy was because (sarcastically) "no woman appreciates a strong drama with good acting...". Slowly, but surely, some guys are catching on.

    1. A remark like that actually goes the other way, too, as it implies not only that a woman can't enjoy a strong drama with great acting but that men aren't allowed to enjoy a well-written romance which is simply not true. After all, many of the best and most iconic romance films were written and/or directed by men.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your comments about this class. I actually looked up The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes out of curiosity. Wow. I've never seen this film, and you've certainly given me reasons not to bother! I wish we'd gotten past these stereotypes, but alas! There was an article in Slate this week (about Wild) referencing the same thing. Leah

    1. Yeah, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is mostly a waste of time. The only thing that really makes it at all worthwhile is that it might be amusing to see a young Kurt Russell before he was established as an action star, but even then you can just watch a few clips.

      Funnily enough, Sister Celluloid herself covered similar ground in her own entry. She had a slightly different angle once again covered a film that would have been a great opportunity to present several strong female characters and wasted it.

  3. I have never seen "Desk Set", even though I own this film as part of a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn DVD set. I could never get excited about it because the premise struck me as bland, but you've changed all that. I can't wait to see it – I'm serious!

    1. Um... okay. I think this might be the first time an article criticizing a movie has inspired someone to go an see it.

  4. Thanks for your post, I especially enjoyed your comments about the crappy class...

    Is it okay to get contrarian on your contrariness?

    Desk Set has always been one of my favorite Tracy/Hepburn movies (along with Pat and Mike), funnily enough in light of your post because these two are about them as romantic partners and professional colleagues, and both characters are shown equal respect—not at all true in Adam's Rib, where Hepburn's character is written as a real pain in the butt and Tracy as long-suffering her "female" wiles...

    I was enchanted when I first saw Desk Set on TV back in the '70s because there really weren't workplace movies at the time. Aaron Sorkin hadn't shown up to make offices the setting for all kinds of relationship stories in which work is not just background but integral to who the characters are and how they related.

    I think Desk Set does that. Is there another movie from that era, when women were rarely shown in the workplace and if they were the story was explicitly sexist, like in The Apartment (which is a great movie, depicting workplace sexism at its most brutal). I was a young working women in New York trying to get a career going, and here was a movie about intelligent, attractive women working at a major corporation, where they were not caught in the usual fake conflict (you can be smart or you can be feminine but not both) but were valued and respected for their brains and competence. It shows an all-female department managed by a woman—now THAT was unusual... and to me the sexist relationship is not between Tracy and Hepburn but Hepburn and Gig Young, who exploits Bunny's brains for his career but wants her to retire to take care of him. Tracy respects her for, in fact he's turned on by, her dazzling mind. Now THAT was something I could get behind!

    Plus, the whole Rock Center setting and the period Christmas office party, from back in the day (before my time) when those parties were real serious drinkin' parties... where people let their hair down once a year. I worked a lot at the Time/Life Bldg (and the network where this movie is set feels like a cross between NBC and Time Inc.), and I think the movie captures the sense of place and the vibe of those places very well.

    It may be that this is generational—I totally see your point but for me the movie was exactly the opposite, it affirmed something I saw little of in the '70s and nowhere from the '50s: intelligent, attractive women who were respected in the workplace and who could find love with a man who loved them for it instead of wanting to exploit or squash it. All in a very romantic New York...

    Anyway, thanks again for the post!

    1. Great comment! I haven't seen Desk Set so I can't say how I feel about it one way or the other. However, John's article combined with your comments have made me curious to do so. Thanks to you both!

    2. Well, it will certainly be interesting to hear your opinion on the matter.

  5. Lots of points here that I enjoy banging on about to anyone (un)willing to listen. Do not get me started on Disney princesses and the pseudo-feminism of Brave et al. I am a great believer that gender is constructed from such a young age that it's not until the 'pink' and 'blue' toy aisles are eradicated we can claim progress. But I digress...

    I actually haven't seen Desk Set, although it has been on my to-watch list for a while perhaps under the mistaken error that any film featuring KH must have a feminist slant. I do take misospecial's comment that at least it depicts women in the workplace and the era must be considered, but for me I think that although the character may not be 'radically' feminist the film does support a feminist agenda, and for that reason it should be celebrated as it's not just about the big wins but the small ones too - just like Lego crowdsourcing a female scientist set.

    1. You could make that argument, that it does promote women in the workplace, and ends with them staying there. That still doesn't change the thought process that went into the movie's production. My point is that these people actually thought that making the movie a romantic comedy was the only possible way to attract women, as though they would never be interested in seeing any other type of film. It implies the romantic comedy as a "feminine" genre and I find that notion offensive.

  6. I have yet to see this film and I am a fan of Tracy and Hepburn. I think one has to look at the sign of the times. It is the 1950's when women were back at home, after working doing "men's" jobs during the war. Now women were portrayed in crinoline dress and pearls with an apron, happily cooking dinner and bringing slippers, a pipe and a shot of whiskey to her hubby who slaved away at work during the day (women never slaved at home as they were supposed to enjoy their non work and be happy about it...ughhh). This is one film, in their own way, that tried to show women working! If we look at this film with the eyes of today, we would see how dated it is but I have a feeling I may(may....being the word) enjoy it. We shall see

  7. This was such a huge problem during "Golden Age" films and even today. I have avoided Desk Set for just this reason. Thanks for braving it!

    1. No problem. It even seems I'm not the only one to cover this territory, as Sister Celluloid did something similar with The Women.