His Girl Friday and the Agency of Women Journalists in Hollywood
The Front Page, a 1931 American film based on a Broadway play of the same name by former journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, tells the story of ace reporter Hildebrand Johnson and his relationship with his editor, Walter Burns. His Girl Friday, released in 1940, uses the exact same plot as The Front Page but makes one major change by switching Hildebrand Johnson to Hildegard Johnson. The director, Howard Hawks, decided to change the sex of Hildy in his movie when his female secretary read the lines of Hildy from The Front Page, and he liked how the lines sounded coming from a woman. By making Johnson a female and the ex-wife of Burns, the 1940 film introduces a romantic element to the screwball comedy’s plot. Although Hildegard Johnson retains many of her male counterpart’s strong character traits and ace reporting skills, she ultimately falls into the female stereotypes of the time and loses the independence she had at the beginning of the film, exemplifying how journalism films more often than not depicted female characters with less agency than male characters.
In both films, Walter Burns is the demanding editor of the newspaper. Walter considers Hildy his ace reporter, but Hildy has seemingly grown tired of the newspaper business. In The Front Page, Hildy has been offered a job at an advertising agency where he can make more money, have stable work hours, and settle down with his fiancée. The female Hildy in His Girl Friday also wants out of the newspaper business. She, however, does not have a more lucrative job waiting for her. Rather, Hildy wants to quit because she is tired of being a “newspaperman.” She longs “to go someplace where I can be a woman.” Her fiancé, Bruce Baldwin, sells insurance policies for a living, and Hildy plans to move to Albany and start a family with him.
In both cases, Walter tries to sabotage Hildy’s plans to leave by sucking him/ her in with one last irresistible scoop. Despite his/ her initial reluctance, Hildy falls into Walter’s trap and practically forgets his/ her lover to get the exclusive story on a murderer who escaped death row. The Front Page’s Hildy boards a train once he finishes the story. Walter gives him a watch as a farewell present and then calls the police to tell them to take Hildy off the train because he stole his watch, forcing Hildy to return to work for him at the newspaper. At the conclusion of His Girl Friday, Walter and Hildy have decided to remarry, but just as they begin planning their honeymoon, a call comes in about strikes in Albany. Just like their first marriage, they forgo their honeymoon to get the exclusive scoop on the story.
A Brief History of Women Journalists and Their Portrayal in Film
Starting from the early days of America, women have been in the minority in the field of journalism. In most cases, “early women printers and publishers acted to carry out family responsibilities, not to seek independent careers” (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003, p. 5). For example, Elizabeth Harris Glover established her place in history by setting up the first printing press in the colonies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638 after she inherited the press when her husband died (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003, p. 5). Elizabeth Timothy likewise inherited her place in journalism history when she became the earliest woman newspaper publisher with the South-Carolina Gazette after her husband died in 1738 (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003, p. 5). In short, “women had to have a good excuse [to become a journalist] – perhaps a dead husband and starving children” (Saltzman, 2003, p. 1). Even today’s modern landscape of journalism exhibits instances where a woman took over the business out of familial obligation. Katherine Graham, for instance, took over The Washington Post following her husband’s suicide in 1963, and she only held her position until her son had accumulated enough experience with the publication to take over himself (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003, p. 5).
As the field of journalism continued to develop in America, women still found themselves on the periphery, even though their numbers in the industry grew. In 1886, 500 women worked for American newspapers, and in 1888 New York newspapers alone had 200 women in their employment (Mott, 1949, p. 489-490). The 1900 United States census registered 2,193 women working in journalism, making up 7.3 percent of the profession (Born, 1981, p. 6). The United Kingdom featured a similar percentage of women journalists in its 1901 census, with women making up 9.1 percent of the profession, equaling 1,249 women in total (Franks, 2013, p. 2). By 1931, that figure rose to a whopping 17 percent, or 3,213 women, but those numbers experienced a stunted growth afterwards; the percentage of women journalists thirty years later in 1961 only reached 20 percent (Franks, 2013, p. 2).
Expectations about marriage in both the United States and the United Kingdom limited the number of women journalists. If women journalists married, their superiors expected them to quit their job “because the antisocial hours were contrary to the demands of a wife and mother” (Franks, 2013, p. 2). For this very reason, many women journalists put off marriage. With the pressure to always stay ahead in the workplace, the career of the woman journalist “takes precedence, to the extent that she doesn’t have much of a personal life. She is not desperately seeking a man and she continues to be an aggressive journalist despite romantic, emotional, mental, or physical setbacks” (Johnson, 2013, p. 129).
When women did get journalism jobs, they were mostly responsible for covering social news or human interest stories like fashion, cooking, and home décor. In some cases, editors even used them as stunt reporters to do things that were seen as especially dangerous for women at the time, like descending into the ocean in a diving bell. If they did manage to get anywhere near hard news stories, their editors usually assigned them the responsibility of putting a “woman’s touch” on the stories. For example, if someone was murdered, the woman journalist would have to go talk with the family to find out how the death is affecting them, pulling all the heart-tugging angles or emotional elements of the story they could. Because of this, they were commonly referred to as sob sisters (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003, p. 64; Saltzman, 2003, p. 2). According to journalism historian Howard Good, “most women reporters resented this label because it reinforced the stereotype of women as big-hearted but soft-minded, emotionally generous but intellectually sloppy” (Good, 1998, p. 50).
Initially, readers and moviegoers rarely found women journalists in fiction (Saltzman, 2003, p. 1). That all changed when movies started having sound and the actors began to talk. Women journalists became popular characters in films because “Hollywood was full of ex-journalists for one, and, for another, when the Hays censorship code was enforced starting in 1934, women needed something to do onscreen besides lounge around in nightgowns” (Kale, 2014, p. 344). Women journalists gave directors the option to pursue a classic battle of the sexes story. Women journalists challenged male authority, and male journalists asserted their dominance to prove that they were better at their job than women.
Hollywood stressed the importance of marriage for women journalists, especially in early films from the 1930s and 1940s. In films from those years, “solving a mystery to earn a hard-won scoop is not enough of a happy ending in Hollywood. The mass-mediated girl reporter’s ultimate success is measured by the same single criterion by which all women are judged – marital status – and the girl reporter’s professional success are tempered by the constant promise – and threat – that she will give up that career for a chance at domestic bliss” (Kale, 2014, p. 342).
Even if women journalists were completely committed to their career, that did not mean that they could stop worrying about their looks. Men expected them to look and act a certain way. Therefore, women journalists had to “maintain a careful balance between being sexually available and being an independent career girl. Meanwhile, it is as important that the girl reporter could marry as that she does not” (Kale, 2014, p. 343). Furthermore, women journalists had to face the challenge of finding an appropriate balance between masculine – “being aggressive, self-reliant, curious, tough, ambitious, cynical, cocky, unsympathetic” – and feminine – “compassionate, caring, loving, maternal, sympathetic” – traits that were key to a successful career in journalism (Saltzman, 2003, p. 1). Hollywood acknowledged this challenge and proposed two unfavorable options for women journalists: “if a woman is successful, it means she has assumed many of the characteristics of the newsman, losing her femininity in the process. Or, in most cases, she stays tantalizingly female and uses her womanliness to get to the top” (Saltzman, 2003, p.5). Through it all, “performing the role of the independent career woman while trading upon the affective subjectivity of the female experience, the modern girl reporter simultaneously relies upon and is limited by the heteronormative precepts she purports to transcend” (Kale, 2014, p. 343-344).
Although women journalists in film oftentimes proved to be competent, independent women who excelled at their job and matched or even exceeded the prowess of their male coworkers, it was not uncommon for them to break down crying at the end of the films or give up their independence all of a sudden to get married. Audiences of the 1930s and 1940s expected this. Females in the audience “loved the way the woman gave it to the man throughout the film, but they didn’t trust any woman who didn’t put family and children above a career. So it didn’t seem unusual to them if the woman made a 180-degree turnabout at the end of the film” (Saltzman, 2003, p. 4).
Ace Reporter Hildegard Johnson Versus Patronizing Editor Walter Burns
His Girl Friday opens with a “once upon a time” prologue that sets the film in the “dark ages” of the newspaper business. It promises that the characters in the film bear “no resemblance to the men and women of the press today.” With this storybook prologue, director Howard Hawks “acknowledges that the characters we are about to encounter are typecast, idealized, and just plain silly” (Kale, 2014, p. 345). After viewing the entire film, this fairy tale prologue seems problematic. If this prologue is to be believed, it suggests that strong women journalists like ace reporter Hildy Johnson do not really exist in real life. They can only exist and thrive in the fictional realm.
The film then transitions into the press room, which is expectantly abuzz with activity. Both men and women are present at the desks in the press room hard at work, giving viewers a momentary impression that there is an equal division of labor between the sexes. Hawks’ quickly shatters that impression by showing women stuck operating the telephone switchboards while male journalists come and go as they please from the press room, “foreshadowing the film’s concern with how men control and define the functions and limits of the newspaper business, while women such as those operating the switchboard serve as facilitators and conduits of exchange” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013).
The camera then pans to a swinging gate with a sign that says “NO ADMITTANCE” at the entrance of the press room. This gate and its sign represent a clear division between journalists and non-journalists. To demonstrate this, Hildy and her fiancé, Bruce, arrive at the press room. Hildy, the newspaper’s ace reporter, proceeds through the gate to go speak with Walter Burns, her editor and former husband. Meanwhile, Bruce, an insurance salesman, waits for Hildy in the lobby occupying the other side of the press room gate. This separation of the couple with Hildy’s access to the exclusive area of the press room implies that Hildy is the one who holds the most power in the relationship, and the rest of the film shows this to be true.
It is interesting to note that several other men pass through the gate into the press room while Bruce waits for Hildy. Perhaps Hawks uses this imagery to suggest that Bruce is not enough of a man to pass through the gate. Throughout the film, Bruce appears effeminate and easily duped. As Hildy walks through the gate, Bruce endearingly tells her that “even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” Charmed by this, Hildy asks Bruce to repeat himself, but he becomes bashful and embarrassed about his sentimentality. He immediately tries to redeem his masculinity by offering to protect Hildy from Walter “if things get rough,” saying he’d “like to spoil him just once.” Hildy smiles but informs Bruce that she can handle herself. With this scene, Hawks “upsets the stereotypical, hierarchical difference between men and women. No sooner does she endearingly ask Bruce to repeat his affection than does she feel the need to explain the scripted romance between them (as if to a child) and wave off his assertion of physical prowess” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013).
Other scenes that Bruce appears in illustrate how easily manipulated he is. In an effort to win Hildy back, Walter constantly plays Bruce, and he even manages to get him arrested a couple of times in the film as a result of Bruce’s apparent lack of common sense. Hildy constantly has to save Bruce or make him aware that Walter is trying to trick him. She knows how Walter operates and has experienced his cunning firsthand. Hildy’s superiority in her relationship with Bruce enables her to exhibit a strong sense of agency because Bruce comes across as so incompetent.
As Hildy walks through the press room to Walter’s office, everyone offers her a friendly hello, demonstrating that Hildy is an immensely popular and respected figure at the paper. When she enters Walter’s office, Walter presents a much more masculine figure than Bruce. Hildy asks Walter if she can sit down, and Walter replies by patting his lap and motioning Hildy over to sit there. Unlike the chivalrous Bruce, Walter asserts his domination towards his ex-wife by continuing to wear his hat around her and ignoring her obvious need for help while she struggles to lug around her heavy suitcase, reinforcing “the notion that Hildy must struggle to become part of the men’s world” (Powers, 1974). Hildy tells Walter that she is quitting her job at the newspaper to move to Albany with Bruce and start a family. Walter expresses extreme exasperation and disbelief at Hildy’s plan. He reminds Hildy that she is “a newspaperman” and cannot quit. Hildy responds by saying, “That’s exactly why I’m quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.” Here Hildy vocalizes her desire “to reject her male persona and affirm her (already visually obvious) status as ‘woman’ by embracing stereotypical domesticity. The film thus defines what it means to be male in opposition to what it means to be female even as it highlights Hildy’s paradoxical status as both” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013). Walter continues to implore Hildy to stay, promising her that she cannot live a normal domestic life; journalism is in her blood.
Hildy continues to reject Walter’s pleadings, so Walter tells her she is nothing without him. He made her into the star reporter she is today by taking a chance on her straight out of college. Hildy fires back at Walter, saying “you only hired me because I was a doll-faced hick.” This line shows that in order for many women to climb to a position of influence and power in a male-dominated profession, they must first have the looks (Kale, 2014, p. 347). This dependence on physical beauty discounts the agency women have or hope to gain.
Walter also attempts to remind Hildy of what a strong team they were when they were married. The dialogue reveals that Walter and Hildy never went on their honeymoon because they covered a coal mine cave-in instead. Walter proudly exclaims that “we beat the whole country on that story!” Even with this recollection of that triumphant moment, Hildy refuses Walter. Upon meeting Bruce after talking with Hildy, “Walter does not recognize Bruce as a true rival, but he sees the need to adopt some of Bruce’s sensitivity toward Hildy if he’s to win her back” (Powers, 1974).
From this very first interaction on screen between Hildy and Walter, the conflict of the film becomes clear. Hildy wants to embrace her femininity and sample domestic life, but at the same time she cannot give up her masculine journalistic instincts. She spends the whole film wrestling with herself, wanting to maintain an air of independence and agency over men but not wanting to lose her femininity in the process.
The costumes, settings, and circumstances of the film outwardly portray Hildy’s internal battle. Hildy’s fashion with her high-heeled shoes and extravagant clothes “clearly plays up her femininity, and the film relies on the contrast between its distinctly unfeminine settings – the newsroom, the jailhouse, the courthouse – to emphasize her womanly difference” (Kale, 2014, p. 347). The events of the film also revolve around masculinized aggression and violence. The film opens on the eve of the execution of Earl Williams, who finds himself in jail after murdering an African-American police officer, and it ends with word of strikes taking place in Albany, New York. Walter, whose masculinity was clearly damaged by the divorce after his first marriage to Hildy, wants to reassert that masculinity by winning her back and proving he is still superior to her. Walter’s character “satirizes the romanticized violent image of men. He is equally zealous about his profession and the fanatical pursuit of his ex-wife, and his blending of the two pursuits results in humor and irony” (Powers, 1974).
Later on in the film, Walter manages to suck Hildy back into the newspaper business by offering her the exclusive scoop on Earl Williams’ escape from death row. At first, Hildy tells Walter to get Sweeney to write the article. Hildy and Walter refer to Sweeney as “the only man on the paper that can write,” but Walter tells Hildy, somewhat disgustedly, that Sweeney cannot write the article because he is with his wife as she is going through the last days of her pregnancy. In Walter’s mind, “to be absent in the name of femininity – for the sake of childbirth, in this case – is code for radical uselessness, or death” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013). In the end, Hildy cannot resist the excitement of the scoop, so she literally throws herself into her work, tackling one of the jail guards in one scene to get information on Williams’ escape.
The character of Mollie is introduced in the second half of the film. The film implies that Mollie is a prostitute by the way that others talk about her. A distraught Mollie shows up to the press room worried about Williams’ after his escape. She reveals that she has been visiting him in jail every day since he was arrested. Her character “embodies stereotypical femininity, representing sexuality, nurturing, and emotion… Mollie aspires to the kind of femininity that Hildy idealizes: a version of femininity that enjoys a peripheral role within the patriarchy” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013).
The plot advances to reveal that the mayor and the sheriff want to execute Williams to win the African-American vote in the upcoming election by showing that they will not tolerate the murder of other African-American citizens. During Williams’ escape, he climbs through the upper floor of the press room. With her primary source literally walking into her open arms, Hildy recognizes she has a hand up on all other newspapers and can snag the exclusive if she can hide Williams from the crooked mayor and the sheriff until she finishes writing her article. When she hears the sheriff and the mayor approaching the press room, she hides Williams in a covered desk.
After the sheriff and the mayor enter the press room, Mollie tries to stand up to them for Williams and clear his name, saying the murder was an accident that he deeply regrets. Walter also joins the scene, and the “two patriarchal powers – the newspaper’s social sphere and the mayor’s political sphere – wage war for the right to use Earl Williams” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013). Rather than listen to what Mollie has to say, the men disregard her. Just as the sheriff is about to open the covered desk that Williams is hiding in, Mollie jumps out of the window to distract them. The film leaves Mollie’s fate unclear, so viewers do not know if she committed suicide or if she managed to survive. Frankly, the people in the press room could care less. After briefly glancing outside the window, they resume their hunt for Williams. The feminine Mollie could not overcome the patriarchy that silenced her, and she “is necessarily cast out of the film (when she jumps out of the window) so that the patriarchy can triumph” (Jellerson & Anderson, 2013). Likewise, the feminized Bruce is cast aside at the end of the film when he realizes that he has lost Hildy to the excitement of the newspaper business that he cannot hope to compete with.
In the climax of the film, the sheriff and the mayor discover Williams in the desk, and the sheriff shoots him. They proceed to arrest Hildy and Walter for harboring a fugitive, but Walter and Hildy manage to avoid arrest by blackmailing the mayor and the sheriff when they reveal that they know that they were just executing Williams for the African-American vote. Hildy breaks down crying, and Walter comforts her. They agree to remarry as Hildy falls back into the expected norms of the patriarchy, and they hurriedly leave the press room to catch a train after Walter receives a call about strikes in Albany.
Although Hildy displays moments of agency during the film, she ultimately loses that agency by the end of the film. Walter displays much more agency than Hildy, and he takes every opportunity to let her know that he is in control. The film makes it clear that Hildy serves as his subordinate in their relationship, unlike her relationship with Bruce where she obviously stands superior. Similar to many other women journalists as depicted in Hollywood films, Hildy struggles to balance feminine and masculine characteristics, and it proves to be too much of a challenge for her to manage in the end. The only option that remains for her is to get married, demonstrating that no matter how capable women journalists appeared in early films, they could not retain their agency for the entire duration of the film because the agency of the male characters trumped them.
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