Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like it Hot playfully explores gender, sexuality, and gender bending. Marilyn Monroe plays Sugar Cane, a stereotypically dumb-witted blonde with no real aspirations beyond finding a man to take care of her. Sugar Cane is the archetype of socialized femininity, as she is passive, soft, sweet, and submissive. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, two musicians looking for work in tough times. As the only jobs available are in an all-female traveling band, Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, respectively. They both fall for the sexy Sugar Cane. Joe assumes yet a third identity as a millionaire named Junior. As Junior, Joe woos Candy while conforming to traditional gender roles. Switching between their multiple identities, Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne at once substantiate and subvert gender roles and stereotypes. Therefore, Wilder’s Some Like it Hot offers a lighthearted view of gender, but without significantly challenging gender stereotypes or social norms.
Marylin Monroe’s character Sugar Cane is not appreciably different from Monroe’s persona as an actor. The blonde bombshell talks with a cute, girlish voice. Her main desire in life is to meet a good man to marry. She continually downplays her own intelligence, once even referring to herself as “dumb.” Sugar Cane does not lose her temper; she has a gentle temperament. Although she lives her life according to the proscribed gender roles, Sugar Cane is depicted as being independent. She has her own singing career, travels freely, and generally feels empowered to make decisions regarding her sexuality and choice of mate.
Josephine and Daphne are the other two major “female” characters in Some Like it Hot. The two transvestites assume the stereotypical role of female when they fulfill their Josephine and Daphne act. For instance, Josephine and Daphne have a different type of friendship than Joe and Jerry. When they are with Sugar, Josephine and Jerry offer relationship counseling and speak softly. When Joe and Jerry are just Joe and Jerry, they talk to each other differently and are willing to argue with one another. Their different attitudes and roles in their friendship illustrate the prevailing gender roles and norms of the 1950s.
When Joe and Jerry are cross-dressed, they walk like females, talk like females, and to a large degree act like females acted when Some Like it Hot was made. However, Josephine and Daphne are spunkier and stronger than Sugar Cane is; their gender allows for a certain degree of mutability in terms of personality. Josephine and Daphne also offer counterpoint to Sugar Cane’s exceptional femininity.
Joe and Jerry play roles that in some ways fulfill the roles of typical men. For example, they pursue women, talk about golf and they take the upper hand in pursuing romantic interests. Their assertive personalities contrast sharply with Sugar’s submissiveness. Joe and Jerry’s masculinity is never seriously called into question even though they cross-dress, and even while Osgood is pursuing Jerry-as-Daphne. There is no male equivalent of Sugar Cane in Some Like it Hot. Unlike the unequivocally feminine Sugar Cane, neither Joe nor Jerry plays the role of the cad or the cowboy. In fact, Joe shows genuine emotion and caring for Sugar as his feelings for her deepen. Joe and Jerry, like Sugar Cane, are musicians. All three are therefore portrayed as social equals regardless of gender.
Gender and sexuality are treated differently in Some Like it Hot. The key scenes in Some Like it Hot with allusions to homosexuality are the ones in which Osgood pursues Daphne. Osgood challenges conventional gender roles and stereotypes. He has been married “six or seven times” and only his mama has kept track. His inability to remain in a stable heterosexual relationship may be viewed as a typically male, cavalier attitude toward marriage. However, given the last line of Some Like it Hot, it is more likely that Osgood is a closeted gay man. Falling for a transvestite allows Osgood to maintain the image or facade of heterosexuality. Gender and sexuality are therefore portrayed as distinct phenomena. In the final scene of the film, Daphne tries to talk Osgood out of marrying her. She finally takes off her wig and in his real voice Jerry states, “I’m a man!” Osgood doesn’t flinch. Instead, he keeps his head forward while he drives and beams. “Nobody’s perfect!”
In fact, when Osgood falls for Daphne, he appreciates in her the qualities that might otherwise be attributed to men such as physical power and aggression. For instance, when Osgood first meets her, the force with which Daphne slaps him leaves an impression. Osgood’s infatuation with Daphne also raises questions related to homosexuality, which is only tacitly addressed in Some Like it Hot. The topic of homosexuality was taboo in 1950s Hollywood, whereas cross-dressing was a common comedic device.
The way Billy Wilder plays with gender and sexuality in Some Like it Hot was risque for a film produced in 1959. Although the gender roles in the film are stereotyped, Some Like it Hot does portray gender as being essentially mutable. Sugar Cane is an exaggerated version of a female, a caricature. Her character contrasts with those of Daphne and Josephine. Daphne and Josephine combine some elements of typical masculinity and femininity. Their surface appearance is feminine including their gait and their manner of dress. Josephine and Daphne even take care to assume the role of female in their relationship with Sugar Cane. Unlike Sugar Cane, Josephine and Daphne are bold and assertive. The males in the movie demonstrate some stereotyped behaviors and attitudes towards relationships and sexuality. Yet Sugar, Joe, and Jerry are all musicians. When they play music together they are social equals.
Wilder, Billy (Dir.). Some Like it Hot. Feature film. 1959.
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