Breakfast at Tiffany's and Modern Femininity
I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about what it means to be a woman lately.
This is going to sound as shallow as a sidewalk puddle, but it’s because I finally got the pixie haircut I’ve been wanting for years. After the fact, one of my sisters informed me that I needed to dress a certain way now, so as not to be confused with a teenage boy—to which I rolled my eyes.
Then in secret, as all women do, I questioned everything.
Short hair and jeans every day equals masculine? Is that it?
That may be an oversimplification of my real questions, but the reality is that femininity is confusing, even for women. It has changed a great deal in the last hundred years. The more freedom women have been given has been a blessing to all of mankind, if I do say so myself, but it presents its own unique struggles as well.
In my search for the meaning of womanhood, I gleaned some fresh perspective on our culture’s feminine journey from researching one of the most fascinating figures in cinema on how we’ve gotten to this delicious place of decision-making and possibility.
The film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is considered an essential catalyst to modern femininity. (Or should I say feminism?) It was released to a world of 1950s housewives, who were great cooks and looked like dime store ads all of the time. Just add some singing birds and a few dwarves, and you get the idea.
At such a moral and self-controlled time in our nation’s history, how did movie makers even pull off releasing a story about a call girl in New York City? Well, Audrey Hepburn had something to do with it.
Audrey had only played the wholesome female lead in her films up until that point. Her characters were soft and charming, girls who wanted to have fun and who knew to have a proper degree of obsession with finding a man to fall in love with.
In those days actresses either always played the saint or the harlot in all their roles. Such was the female reputation, even on screen. That’s why it was such a big deal that Audrey Hepburn played Holly Golightly. She was an icon of wholesome femininity crossing the line over into a scandalous place. This resulted in a kind of softening of the lines between good girls, bad girls, that eventually led to a more realistic view of real, dynamic women.
For anyone who’s confused on the subject, Audrey Hepburn plays a call girl in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a kind of American geisha, who shacks up with wealthy men for their money. She just happens to do it with a lot of grace, while wearing impeccable French haute couture.
If you have seen the film, you know that it has a kind of rosy quality to it. It is an almost-love-story where you’re left to believe that the two star crossed young people do in fact get a chance to love each other, however vague that idea comes across.
The rosy quality of the film was mandatory or else they wouldn’t have been able to shoot it. Back in those days, there was a kind of morality screening group that had to OK screenplays before they could go into production. Along with Audrey’s identity shift, this rosy quality helped blur that line just a little bit more between good and bad, right and wrong, perfect and imperfect, and helped create little nudges that led to major cultural shifts towards female freedoms and independence.
Marilyn Monroe was Truman Capote’s ideal vision of who should play Holy Golightly. I was shocked when I read that. He had based this leading lady off of women he’d known in his own life, and he had an intimate knowledge of their young adventures and miserable, loveless marriages. His vision of Holly was much darker than the woman Audrey Hepburn brought to life.
Audrey was far from sexy to the 1950s public. They thought her figure was boyish. This apparent lack of sex in her figure, her grace and poise as a studied dancer, and her knack for intuitive acting, are what made her so desirable for this controversial role by its makers. The less the movie appeared to be what it really was, the more likely they would be able to make it at all.
You’ve probably noticed that everything mentioned about this film that made it a success really had to do with a kind of double-think mindset. A clever, calculated slight of hand.
This sums up a major struggle of femininity.
It is as if women have been bestowed with this intuitive knack for adapting our identities and personalities into the shape most palatable to others in each unique situation—for better and for worse. This is unquestionably a blessing and a struggle, much like the freedoms of modern femininity.
Short hair isn’t really a big deal. What is, though, is asking of ourselves and of the Lord who we are meant to be as women. What it means to use our freedom for more than just expression? How do we honor the Lord and others with what we have been given? This freedom is a powerful gift. Even if the means by which it was achieved makes old church ladies whip out their lace fans an bless the Lord from shock, I can’t help but finger my short hair in my hands, smile, and be thankful for it.
(I you want to read more, check out this gem from your local library: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson.)