Faced with the challenge of a pedantic, burgeoning queer daughter who side-eyed most films with passive female characters, my mother decided to sucker me into old movies with Katharine Hepburn—an idea so good I still resent her a little for it. Hepburn’s Bryn Mawr accent, fashion sense, and history of playing delightfully charming women immediately drew me to her, and due to my obsessive nature, I soon watched every one of her films I could get my hands on.
The first of these films I watched with my family was George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, which for a time was my favorite movie. It had everything that a young me might have wanted in a film: Hepburn (playing an empowered, snarky lawyer), appropriately witty banter with her costar (Spencer Tracy), and a plot that, at least at the time, I thought was a clever deconstruction of the double standards women face in the world.
Spencer and Hepburn spar against each other as married lawyers, Adam and Amanda Bonner. Tracy is assigned to prosecute a woman for attempting to murder her philandering husband, while Hepburn takes on the task of defending her. The crux of Hepburn’s motivation has less to do with any legal concern and more to do with perception—that the female defendant’s behavior would have been viewed as acceptable were she a man. In my young adulthood, dressing like a tomboy and trying to figure out why certain behaviors were unacceptable for me but not for boys, this theme resonated, to say the least.
Adam’s Rib is probably the strongest overall film among Hepburn and Tracy’s many pairings. Casting them as a married couple, in the Hays Code era, allowed the audience to see certain intimacies in their relationship, separate beds aside. The film makes a point of setting them up as equals—both are lawyers who spar and rib each other in snappy one liners, delightfully emphasizing how well-matched the two were as actors. The film also contains one of my favorite Katharine Hepburn scenes of all time, when she calls in remarkable women from various professions to lay the foundation of her argument that men and women should be treated as equals. At one point, she actually instructs a circus strongwoman to lift Tracy above her as he’s making his counter-argument, causing the courtroom to explode in laughter, and striking a wonderful balance between female power fantasy and whimsical comedy.
The first couple of times I watched Adam’s Rib, I justified my love of it by hooking on to those glimpses of progressive elements I was starved for. The fact that Hepburn is a successful woman who is able to maintain a happy and loving marriage while exceeding in her profession would, I think, still earn it praise by today’s standards. The aforementioned scene provides a wonderful and concrete illustration of the idea that not only can women do extraordinary things, but that they can accomplish those things in a wide range of disciplines (even in the 1940s). In spite of the flimsy legal reasoning that Amanda Bonner constructs (philandering husbands and gender biases aside, people should generally go to jail for shooting at other people), the blunt acknowledgement that the same behavior is viewed differently in men versus women is one that still rings exceedingly true: Behavior that we are supposed to read as passionate in men is still viewed as hysterical in women. Women who wield power are still frequently cast as bitches or high-strung. And, of course, women expressing their own sexuality is still a ridiculous quagmire we often seem incapable of addressing like adults. As a young teenager, struggling to find any media with women I aspired to be like, Katharine Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner presented a cool, intelligent, funny woman whose professional capabilities made her seem brilliant. My love for Amanda Bonner was enough that I was even willing to forgive or excuse her humiliation at the end of the film, rationalizing it as a necessary sacrifice to the times in which it was created.
There is something of an ideological dichotomy drawn between Adam and Amanda throughout the movie. Adam, though he finds the plaintiff boorish, sees the law as immaculate, its consequences necessary despite the sympathetic situation of the defendant. In his eyes, no one should be able to fudge or evade or bend the law, and he’s convinced Amanda feels the same way. Amanda, on the other hand, is portrayed as taking a more cavalier approach, manipulating the law to fit her ideological point about the injustices of gender perception. This tension comes to a head towards the end of the film, after Amanda wins the case. Adam comes back to their apartment and, upon finding her drunk with a male friend, threatens them with a gun—a right he claims he has, as a jilted husband, according to the logic Amanda used to exonerate her defendant. “You have no right!” Amanda tells him. “That’s all I wanted to hear,” he responds, taking a bite out of his gun, which turns out to be licorice. “I’ll never forget that no matter what you think you think, you think the same as I think—that I have no right, that no one has a right to break the law.”
“He’s right, you know,” I remember my father saying as I watched the movie with my parents. At the time there was something in the self-assuredness, both of my father’s comments and Adam’s actions, that didn’t sit well with me. There was no way I could have sat through an entire movie, an entire trial, just to have Amanda’s argument dismissed with what I saw as one “gotcha!” line.
My most recent viewing of the movie was about six months after Trump’s election. At the time I was working for an immigration nonprofit, surrounded by folks who were constantly engaging with the justice system with the intent of protecting those who had become increasingly vulnerable during Trump’s administration. At this point I had moved past my initial shock that something like Trump’s election could occur in our government. Now, every day, I was processing new ways in which our political institutions could harm people without access to legal and financial resources or representation, the ways in which that lack of access could be so easily baked into the way our country is governed. The idea that our laws could systematically put someone at a disadvantage no longer felt debatable to me. Sitting down to watch this movie again, in that headspace, I wasn’t just able to brush off the movie’s flaws. Now they struck me, uncomfortably, as the very pains we are still growing through.
I was angry at Tracy’s character in a way that I hadn’t been before. The shitty things he does as a husband stood out: the subtle ways he belittles his wife’s career, the way he feels entitled to manipulate her at the end of the film, his lamenting of her taking up causes. When he threatens Amanda at the end of the film, it now takes on a darker tone—both because of the inherent cruelty of threatening your spouse, and because, when he finds her, an inebriated Hepburn is in the semi-nonconsensual embrace of a drunk male friend. What was surely meant to be read as a wacky circumstance in the 1940s now became, to me, a very clear marker of how the situation the film was trying to mirror—the defendant threatening her cheating husband at the beginning of the film—was not, in fact, the same. Though Adam’s point in that scene is that neither he nor Hepburn’s defendant are justified in threatening their spouses, not only does he still threaten Amanda but the situation Amanda was in is far less consensual than the the one at the beginning of the film. Setting the two scenes up as parallels in that context seems to suggest that Hepburn’s character being harassed by a drunk friend was comparable to frequent infidelity. The fact that the gun at the end is licorice, that the threat of physical violence was never really a threat, can’t turn that into a joke.
I now recognized Tracy’s character, on a visceral level, in every smart but dismissive man I’d met in a college class who refused to see what all of the activists on campus had to get up in arms about. I saw in him the men, to some extent like my father, who saw addressing institutionalized differences in how society treated women—or queer people or people of color—as equivalent to asking for the rules to be bent for us.But the part that frustrated me most, both with Tracy’s character and the movie itself, was an unwillingness to entertain the notion that existing laws could be unfair or unequal. This obstinacy now seems much more malicious in light of the reckoning we are beginning to have with the discrepancies and gaps in our legal system. We are talking about why Marissa Alexander was given a minimum 20-year sentence for aggravated assault for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband, while George Zimmerman was allowed to walk free for shooting Trayvon Martin, despite the fact that the same “Stand Your Ground Law” was cited in both trials. We are talking about the disproportionate impact that mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes has had on communities of color. We are talking about why Brock Turner only spent three months in jail despite being convicted of three sexual assault felonies.
Of course, all of these cases highlight intense issues of race and gender that are not addressed in the screwball, all-white Adam’s Rib. And to be fair, I didn’t expect a screwball comedy from the 1940s to take on those themes, nor did I the first time I watched it. But thinking of each of these cases now, upon re-watching the movie, made me realize that the legal problem set up between Tracy and Hepburn isn’t just a rhetorical problem. The fact that the law is not some infallible, perfect thing separable from our societal biases has actual devastating effects. My most recent viewing of Adam’s Rib was so intensely frustrating because it didn’t seem to entertain seriously the idea that biases and injustices might not simply have crept into the legal system, but instead have always been an inherent part of it. That realization makes Adam’s legal principles feel much less sympathetic, and Amanda’s argument feel almost like a straw man.
My feelings towards Adam’s Rib haven’t necessarily changed all that dramatically as I’ve gotten more critical, they’ve simply gone from a little complicated to a lot more complicated (and more hurt). The joy I first felt watching it—at being gifted a smart, complex female character played by an actress with whom I could identify—is still there but it is now undermined by the fact that the movie seems to miss the point of Amanda’s argument; it seems comfortable enough with its initial premise, that men and women are equal and should be treated equally. It seems willing, in Amanda’s courtroom brilliance and snarky one-liners at Adam’s expense, to acknowledge that. What it does not want to acknowledge, though, is the far weightier implication of the argument it introduces—that societal differences in how men and women are treated could extend to our legal systems. To acknowledge this argument as valid would imply that the law could fail in other ways, that perhaps entire groups of people were and are viewed differently under the law, and that such views have real-life consequences. (And that we should listen to people impacted by those consequences.)
In some ways re-watching this silly screwball comedy makes me want to redeem it even more. Part of why it frustrates me is because of how the strength of Amanda’s argument—and the way in which the film sets that argument up to fail—feels so relevant. Adam’s Rib allows Amanda to make a strong and pointed argument, but it also wants her to be out-argued by her husband, for Adam and his legal puritanism to have the last word, suggesting what the movie perhaps ultimately thinks of her argument. This stings even more now, because I don’t know if this movie would be allowed to end any differently if it were made today. If nothing else though, I take a certain grim satisfaction in seeing the ways in which Amanda has been proven right for me, affirmed in her conviction that our world is not as cut and dry as we would like it to be—that just as we are susceptible to prejudice, so to are the laws we make for ourselves.