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  • Elizabeth Phillips

Sweet Bird of Sexism

Upon its release, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) was a controversial movie as it focuses mainly on the liberation of women from their societal restraints. The women in this film are unapologetically transgressive - a new concept for this period of time. In previous portrayals of transgressive women, the script either kills them off or forces them to disown their old rebellious ways. When a director rebels against this typical delineation, women are able to put themselves in a character’s shoes without having to witness a submissive, stereotypical housewife. This melodrama brings to light the dangers females face when dealing with male authority and the societal pressure that is placed on them to be both proper and poised.

Alexandria Del Lago, the female lead, is presented as a fierce woman whose life has fallen apart due to her own insecurities. She copes by popping pills, drinking excessive amounts of vodka and smoking a stash of weed hidden under her mattress. Initially, she is not the “ideal” lady; however, the viewer quickly grows to love her antics. Alexandria is a free spirit who does whatever she wants and is extremely sex positive. Her masculinity is incredibly prevalent, even more so than most men found in the stumbled upon southern town. Chance, the male lead, serves as her counterpart in many ways. In most scenes, this male character is feminized by having an open shirt or no shirt at all thus provoking the onlooker to sexualize him. Similar to Alexandria, Chance is a broken individual whose moral lines are blurred by his own emotions. Their difference? Alexandria seeks fame and societal acceptance, whereas Chance seeks love. LitCharts more explicitly explains this theme:

While [Alexandria] at least seems to grasp that she’s distracting herself from a truth she doesn’t want to think about, Chance keeps himself in a state of denial, insisting that he still has a shot at settling down with the love of his life and becoming rich and famous. By comparing and contrasting the Princess and Chance’s attempts at self-delusion, [Williams] suggests that while the desire to escape or “forget” about hardship is perhaps a natural human impulse, denying reality altogether is dangerous and misguided.

Whether an individual is a guy, gal or non-binary pal, it is easy to find oneself in either of these characters. They are relatable in the sense that they physically represent thoughts that go through anyone mentally struggling with crippling insecurities.

In the piece “Feminine Fascinations: Forms of Identification in Star-Audience Relations,” Stacey details this phenomenon by saying that to women, identification and escapism have no gender (202). A woman can relate to both personality and looks, rather than just one or the other (Stacey 202). While watching movies, women often view male leads differently than men. Sometimes, women have lustful reactions in the same way men do when viewing women on the screen. However, it mostly entails the feelings of aspiration or admiration towards the character (Stacey 201). In What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Smith explains that it is important to identify with a character in order to fully understand the movie (35-51). Movies are better received and comprehended when viewers emotionally understand the observed characters (Smith 35-51). This allows the spectators to change their perspective and truly embed themselves into the film (Smith 35-51). This movie’s use of such androgenous creatures really emphasizes this theory by molding the male and female lead together by giving them similar identifying characteristics.

In the article “Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics,” Citron discusses the difference between a spectator and a spectacle (106). In other words, the dynamic refers to who is watching and who is meant to be watched (Citron 106). On screen, women are there to provide men sexual entertainment as discussed countless times in any femisist film theory piece of literature. However, in this particular article, the wording has the potential to provoke a certain kind of anger in its readers. The author wrote, “Women are taught to be objects of spectacles'' (Citron 106). Objects. Women are taught to be objects for men to view at their own pleasure. This is not news to anyone who has ever been a woman; however, seeing it plainly written out is disheartening. This exact dynamic is the summary of our incognito transgressive woman, Heavenly. Heavenly has had sex before marriage and is a freethinking woman, but her father and her town expect her to be the picture of a “good southern woman” - pure, well-behaved and conservative. To further this facade, Heavenly wears white in every scene that does not include Chance to further prove her purity. Her father, Mr. Finely, cares more about her image and beauty than her inward self. The piece “Sweet Bird of Youth'' details the 1960s standards of behavior by explaining that “while single men were seen as swinging bachelors, women were supposed to be desirable, but untouchable until marriage” (65). Mr. Finely plays into these opinions by subjecting Heavenly to become merely an aspiring object of purity and white privilege for the town. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Alexandria, who is incredibly open about her sexual liberation, is almost pitied by Chance when he asks her, “Have you no shame?” Her response stands in complete disapproval of the pure, objectified woman as she asserts, “Yes, aren’t you?” Lastly, Citron discusses the fear that women must face when being considered an object by men:

The film portrays the reality of what happens when you mess with men … heterosexual men who are just as viscous and sexually violent towards her as the homosexual man who murders her at the end...Other viewers respond that women should think twice before they talk about liberation. (120)

The reality is that women are constantly under threat from men. Nearly 98% of women are sexually assaulted; therefore, the odds are not in our favor, especially when one behaves in a so-called man-like way (Nishat para 1). Women who do not abide by society’s box of objectification expectations are a threat to many individuals' manhood (Citron 120). This is seen most evidently through every single male character in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), but it is most prominently seen in Heavenly’s father. Finley does not hesitate to call his daughter a “slut” or to slap around her or any other woman. He is violent and out of control when women question his power or fight against his beliefs. LitCharts explains that “Boss Finley loathes what he sees as impurity, and so he brings his racist and misogynistic agenda to bear on the people around him. In turn, this leads him to promote unconscionable acts of violence.” Thus, every southern man who follows Finley’s political stance believes this is an acceptable attitude and demonstrates the same amount of aggression and disrespect for women. This type of behavior is still prevalent in modern day politics. If someone in power has strong beliefs, morally correct or not, many of his or her supporters absentmindedly follow suit. This often makes women targets of violence.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) is a powerful piece about stereotypes placed on men, women and people of color. The layers of this film have caused controversy amongst several generations and have sparked important conversations about prevalent issues in society. It is refreshing to see two imperfect, androgenous leads consume the screen while fighting back against insulting standards set for women, all while simultaneously battling their insecurities. This engrossing motion picture serves as a representation of southern hostility, contrasted with the human battle of needing to escape one’s reality. This work of art is a classic which deserves much praise despite its numerous faced controversies.















Works Cited

Citron, Michelle. “A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics.” Feminist Film Theory: a Reader, by Sue Thornham, New York University Press, New York, 1999, pp. 115–121.

LitCharts. “Purity and Corruption Theme Analysis.” LitCharts.com, 2021, www.litcharts.com/lit/sweet-bird-of-youth/themes/purity-and-sorruption.

Nishat. “Research Finds That 97% of Women in the UK Have Been Sexually Harassed.” Open Access Government, 16 Mar. 2021, www.openaccessgovernment.org/97-of-women-in-the-uk/105940/.

Smith, Greg M. “Chapter 3: How Do We Identify with Characters?” What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011, pp. 35-51.

Stacey, Jackie. “Feminine Fascinations: Forms of Identification in Star-Audience Relations.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, by Sue Thornham, New York University Press, 1999, pp. 131–145.

Sweet Bird of Youth. Directed by Richard Brooks, performances by Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Rip Torn, and Shirley Knight, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Productions, 1962.

“Sweet Bird of Youth.” Drama for Students, Encyclopedia.com. 16 Apr. 2021. www.encyclopedia.com.



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