Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Thelma and Louise, and the need for female solidarity.

June 8, 2009

(This was originally published November 2, 2008 but I am changing the publish date to June 8, 2009 as part of a series of “reruns.”)

So, I’ve been thinking more about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how the ending is kind of like that of Thelma and Louise. And I think the key to the difference between the endings is the fact that Holly doesn’t have any female friends.

Now, the end of Thelma and Louise isn’t exactly “happy,” but as I said in my first post on the topic, “their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.”

The end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the other hand, is something of a settlepocalypse. Holly spent most of the movie afraid and alone, and just as she’s got her life going in a direction that she thinks will make her happy, it falls apart, leaving her even more afraid and more alone. While she’s vulnerable, Paul tells her she’s been struggling not because the patriarchy allows women very few routes to true independence, but because she’s a silly woman who won’t just settle. And so Holly just settles.

The difference is that while Thelma and Louise had each other to turn to when they were struggling to find independence, the only person Holly had was Paul, and he did not (and perhaps could not) understand what she was struggling with. So while Thelma and Louise could bolster each other, all Paul could do is reinforce Holly’s self-doubts.

I think it is impossible to break out of the patriarchal mindset as one woman, even in the destructive way that Thelma and Louise manage. Our society practically screams at women about how they should be (pretty, pleasant, and above all else, passive). Even in my own life, I have trouble sometimes fighting off its influence, and I am a self-assured feminist with a support system of countless other feminists. So for Holly to, on her own, reject its message even in small ways is an impressive feat. For her to completely reject the system, however, is nearly impossible.

I keep returning to this quote:

Paul Varjak: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

The thing is, he’s right, but only in the details. That cage does follow Holly everywhere she goes, but it’s not built by Holly herself, it’s built by the society she lives in. In a universe where Paul feels justified in saying, “I love you, that means you belong to me!” romantic relationships really can be cages. Holly refuses to sacrifice her independence, which means she spends all her time pushing at the limits of what society will allow, and never finding a comfortable balance.

Even if Paul had been different, and less creepily focused on how Holly belonged to him, I don’t think he could really have helped her escape these limits. Men, no matter what great allies they are, do not have to deal with the same barrage of expectations that can overwhelm even me. If it ever becomes overwhelming, a man can just stop thinking about, whereas a woman, like Holly, is completely trapped.

I think glimpses of this dynamic are visible in the sequence where Holly, after seeing off Doc Golightly, goes to get terribly drunk with Paul. She’s just sent away a man who loves her, and for whom she cares a great deal, in order to preserve her autonomy. The consequences are severe– she cannot benefit from his house or his money, her brother no longer has a place to stay, and she has hurt, perhaps permanently, a family that she cares for. Doc Golightly simply cannot understand why she even left in the first place, saying that she had no reason not to be happy with him. But she decides the sacrifice is necessary in order to maintain her autonomy, and so she stays in New York.

However, everything our wonderful society says about women suggests that this is a terrible, selfish, unacceptable thing to do. And she clearly feels awful. Yet Paul refuses to help her. At first he is sympathetic, and buys her some drinks, but when they return to her apartment and she starts trying to think how she can possibly support herself and her brother, he is of no help to her at all. She forms the plan of marrying a very rich man; it’s a compromise, as she would be selling her physical person, but maintaining her independence; Rusty Trawler, at least, will not expect her to love him deeply. I’ve often said that I have a lot of sympathy for so-called “gold-diggers” who use ambitious marriages to acquire independence in societies in which personal ambition wouldn’t be a plausible support. But all Paul does is disapproves. Actually, make that Disapproves with a capital D. He absolutely refuses to understand her situation. Which, of course, only makes Holly feel worse. On the plus side, she sends him packing with a fantastic line:

Holly Golightly: It should take you exactly four seconds to cross from here to that door. I’ll give you two.

But if Holly had had a Thelma, instead of Paul, how differently that scene would have gone! Well, it may still have started with getting terribly drunk at a strip club, but it wouldn’t have ended in such despair. Honestly, it would have made such a different movie I can hardly picture it. Maybe she would have calmed Holly down and found her place that feels like Tiffany’s. Or maybe they would have started robbing Holly’s “rats” (and especially the “super rats”) and become criminals on the lam. Probably nothing in between; you can’t half-transcend something.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter — this post isn’t really about movies. It’s about the importance of solidarity between women. (Please note: I’m using a really broad definition of womanhood. If you’ve ever gotten the short end of the sexism stick, I’m talking about you.) I’d say “and allies,” but fundamentally, even those allies who struggle with their own oppressions cannot personally relate to women’s struggles. The most important thing women can do for each other is share those experiences that are unique to womanhood. One woman getting catcalled is a personal annoyance, but a hundred women with the same experience represent a political problem. I always love those threads online that encourage women to share their experiences with catcalling, with menstruation, with rape, with job interviews, with anything. Because the common themes become readily apparent, and suddenly “personal annoyances” are revealed to be widespread political problems. It’s a paradigm shift that can only be provided by women who share with each other.

And it could have helped Holly Golightly find a real happy ending.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s, love, and ownership.

November 1, 2008

At the beginning I was cautiously optimistic about Breakfast at Tiffany’s (except, of course, for Mr. Yunioshi). Holly and Paul seemed like such interestingly broken people, I was looking forward to seeing how things worked out with them. But in the end, it was nothing but disappointing.

I would have accepted Holly going off with her Brazilian fellow as a happy ending (she really did seem happy with him). I would have accepted Holly striking off on her own– in New York or in Brazil, or anywhere– as  a happy ending (she really was something of a “wild creature”). I would even have accepted Holly finding her “place that feels like Tiffany’s” with Paul (they certainly had chemistry). But I refuse to accept Holly deciding to give ownership of herself to Paul!

See, here’s how Holly turned down Paul:

Paul Varjak: I love you.
Holly Golightly: So what.
Paul Varjak: So what? So plenty! I love you, you belong to me!
Holly Golightly: [tearfully] No. People don’t belong to people.
Paul Varjak: Of course they do!
Holly Golightly: I’ll never let ANYBODY put me in a cage.
Paul Varjak: I don’t want to put you in a cage, I want to love you!

Isn’t that amazing? I was so thrilled in that moment. It perfectly exposed why she wouldn’t “settle down” with him– because it would mean losing her autonomy.

Holly’s in a rare position of freedom. Even now, and especially then, people are expected to belong to people– namely, women are expected to belong to men. When a father “gives away” his daughter at her wedding, he is symbolically transferring his ownership of her to her new husband. (Even the Purity Ball people can see it: “They gave her a charm for her bracelet–a lock in the shape of a heart. Her father has the key. ‘On my wedding day, he’ll give it to my husband,’ she explains.” via Feministing.)

But Holly doesn’t belong to her father. She ran away from home and has completely severed her ties with him. And even though she went from him to a husband, she doesn’t have a husband any more, either. She’s annulled her marriage to Doc Golightly and even though he comes looking for her to claim her again, she sends him off corrected: she doesn’t belong to him, either.

And as much as she likes Paul, she’s not going to sacrifice her independence to him. It’s all she really has, and she won’t let go of it.

Except, oops! She does! Here’s how he convinced her to marry him anyway:

Paul Varjak: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.
[takes out the ring and throws it in Holly’s lap]
Paul Varjak: Here. I’ve been carrying this thing around for months. I don’t want it anymore.

I was really disappointed. The cage she’s in isn’t her cage, it’s the patriarchy’s cage. Holly refuses to be owned, but the world she’s in makes it an all-or-nothing proposition. She can’t find a place where she “belongs” (in a figurative sense) without giving herself up to belong to someone else in a terrifyingly literal way.

I think that needs a little more clarification. Holly’s clearly looking for a place to belong to. She won’t buy any furniture or even name her cat until she’s found a place that feels “like breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which is to say, she’s got her life on hold until she can find a place where she belongs. She’s constantly unhappy, though, because she’s looking for a place where she belongs, whoever-she-is, the wild creature, the person, but all she can find are places and people that she can beong to. That preposition can make a world of difference. If she belongs, like at Tiffany’s, she can be completely herself and completely content. But if she belongs to, there has to be someone else, the object of the preposition, who will become the subject of her life.

These are the “rats” and “super rats” that plague her in the beginning– men who want to buy her with fifty dollars for the powder room, men who bang on her door and say “I gave you a hundred for the taxi, I’m entitled! Open the door!” And while originally she and Paul get along without that dynamic, as soon as he starts falling in love with her, he starts becoming “just another rat.” And indeed, just before she leaves him for José da Silva Pereira, he gives her fifty dollars for the powder room. I couldn’t tell what in the world he meant by it– he seemed to think it was a way to show that he cared, that he wanted to take care of her. But I rather thought he was being a rat. After all, she didn’t want it; she just wanted him to leave her alone. Forcing her to take his money is just a Nice Guy (TM) way of forcing her not to break the connection entirely (since no matter what she does with the money, she has it and it ties her to him).

Like I said, I was willing to consider their romance a “happy ending,” but that was on the assumption that somehow, Paul would find her a place that felt like Tiffany’s. Instead, he uses her fears to browbeat her into submitting to him. It didn’t show love, in my mind; it showed how completely he failed to understand who she is and what she wants.

So instead of being a really happy ending, to me it felt like going off the cliff in Thelma and Louise. Holly tried and tried to live without belonging to anyone, but the patriarchy just wouldn’t allow her to be happy that way. And it had succeeded so well in making her small and afraid, that she couldn’t even go for the cliff; she just capitulated, and gave herself up.

Which sure isn’t a happy ending in my book.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mr. Yunioshi, and good old-fashioned racism.

October 26, 2008

All I knew about Breakfast at Tiffany’s was that Audrey Hepburn starred in it and looked smashing. It ended up being…not nearly as pleasant a viewing experience as I’d expected.

For one thing, here’s Mickey Rooney:

A nice old man, right. White, of course. And here’s Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:


Oh wait, here’s an even better one!


Here’s the thing: I can’t talk to you about how hurtful it is to me to watch this kind of racist caricature, because it’s not about me. I have the privilege to ignore it, and focus on the rest of the movie, which enrages me on a more immediate, personal level (i.e. with sexism.) But I don’t want to ignore it. It shouldn’t be ignored. But I can’t talk about how hurtful it is to me

And so, this blog post just keeps stopping and starting. I absolutely cannot, cannot write about this movie without explicitly calling out such a terrible portrayal. But whatever I try to write ends up sounding self-centered and privileged. So, since this is NOT about me, I’ll give you some other people’s words on the topic:

I can’t separate Audrey Hepburn from “Mr. Yunioshi” by Gil Asakawa.

The character has magnifying-glass spectacles, squints and mumbles with pronounced buck teeth. It’s almost a WWII-era caricature of a “Jap” from a poster, comic book or cartoon, come to life. Only it’s not 1942, it’s 1961.

And, the character of Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, the diminutive Caucasian movie star. Maybe it’s because no Asian would agree to play the part. I can only hope.

But this wasn’t just an example of letting a white actor play an Asian character. It was a broad and particularly nasty stereotype captured in a major motion picture featuring a cast of big name stars. It was a statement that said loudly, that this particular stereotype is (was) an acceptable way to portray Asians in America.

At least on the closing commentary on the Anniversary Edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” producer Richard Shepard admits, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie!”

That’s good to know, but Rooney is there as part of the film’s legacy forever, and I still end up associating its brutal racist depiction of Japanese – of me – with it, and with Hepburn’s image. A lot of fans of the movie can dismiss or overlook the stereotyped character. Some even think it was a high point of the movie, that it added comedic elements. (Read the comments.)

When I was younger, I could squirm and chuckle along with it, but I can’t stand to watch the movie anymore. And the old saw about “that’s what it was like back then” doesn’t fly with me, either. Imagine an African-American character in 1961 being satirized that way. Like I’ve already mentioned, Rooney’s portrayal was a throwback to WWII depictions of Japanese – it was over the top, even for 1961.

Check out the whole thing.