Wednesday, March 27, 2019

How did “Some Like it Hot” challenge gender norms and censorship rules of the era?

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

Quick Answer: Some Like it Hot ignored regulations of the time and told a raucous story of two men who dress in drag and join a girl's band to escape the mob. In doing so, they learn about being female and subvert expectations of gender identity in the 1950s.

The Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code) was officially in place from 1930 until 1968, dictating the moral and ethical content of American films so that moviegoers would not be subject to what it considered degrading material. Despite that later end date, many say the Hays code actually died closer to 1959, following the release of movies like Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, a film made without the code’s approval, effectively raising a middle finger to the organization and stripping the agency of its hold on Hollywood. A gender-bending story of two men dressing in drag to escape the mob, Some Like it Hot is packed full of sexual language and innuendo, was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency for being “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency,” was banned outright in Kansas, and, wondrously, received six Academy Award nominations. The film now claims its place in history as one of the greatest comedies of all time, featuring fantastic performances by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe’s last major role, and Wilder’s courageous and hilariously forward take on gender roles.

Some Like it Hot put society to the test and challenged moral complacency. The movie hints at homosexuality, studies the male gaze, speaks to female objectification and misogyny, and condemns male insensitivity. As the two male characters (dressed as women) move in and out of various relationships with members of the same and opposite sexes, they blur gender lines and question whether masculinity and femininity are as opaquely binary as society supposes or whether they are constructs facilitated by mannerisms, attire, and perception.

One progressive idea permeating the film is how dressing as women educates the males about the discriminatory challenges of being a woman. From day one, they are frustrated by the endless sexual advances they receive from men. “I’m not even pretty,” Jerry (Jack Lemmon) says to Joe. “They don't care -- just as long as you wear skirts. It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” Joe replies. Upon arriving at a hotel, the men are eyed up by the gaze of every rich old fellow lounging on the patio, and Jerry quickly gets his butt pinched by a zealous old millionaire in an elevator. “Now you know how the other half lives,” Joe says. In this way, their cross-dressing provides the two males the opportunity to become more sensitive toward and understanding of women. Still, that lesson, along with much of the film’s humor and legitimacy, only works under the conception of a two-gender system. In today’s landscape of acknowledging a spectrum of sexualities and genders, including transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the film’s foundation cracks. But this is to be expected from a piece of art that was challenging the gender assumptions of 1959.


  1. I loved that movie. It was not only funny but it reminded me about what it's like to be a woman in a male dominated society (i.e. butt pinching, getting leaned against in tight quarters, etc.). It showed that even if you didn't look like a model/female starlet, if you looked like a woman you were open season for men to do as they wished to make themselves feel powerful.

  2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/what-the-hays-code-did-for-women