Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Sexuality and the Ideal Woman in Cecil B. DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

by Jessica Coslett

The flapper is perhaps the most iconic image to emerge from the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in the United States. The flapper was young and modern, often rebelling against the social restrictions of decades past by dressing in short skirts, dancing, smoking and partying (Fischer, 2009: 5). In film and fiction she was often criticised for superficiality and hedonism and yet nonetheless portrayed as an object of fascination and a symbol of modernity (Ross, 2009: 74).

Cecil B. DeMille’s comedic films of the late 1910s and early 1920s provide early examples of the New Woman film heroine as a fashionable, frivolous consumer (Higashi, 2002: 300). DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife (1920) is particularly notable in its portrayal of the sexuality of its two female leads, Beth and Sally. The early twentieth century saw a rapid change in gender roles with the rise of mixed-sex leisure pursuits and companionate marriage based on mutual fulfilment (Higashi, 2002: 229). However, while flapper films depicted women independent from the social restrictions of the recent past, they often did so through the depiction of marriage (Landay, 2002: 225). Sally’s and Beth’s character development throughout the film demonstrates the tenuous position of the flapper in discourse, as it is clear that the wifely Beth becomes modern in the ‘right’ way, while Sally is modern in the ‘wrong’ way.

Why Change Your Wife? follows a married couple, Robert and Beth, who are in a rut. A young and fashionable shopgirl called Sally seduces Robert, leading Beth and Robert to divorce. After the divorce, Robert marries Sally, who turns out not to be the ideal wife either. Meanwhile, Beth decides to start dressing more fashionably. Beth and Robert (with his new wife Sally) run into each other at a hotel and both realise they are still in love with the other. In the climax of the film, Robert slips on a banana peel and falls into a brief coma, and Beth and Sally brawl over where to put his unconscious body. Robert wakes up, chooses Beth, and the two remarry. 

The frivolous and seductive Sally in Why Change Your Wife? is a stereotypical flapper from the start, with the ‘complex balance of sexuality and innocence’ that marks the icon (Ross, 2009: 74). She first appears onscreen as a shopgirl modelling lingerie that Robert wishes to buy for Beth. Sally removes the underskirt to make the lingerie more revealing, puts on perfume and poses for him seductively. Later on, Sally is the instigator in their relationship, hinting at Robert to invite her to a show and convincing him to come inside for a drink, which eventually leads to a passionate kiss. At the same time, however, the film is critical of Beth’s prudishness, as shown through her overly modest clothing and her frequent scolding of Robert for his choice in music, his at-home bar and his allowing the dog onto the furniture. Robert decides to buy the lingerie for Beth because he wishes to cheer her up and, it is implied, because he wants her to be more sexually available (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 8:24).

Sexual fulfillment as an essential component of a companionate marriage was widely discussed in the years after the war, with a rise in popularity of marriage manuals with sexual advice for married couples, such as Marie Stopes’ Married Love, circulating in the United States and Europe (Robb, 2006: 100). While this may have afforded women more freedom to express their sexual desires within marriage, some historians have pointed out that the new discourse contributed to women being sexually objectified by their husbands, with what would have previously been described as ‘purity’ now being considered ‘frigidity’ (Robb, 2006: 100). Beth’s lack of overt sexual appeal is depicted as a problem in the film, and is contrasted with Sally’s own self presentation. When Beth reluctantly tries on the lingerie that Robert bought her she adds her own underskirt to make the dress less revealing. Later in the scene, still upset by the lingerie, she rejects Robert’s sexual advances which frustrates him (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 21:28).

It is clear that the responsibility of maintaining a companionate and sexually fulfilling marriage is largely on Beth, despite Robert’s infidelity being the direct cause of the divorce. Heartbroken, Beth goes dress shopping with her aunt and overhears two women discussing the divorce. These women express sympathy but attribute the divorce to Beth’s uptight manner and old-fashioned clothing (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 42:54).This prompts Beth to undergo the style transformation that eventually leads Robert to fall back in love with her. Robert, on the other hand, changes very little by the end of the film. His character’s transformation is primarily his realisation that Beth has transformed and that Sally is not the ideal wife.

woman in a glamorous dress surrounded by shop workers looks at herself in a hand mirror
Gloria Swanson as Beth, updating her style (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 45:15).

“Gloria Swanson, ‘Why Change Your Wife?’, 1920” by thefoxling is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the climax of the film the two women fight over where to move Robert, who is lying comatose in Beth’s house. Beth’s concern in the fight is doing what’s best for Robert, while Sally’s motivation stems from spite for Beth and possessiveness of Robert, as she wishes to move Robert’s body despite the risk of injuring him further. During the fight Beth gains the upper hand by threatening to throw acid in Sally’s face so that ‘no man will ever look at you again’, indirectly connecting Sally’s selfishness with her vanity, despite Beth now participating in the same materialistic fashion culture (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 1.21.49). 

By the time Beth and Robert remarry at the end of the film, Beth has changed significantly. However, despite outward appearance, the extent to which Beth has modernised is questionable. In the final scene of Beth’s and Robert’s newfound marital bliss, Beth, now in a more revealing dress, dotes on Robert at the expense of her own wants. Why Change Your Wife? uses the visual trappings of modernity to portray a ‘modern woman’ who still conforms to traditional gender roles. It reinforces a traditional ideal by contrasting Sally with the more mature and sensible Beth. Beth’s character therefore seems less like a portrayal of the modern woman and more like a portrayal of a man’s ideal modern wife.

Bibliography

Fischer, Lucy, ‘Introduction’ in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations’ ed. by Lucy Fischer, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Higashi, Sumiko, ‘The New Woman and Consumer Culture: Cecil DeMille’s Sex Comedies’, in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Landay, Lori, ‘The Flapper Film: Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age Kinaesthetics’, in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Robb, George, ‘Marriage and Reproduction’, in Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality, ed. by Harry Cocks and Matt Houlbrook, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Ross, Sara, ‘Movies and the Perilous Future’, in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations’ ed. by Lucy Fischer, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Why Change Your Wife?, dir. by Cecil B. DeMille (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), online film recording, YouTube, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zIO9YG052w> [accessed 15 February 2021].

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