Patriarchy in Classic Movies: “Annie Get Your Gun”

I love old movies, but sometimes they show just how patriarchal our society was (and still is). I recently watched the musical Annie Get Your Gun (50’s). The basic plot is this:

Annie Oakley is a girl who’s a bit rough around the edges, but she can shoot incredibly well. She falls in love with Frank Butler, a famous shooter with the Buffalo Bill show. Frank says he could never love a woman who isn’t soft and pretty, so she “gussies up” for him. Once Annie becomes more “girly”, Frank falls for her- but he’s always threatened by her success as a famous shooter. They have a long-term rivalry, and then finally have a contest for the title of The World’s Best Shooter. Annie has to choose- either win the match and lose Frank’s affections forever, or pretend to lose the match and save his pride and their relationship. She wanted Frank, so she purposefully lost.

Wow.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the musical numbers and the comedy- it’s a fun movie. However, the attitude towards women in this film is very disturbing. Annie’s male friends encouraged her to lose the match because they knew he would not want her if she won. They told her to “lose the match, win the man- win the match, lose the man!” Here was a powerful female figure- a person who sang earlier to Frank that “anything you can do, I can do better!” But then he forced her to choose: let him be better, or lose his love.

She also was not good enough for him until she polished her nails and looked feminine. Now I’ll admit, she was covered in dirt before and wore rags, and that’s just not sexy; but the fact remains that she had to fit a very specific mold for him to want her. She couldn’t just clean off the dirt and take better care of her appearance, she had to look a certain way. He sings an entire song about his ideal woman, which she later sings to herself and cries because she knows it doesn’t describe her. She later clings to him, showing him her newly polished nails, begging for his approval. Wasn’t she good enough before she curled her hair and painted her nails? I personally think she looked great in the inbetween stage- she’d cleaned herself up, but still had her cute braids and wore more masculine attire.

Wanting to dress up for yourself is one thing. Feeling that you have to dress up to win someone’s heart is another.

Now of course this is fiction, and much of this was exaggerated for comical effect. However, it shows the common ideas people held at the time. What we laugh at provides insight into what we value or think. The fact that people did not get upset at this portrayal of a strong woman having to subdue herself to please her man is disturbing. Instead, this was a laughing matter. A strong woman was a funny thing, an oddity, and she had to be “put in her place” by the end of the film.

This patriarchal attitude is still very prevalent in our society today. It’s not as bad as it was back in the 50’s, but we still see it every day. Girls feel that they have to look a certain way to earn a man’s love, and many pretend to be less intelligent or less successful so they don’t threaten the men. Many men today still have a hard time accepting women who are just as successful, or more successful, then they are. We still live in a patriarchy; it’s getting much better, but we still have more work to do in our attitudes and actions.

Don’t give up who you are or play dumb for anyone! If someone can’t accept your success and intelligence, and love you whether you polish your nails or not, then they don’t deserve you. Don’t be like Annie, who sacrificed part of herself in order to win a man who only loved his idea of who she was.

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One thought on “Patriarchy in Classic Movies: “Annie Get Your Gun”

  1. wow, this was actually really good. Needed some late night reading and this seems like the place to be.
    You’re so right, a person should be free to be who they are and celebrated for it. I think when a man learns to truly love a woman she’ll look the most radiant when she’s being true to herself no matter what she looks like. The shirt doesn’t make her beautiful, she makes the shirt beautiful.
    Keep it up lilly

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