In film theory, the Hawksian woman archetype describes the female lead characters in movies directed by Howard Hawks. An archetype is a character model, or pattern, that is common in storytelling. Hawks made a number of films during Hollywood’s Golden Age that featured female characters with very similar traits. The Hawksian woman archetype stepped outside the Hollywood norm – his female characters were not reduced to being damsels in distress or sexualised objects – and instead had spunk, charisma, wit, intelligence and were cool under pressure. They knew exactly what they wanted and were not afraid to go after it, but, most importantly, had the respect of their male counterparts and were considered “one of the gang” among them.
Film critic Naomi Wise (1945-2011) first coined the term Hawksian woman in 1971. Howard Hawks, himself, was born on May 30th, 1896. He made his way to Hollywood in the 1920s where he landed a position at the Mary Pickford company. Hawks moved around, doing odd jobs in the industry, while building a reputation. His directorial debut was The Road to Glory in 1926. He had a consistent career with movies in the comedy, drama, film noir and western genres, many of which are now considered masterpieces of American cinema, such as A Girl in Every Port (1928), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) and Rio Bravo (1959). He also directed the original Scarface in 1932. It was considered the most violent film made up until that point and was at the centre of a censorship battle. It led to tougher rating restrictions on cinema under the Motion Picture Production Code. Hawks did not consider himself a feminist, but explained in interviews that, in film and life, lively women were more interesting.
Hawksian women were known for their strong and tough-talking personalities, with semi-masculine qualities. Especially for love interests, men were slightly feminised too. Wise points out that a typical Howard Hawks film would have a male character suffering from an emotional dilemma and it would be the woman who helps resolve it. Humphrey Bogart’s character, Harry Morgan, in To Have and Have Not (1944), notes “a man alone ain’t got no chance”. With Morgan in an emotional upheaval, it was Marie (Lauren Bacall) who assists and guides him through the ordeal. Some actresses featured in Hawksian roles include Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Joanne Dru and Marilyn Monroe. Hawks had a clause built into their contracts where actresses could only appear in movies twice a year. This was to keep their exposure fresh and to leave the audience wanting more.
Unarguably the most iconic Hawksian woman was Lauren Bacall. She was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16th, 1924. Bacall was first noticed by Hawks’s wife, Nancy, on the cover of a glamour magazine. After bringing Bacall’s picture to the attention of her husband, Hawks organised a screen test for her and was impressed. He hired a speech coach, had her name changed to Lauren Bacall and brought her out to Hollywood. Bacall was always uncomfortable with her screen name as she felt it dishonoured her Jewish heritage. Bacall’s two big Hawksian roles were Marie “Slim” Browning in To Have and Have Not and Vivian Sternwood Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946). Both films starred Humphrey Bogart as the male lead. Twenty-five years older than Bacall, the two began a romantic relationship that led to marriage. Their personal lives were covered extensively by the media of the day. Bacall was with Bogart at the time of his death in 1957.
Popularity of the Hawksian woman archetype began to slow down by the early 1950s. World War II had ended and soldiers had returned home. Women’s roles in society had become restricted to the household as wives and mothers. Hollywood, and the entertainment industry alike, began to substitute strong heroines for devoted house wives and stay-at-home mothers. Notable examples of the new perfect housewife archetype can be seen in TV shows like I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963).
Film critic Naomi Wise described the Hawksian woman as “some of the most honest portrayals of women” (p. 118) Hollywood cinema has to offer. Howard Hawks directed forty-five films in his career. Only fifteen of them featured the archetype. He passed away in 1977 at the age of eighty-one. Lauren Bacall continued to act up until her death in 2014. She was eighty-eight. Hawks’s influence can be felt in modern films and television series. The Hawksian woman legacy lives on.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on May 16th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
Classic Hollywood Archetypes: The Hawksian Woman (http://finefettleguide.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/classic-hollywood-archetypes-hawksian.html)
Decline of the Hawksian Archetype (https://hawksianwomen.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/decline-of-the-hawksian-archetype/)
Examples of the Hawksian Woman (https://hawksianwomen.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/examples-of-the-hawksian-woman/)
Hawksian Woman (https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Hawksian%20woman)
Hawksian Woman, The. Wise, Naomi. 1971.
Howard Hawks Biography.com (http://www.biography.com/people/howard-hawks-9331796)
Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall: May to December, A Romance to Remember (http://www.biography.com/news/humphrey-bogart-lauren-bacall-love-story)
Lauren Bacall Biography.com (http://www.biography.com/people/lauren-bacall-9194111)
Top 10 Hawksian Woman Movies (http://mavenrose.com/top-10-hawksian-woman-movies/)