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From the Way She Walks to the Way She Talks: Feline Sexuality in 'Bringing Up Baby'

By Edited Nov 23, 2015 1 0

With the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, director Howard Hawks submerges viewers into a chaotic world where absurd circumstances are brought about by the excessive, yet comedic, antics of a high-society ditz named Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) in her unwavering pursuit to ignite a sexual fire in the man of her choosing, an engaged paleontologist named David Huxley (Cary Grant). In a book entitled Fast-Talking Dames, Maria DiBattista's chapter "Missing Links: Bringing Up Baby" scours the depths of Hawks' cinematic vision, finding implications hidden in the film's use of language and portrayal of gender, particularly in the interrelationship between gender and language. This connection can be seen both between and within the movie's main characters, Susan and David, as well as in the relationship between a terrier named George and a tame leopard called Baby. According to DiBattista, Bringing Up Baby presents a world where the stereotypical boundaries between males and females become blurred for a comedic twist of Darwinian sexual selection.

Susan uses her fast-paced speaking ability and sexual determination to her womanly advantage in attempt to obtain David, who is "the object of her sexual choice" (DiBattista 176-180, 195). DiBattista argues that "Susan's verbal freedoms" and "fast-talk" are a means by which she is "rebelling against . . . logic and reality," as well as searching for "the light that never was and things that are not yet," which suggests that Susan is so exceedingly determined to win David over precisely because he, as an engaged man, is supposedly impossible to get (188, 201). Other than merely being an object for Susan to win, David's role in the film is encompassed by the process he undergoes in succumbing to Susan's seduction. DiBattista explains that he goes from being "a thinker" obsessed with his dinosaur bone and building its skeleton, along with his ego, to shifting his Freudian fixation from this bone to Susan (189, 193). As he alters his perspective, David "[sacrifices] his dignity" in order to gain "sexual happiness" and play his part in evolution along with Susan, passing on their genes so that "new life forms may come" (193, 200, 201). With Susan and David, as well as Baby and George, being driven by innate primitive desires (though certainly unaware of it), DiBattista claims that Hawks uses "a zoomorphic humor that treats human behavior, especially human sexual behavior . . . as a . . . developed instance of . . . [animalistic] instincts" (176). In accordance with her evolutionary urges, Susan freely utilizes her linguistic sexuality to permanently attach herself to David's side. By using her language in a promiscuous fashion, she inadvertently teaches David to not rely so much on his mind. David eventually learns to let his own innate sexuality drive the course of his life. The "Missing Links" chapter suggests that the film's ending signifies David's primitive regression, as he subtly confesses that he loves Susan and his precious dinosaur skeleton collapses, along with his pride (DiBattista 199-200). This collapse leaves David with no words to say, but a mere animalistic sound in the form of "hmmm" escapes from his lips (200; Bringing Up Baby). I agree with DiBattista's claim that Susan plays a dominant role in her sexual pursuit of David, using her "verbal freedoms" to revert David back into the hands of his primitive desires (187). However, I disagree with the assertion that Susan's femininely fast-paced verbosity displays a connection between her and the "liberated future" of humanity, especially in the case of women, and is employed to create "new life forms," as well as to discover "the light that never was and things that are not yet" (201). Instead of moving into an unknown glistening future of freedom, I argue that Susan's use of language, causing David's regression to following his animalistic male instincts, does not free her from the confines of female boundaries, but exacerbates her entrapment in the sexual game of evolution, which is rather an endless cyclical chase of sexual revolution.

Throughout the entirety of Bringing Up Baby, Susan asserts her own autonomy as a woman on a mission, bound and determined to get whatever she wants simply because she wants it. DiBattista explains in Fast-Talking Dames that Susan "makes her choices 'by personal will'," readily following any whim that strikes her fancy, regardless of what anyone else (or logic) has to say in the matter (DiBattista 180). Susan believes that she is uncontrollable and free to do as she pleases, even if it means going to every extreme in order to catch another woman's man. By pursuing the engaged David, Susan is asserting her "natural right to sexual selection" and playing a dominant role in her own life choices (178). Though this dominance that she conveys in choosing and obtaining her sexual mate (as well as her own fate) is, as DiBattista suggests, an outward display of her self-confidence and self-determination, Susan is innately being driven by her primitive sexual desire to procreate in this Darwinian world (180, 200). Since Susan concedes to these animalistic urges, albeit unknowingly, the connection between human and animal is exemplified and amplified. The "Missing Links" chapter explains how this human/animal connection is epitomized by the explicit, as well as implicit, commonalities between Susan and the two leopards in the film. With DiBattista's claim that Susan is a "Hawksian woman" in whom "the good girl and the bad girl are fused into a single, heroic heroine, who is both sexual and valuable," she illuminates the complexity of Susan's femininity and sexuality (180). Though I do not agree that she is necessarily "heroic," I agree with DiBattista in that Susan possesses a mesh of multifaceted characteristics, both "good" and "bad," which is shown by the combination of both leopards' traits. As DiBattista points out, Susan's "good girl" qualities correspond to "the good Baby," whose tameness leads her to willingly be "caged" in the end (180, 183). On the other hand, "the bad girl" in Susan in represented by the wildness of the "bad" leopard, which also gets caged, but only after putting up a fight and killing a man (180, 183). The chapter describes Susan as being an amalgamation of these two feline counterparts, having the same "fearsome sexuality" that makes David afraid (as males often are) of a woman "on the prowl" (182). With David's "irrational fear" of Susan "stalking and even devouring him," DiBattista brings to the forefront the motivation behind the predominantly male "instinct of the hunt" (182, 185). David is afraid of the animalistic impulses of the opposite sex just as much as of the leopards. He is eventually driven by his own intuition to confine the threatening creature, thereby making Susan and her "feline sexuality" no longer a danger to himself or to society (182-183). Susan's wild urges are embodied in how she uses her legs to "stalk" David, as well as in how she uses her mouth to "devour" him with her words (185). Going along with DiBattista, I find that the essence of Susan's sexuality with its leopard-like fierceness is portrayed in Bringing Up Baby by the way she walks, as well as by the way she talks.

"Missing Links" points out that Susan "reproduces the entire repertoire of human postures and gaits" throughout the film, as "she skips, ambles, strolls, lopes, ducks, crouches, [and] squats" (DiBattista 196). Susan using her physicality to its maximum potential and embracing all the ways in which she can possibly maneuver her body, not only represents her carefree demeanor, but also her ability to contort her form any way she pleases. DiBattista describes Susan's physical movements like the "stride" of a feline, which "is athletic and purposeful, her every movement a graceful uncoiling of directed energy" (196). Determined to reach her goal of seducing David, she aims all her attention and outward behavior toward him. Susan's true "gracefulness" and animalistic guile are not tested, however, until what DiBattista refers to as "her supreme moment of evolutionary madcap," the scene in which she is helping David find his lost bone and happens to break the heel off one shoe (197). In the midst of this nighttime hunt David and Susan take a comedic fall down a small hillside (Bringing Up Baby). As the chapter explains, Susan, "unhurt, . . . springs up ready to resume the chase," but immediately "discovers the asymmetry of her posture" (DiBattista 197). Leaping up from her fall to continue her night's mission (since she never lets a minor mishap keep her down) and realizing her heel's fatality, she readily adapts like any evolutionarily fit animal would in order to survive. "Missing Links" describes that Susan "struts delightedly like a noncombatant on parade," marching around with "a military air" in spite of her now uneven stance (197). Bound to persist in her pursuit like a well-trained soldier, she merrily moves about while "bobbing up and down" and comically proclaims, "I was born on the side of a hill" (DiBattista 197; Bringing Up Baby). DiBattista asserts that Susan's statement is a "Darwinian explanation for her new gait," suggesting that her body has evolved into a lopsided form due to the slanted landscape of her birthplace (DiBattista 197). Though Susan says this jokingly, having not actually been "born on the side of a hill," the statement conveys Susan's willingness to adapt in whatever way necessary to follow her instincts of pursuing David and passing on her genes to a new generation. By procreating and, thus, contributing to the future of humanity, Susan is, as DiBattista claims, searching for "the light that never was and things that are not yet" (201). Thinking that she is attempting to bring the world into a brighter future, Susan continues her march to evoke David's sexual interest, even with only one heel to walk on. In her attempt to ensure the birth of "new life forms," however, I allege that Susan is entrapping herself further in the procreative cycle that is motivating her to go after David, although she is completely unaware of these instinctual inner forces (201).

After the heel of Susan's shoe gets detached, she does, as DiBattista declares, show her adaptability to life circumstances, even if only to reproduce (DiBattista 197). However, simply the fact that her heel breaks off conveys to me that she is a fallible creature, just like any other human, leopard, or animal in general. Nature will have its effects on Susan, whether or not she wants it to or is even aware of it. I argue that being severed from an extension of her leg, the base on which she stands, signifies a symbolic castration that leads to both personal and societal imbalance. Susan's sexual and feminine complexity, as well as the gender biases present in society, is illustrated by her militant march with an unbalanced feline stride. The intricacy of Susan's character, which DiBattista says is a blend of "good" and "bad," as displayed by the two leopards, is further embodied by her uneven stance (180). Though part of Susan is just as well trained as a soldier and tame as Baby, the other part of Susan is a wild rampant creature, similar to the "bad" leopard. With each of Susan's legs following the paths of these two seemingly opposite counterparts, I claim that Susan's own sexuality is depicted as simultaneously wild and tamed, having one leg running rampant and the other under control. The feral side of Susan's sexuality, permitting her to do as she pleases, is forcibly held down by nature, which I view as being symbolized in her leg's unexpected separation from her shoe's heel. The tame part of Susan, however, remains unharmed, as her other lower appendage, shoe heel and all, stays intact (Bringing Up Baby). The symbolic castration of Susan's wild sexuality seems completely useless to me, however. While Susan's legs are technically separate in themselves, they are still conjoined at the hips and, therefore, being driven in the same direction by the same sexual force, just as the wild leopard and the tame Baby behave outwardly in different ways, but are both still motivated by the same innate animalistic urges. Susan continuing on her merry way in pursuit of David despite the loss of her heel, does not simply show her adaptability, as DiBattista claims, but also that she is continually being directed and controlled by her sexual desire to procreate in order to pass her genes on to the future (DiBattista 197, 200).

Susan's femininity and sexuality in Bringing Up Baby, besides being seen in the way she physically carries herself, is also revealed, as "Missing Links" indicates, through her use of language. DiBattista refers to "the relation between sex and speech" suggested by the film, conveying the connection between speech and gender, as well as between dialogue and the sexual act (DiBattista 186). Susan, as a "fast-talking dame," naturally "outperforms" David with her verbosity, as well as with her sexual freedom and wild instincts (186, 181). Using her language skills and sexuality to her advantage, she dominates over David, making him fall prey to her every whim. In the course of Susan exercising her linguistic and sexual power as a female, DiBattista argues that she is using her "verbal freedoms . . . as an imaginative means of withdrawing from the 'pressure of critical reason' and rebelling against the 'compulsion of logic and reality'" (188). Though I agree that Susan herself believes she is "rebelling," I assert that Susan's "fast-talk" is perpetuating the "logic and reality" of her striving to continue the cycle of reproduction in accordance with her animalistic sexuality (188). A prime example of Susan utilizing her linguistic abilities, which DiBattista proclaims suggests "that talk is sexy, female talk especially so," is the scene in which Susan and David have both been arrested and are sitting behind bars with seemingly no possibility of escape (186). Having wound up in jail due to the constable's misunderstanding of Susan and David's story about searching for a leopard, a dog, and a dinosaur bone, they are faced with the challenge of literally breaking out of a cage (Bringing Up Baby). Susan, with her femininely feline sexuality and wild aptitude for language, is unquestionably up to this challenge. This scene shows the dominance and self-sufficiency that DiBattista says Susan conveys, as well as epitomizes the unfailing Darwinian determination to have sexual intercourse and produce offspring that I see as the motivation behind everything Susan does or says throughout the film (DiBattista 180). Not being one to simply sit and wait to be rescued in silence, Susan begins conversing with the constable, using her "delirious logic of fast-talk" in order to weasel her way out of her predicament (188).

As the "Missing Links" chapter states, "Susan . . . improvises a criminal moniker for herself, Swinging Door Susie, and offers to open her puss and shoot the works" (DiBattista 186). Letting her linguistic freedom run away with her unbounded sexuality, Susan uses her cat-like stealth to orally bombard the constable with confusing and completely untrue information. After establishing her own identity as "Swinging Door Susie," she spits words like bullets at the constable, telling him about the complexities of David's "criminal" character, naming him "Jerry the Nipper," saying "he's a regular Don Swan," and then announcing that "he's a wolf" (Bringing Up Baby). All of this information that Susan is giving out displays her language agility and intrigues the constable. Her goal of escaping from her cage is then accomplished by him leading her out of the cell. In his office, the constable begins to question Susan and she confesses to all the criminal offences committed by her and David's "leopard gang," which is quickly followed by her fleeing out of an open window (Bringing Up Baby). Susan's "verbal freedom" and sexual dominance is employed to help her break out of confinement and she undeniably succeeds, even if only temporarily (DiBattista 188, 178-180). I agree with the chapter's assertion that Susan's femininity and sexuality are expressed in her use of language, which is seen as DiBattista declares that, in the case of "fast-talking dames, . . . by their talk, we shall know them" (186). Susan's speech does represent the intricate makeup of her character, but I maintain that the reason Susan uses her linguistic skills is to follow her animalistic instinct to procreate, thereby maintaining her confinement in the sexual chase of evolution.

Throughout Bringing Up Baby, Susan takes a dominant role in her life by going after David, even though he is seemingly unavailable. Asserting her own autonomy as a woman determined to get what she wants, Susan, as DiBattista suggests, uses both her physical actions and linguistic capabilities in her sexual pursuit. The way that she walks, as well as the way she talks, conveys Susan's feminine sexuality and her connection to the two leopards in the film. Though Susan is a female with the "stride" and goals of a feline like the chapter claims, I reason that Susan's dominance becomes a means she employs to follow her animalistic urge to sexually reproduce (DiBattista 182, 196). The two opposing, yet conjoined, aspects of Susan's character, being both wild and tamed, are represented in her legs, particularly in the scene in which the heel of her shoe breaks off. The wild part of Susan is oppressed by society and by men, which I see signified in her abrupt separation from her shoe's heel, whereas the tame side of Susan remains unharmed. Whether hindered or not, however, Susan persists simply because she is driven by the sexual instinct to pass on her genes. Even once confined in prison, a scene that displays Susan's linguistic sexuality, she is still just following her animalistic urges. She displays the sexual dominance that "Missing Links" explains she possesses by talking her way out of jail, thereby showing her blatant disregard for legal authority, as well as her ability to use language and femininity to her advantage. I find issue, however, with the motivational forces pushing Susan to walk and talk as she does. Just as the wild leopard and the tamed Baby are both being driven by their innate natural tendencies, Susan, along with her legs and verbosity, is subject to her instinctual impulses. The only reason she is employing her fierce femininity through her words and actions is to pass on her genes to the future of humanity in attempt to discover a new world with what DiBattista refers to as "the light that never was and things that are not yet" (201). This imaginative future of humanity in the "things that are not yet" still never will be (in Susan's world and possibly our own) because Susan lets herself be "caged" by the end of the movie (201, 183). As Susan's pursuit of David is enforced by her sexual urges, she willingly lets him confine her because she expects him to fulfill her procreative desire. Susan's feline sexuality becomes entrapped along with her linguistic sexuality as she gives herself to David in order to pass on her genes. Susan is completely unaware of the sexual desires motivating her to chase David and is, therefore, oblivious to the idea that her physical behavior and use of language do not, like DiBattista suggests, lead to the birth of a brighter tomorrow (201). Though, as DiBattista implies, her genes may continue through procreation and the search for new possibilities will invariably move on, Susan is exacerbating the entrapment of humanity, women, and herself in the animalistic cycle of sexual evolution.

Works Cited

Bringing Up Baby. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. 1938.

DiBattista, Maria. "Missing Links: Bringing Up Baby." Fast-Talking Dames. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. 174-201.



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