Single, Satisfied, and Sexy in the City: The Modern Woman in Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH
7 July 2013
Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch takes place over one typically Manhattan summer. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), a businessman in the city, drops his wife and son off at the train station so they can spend the summer holiday in Maine, away from the hot city. Unfortunately, Richard must stay behind, like all the businessmen who bid their wives and children goodbye at the start of summer, so he can work and earn the family’s income. After leaving his wife at the station, Richard immediately panics, fearing he will fall victim to infidelity during this separation from his family…and that is before he learns The Girl, a young, single, blonde bombshell, just moved into his apartment building. Initially, Richard tries to steer clear of The Girl, but fate is cruel and Richard quickly finds himself attracted to The Girl and pursues a relationship with her, a relationship she, too, wants, despite the fact she knows he is a married man. However, Richard cannot get his wife out of his mind and each day he struggles to remain faithful. In the end, Richard leaves The Girl and the city, traveling to Maine to meet his family, freeing himself of the temptation he was almost unable to avoid.
This plotline may sound rather commonplace today, but in 1955 there were a thing or two about The Seven Year Itch that were remarkably bold. And, the boldest of all these things may be the film’s treatment of women, specifically the bachelorette. A question to consider with The Seven Year Itch is: how ahead of its time was Wilder’s film in handling a young, modern generation of women?
Marilyn Monroe’s character, The Girl, is a bachelorette, loud and proud. She is young, sexy, and vivacious; at 22, she lives alone in Manhattan and openly discusses how disinterested in marriage she is. Early in the film, she shares with Richard that she moved out of her previous residence because she had a 1am curfew there, too early by her standards. The Girl goes on to tell Richard that she supposes marriage to be the same way; a husband’s demands and society’s wifely expectations would surely be as strict and rigid as the imposing curfew she despised.
Moreover, The Girl is also quite sexual. She models is swimwear, or less, and talks openly about the men she encounters and their reactions to her voluptuous appearance. She also shares, in less detail, her experiences with these men, specifically how they paw her and make physical advancements toward her daily. Her open dialogue is free of shame or embarrassment; she does seem rather naïve, but also comfortable with herself and her sexuality. The Girl, a 1950’s Carrie Bradshaw, is remarkably forward take on women for a 1955 film, making the film seem rather ahead of its time in its treatment of the younger generation of women, the bachelorettes.
Another interesting point is that, aside from The Girl, barely any other women exist in The Seven Year Itch. Helen, Richard’s wife, is seen in the first scene, boarding the train for Maine. She comes off as what one might now call the “typically 1950s housewife”; perfectly manicured, doting over her husband’s health and well-being, and sacrificial mother. Yet, this is the only actual glance of Helen the audience sees. Is this enough to know Helen? Not likely. Helen appears several times in Richard’s daydreams and hallucinations. These visions are a manifestation of Richard’s mind; these illusions are not Helen. The same is true of Richard’s secretary, nurse, and other women he thinks/fantasizes about throughout the film.
Aside from The Girl, no woman in the film is real. They literally fade in and out throughout the film, mostly existing as mere projections. Ironically, these manifested women have names, but Monroe’s The Girl has no name, which symbolically suggests a lack of identity. Yet, if looked at against that grain, “The Girl” may refer to a rising generation, a younger generation, of women, bachelorettes who are not looking for a husband, but are looking for a good time instead. Therefore, The Girl lacks an identity because she is not one person; The Girl is a generation of women.
From this lens, The Seven Year Itch stands out from its contemporaries. Rarely are bachelorettes highlighted in classic cinema; that is more often a privilege of the bachelor. And while Richard, not The Girl, is the protagonist of the film, The Girl commands ample attention and paints a remarkably modern picture of women: sexual and independent, yet kind and sincere.