By: Megan McGurk
When almost beggared and starved, with only a few crackers and an apple for an evening repast, a lecture from a well-fed man about the sexual dimorphism of seals seems indelicate if not outright vulgar. Spare a lady a disquisition of facts collected during the time you sat at a table reading while someone else prepared the dinner. A hungry woman would rather console herself that it’s no fun to swim around in a fur coat all day, instead of listening to the species defined by a male example and the female as its mere opposite. In Gregory LaCava’s Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), Ginger contests the male speaker’s authority in a brief exchange, issuing a robust protest, one that anticipates hallmarks of the personal-is-political vanguard still thirty years in the future.
Allan Scott’s screenplay contains one of the most striking rejections of a Cyclop’s-squint logic governing a man’s world. Whether you point to Adam’s rib or Freud’s penis-envy, storybooks have a long tradition of spotlighting men for the definition, quote and summary of human experience. Women, cast off as leftovers, become an afterthought, second-rate—bits of what the male embodies in whole form. Shabby patterns of representation always put men in the forefront. Ginger shows viewers how much the world expands when you resist playing an opposite role.
In front of the seal pond, Ginger makes it plain she has no intention of playing a passive audience member to a random blowhard. She interrupts and undertalks throughout his narration, mocking his claim at expert status; moreover, she steals his audience by directly addressing the sad rich man standing between them. Seals rate as one of the smartest of the carnivores, he says, only dogs are smarter. He corrects Ginger’s remark about how joyless swimming in a fur coat seems by saying they’re a different species. He foists his observations on Ginger and the forlorn well-heeled gentleman.
See that fella? That’s a male. Know how I can tell? He’s bigger than the female.
–You mean the female is smaller.
Yeah, that’s right—and lighter in colour.
–I see. The males are darker. And louder.
Ginger Rogers may be small, pale, soft-spoken and poor, but she has sense enough to side-step his lazy terms. Mr jibber-jabber fails to recognise that she’s not talking about seals. Ginger’s parting comment, that now she knows how the other half lives, reminds us in the flickering light that men never consider themselves by half measures.
As viewers often discover in woman’s pictures, women like Ginger Rogers have answers that men need rarely notice.