There are many shining examples of the screwball comedy but only Bringing Up Baby ever managed to team up Howard Hawkes, Cary Grant, and Kathrine Hepburn. In what is undoubtedly the greatest movie ever to feature a leopard as a central plot point Kathrine Hepburn shines as Susan Vance, daffy fast-talking heiress extraordinaire. Or at least that’s my opinion. Hepburn’s role in this film is a surprisingly divisive one. Some find her character over the top and grating. Some find her to be a quick-witted icon for women the world over. And some people think she’s just a funny actress in a funny movie. I personally find her performance to be wonderful and Bringing Up Baby holds up as one of my absolute favorites but the existence of some rather vocal dissent to this view prompted me to select Susan Vance for this edition of Character Study.
One of the things I find fascinating about this character is her relevance in modern feminist criticism. She is held up by some as the first example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a stock character type first described by Nathan Rabin in 2007. While the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG) has had an ever shifting definition since its inception it is commonly defined as a static female character exhibiting quirky and eccentric traits who lacks her own goals and primarily exists to teach a fun-challenged male protagonist life lessons and serve as his love interest. And in some ways this is an accurate description of Hepburn’s Vance. While Grant’s Huxley has very discernable goals (get married to his fiancé, find his brontosaurus bone, securing a million dollar donation for his museum) Susan seems to have no discernable goals of her own until thirty minutes into the picture she decides she is desperately in love with Huxley and wants to marry him. And nobody can argue that Susan isn’t quirky. In fact the problems arising from her off-beatness is the plot’s central driving force. So by this measure Susan does seem to check all of the boxes.
But it’s very hard for me to accept a character as dynamic, assertive, and witty as Susan Vance as static. It doesn’t mean she isn’t it just means it’s hard for me to accept. I think part of the problem is that pretty much every character is static when you’re dealing with 1930’s comedies. Certainly there is no growth of any kind in the supporting cast and as far as Dr. Huxley goes he doesn’t exactly ooze agency. There is no great revelation at the end of the film. His fiancé dumps him and Susan picks him up. The only growth that can be his argued is his acceptance of the fact that he likes Susan better anyways. So while we may see the plot as servicing the male protagonist’s goals it does so in a passive way that sacrifices his agency with the women in his life making his decisions for him. In fact if the gender roles were reversed there would be a fair amount of outcry over the protagonist just letting things happen to her.
While we’re thinking about gender swapping take note of the first few things Susan is seen doing in this film. We first meet her golfing, then driving, then drinking at a bar by herself. Now none of these are extremely rare activities for a woman in 1938 (especially not for an heiress) but they were all activities that would have been perceived as male-centric or male-dominated at the time. By showing Susan performing these activities the writers are using an agreed upon short hand with the audience that says “this is an independent woman who doesn’t play by societies rules”
In the end it comes down to context. Take Susan Vance and put her in a modern film and she would get blasted as a poor imitation of a strong female lead and rightfully so. But given the time period and the typical portrayals of women by Bringing Up Baby’s contemporaries Susan Vance deserves to be recognized for what she was: A great performance by Katherine Hepburn and a step forward for women in film.