I’ve recently been watching a lot of old Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn films. I adore Katharine Hepburn films, with or without her real-life love, Tracy. The African Queen, Phiadelphia, The Lion in Winter — Hepburn is a presence — regal, clever, riveting. (In fact, I think the only film of hers I don’t like is Bringing Up Baby, in which she plays a ditz, albeit a secretly clever one.) And in her romances with Tracy, I have noticed a common theme: Tracy’s character is usually quite explicitly attracted to her character because of her intelligence. In Woman of the Year, he does not want her to be a housewife — he wants her to be her high-powered, world-changing self, just with a little more consideration for him and their life together. In Desk Set, there’s that marvelous scene on the roof where you can actually see Tracy’s computer programmer falling head over heels for Hepburn’s research librarian as she nails every trick question he asks her.
It’s rare to see this trope in romantic films, but I love it. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read my books. I tend to write characters whose intelligence is very important to them, and who would rather be valued for their brains than anything else. Nothing makes Amy more angry than to be called stupid. Nothing makes Astrid more frustrated than to be told that knowledge and intelligence won’t help her. And when these girls find love, part of the way they can tell is that the person who loves them is really attracted to their smarts.
I was struck by this, watching a Hepburn/Tracy the other day, that it’s not something you see so often in films or stories these days. For all the talk of “strong female characters,” they seem to focus on physical strength. I think a lot of romances fail because there isn’t that THING where the audience recognizes why character A is utterly perfect for character B — but even when they succeed, when they have that THING, it’s very rarely, “Oh, baby, you’re so SMART.”
Long-time authors talk about author theme — or they used to; these days it’s all “brand brand brand.” Author theme is often described as something you find yourself writing about over and over again, even subconsciously, regardless of what genre you’re writing in. It’s not often something you can recognize after a handful of books — you need to have a substantive body of work. (The authors I hear talking about it most have usually been in the biz for decades.) I know that my two series are feminist books — they deal deeply with modern women’s issues like sexism, sexuality, and the expectations and limitations placed on modern young women. (That they deal with them disguised as comedies and fantasies is my own little trick.) But that’s the nature of those series — even though it’s six books. I don’t think the book I’m working on now is like that, or the one-that-isn’t-Ascendant coming out in October. However, each of those books are still about women who are valued for their intelligence — and I was attracted to the latter project in large part for that reason. I don’t think this is necessarily an author theme, but I do think it’s clear that I have a “type.” I probably wouldn’t get too far if I tried to write about a ditz.
What movies or books have you read recently that present this kind of story? I want more!