In Honor of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, the Ultimate Feminist Mother-Daughter Power Couple: A Feminist Look at Singin’ in the Rain By Austin Fimmano
I’m not exaggerating when I say that there may be few people in the world (at least few my age) who are bigger Singin’ in the Rain fans than I am. I was raised on old-fashioned musical films: The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, West Side Story… but Singin’ in the Rain blew them all away. The costumes, the hilarity of Cosmo Brown, the impeccable dance routines of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, and of course, the presence of the wonderful Kathy Seldon.
Debbie Reynolds was young, beautiful, barely nineteen, and drawing all eyes to her even when dancing next to one (or two) of the greatest dancers of their age. Growing up, my siblings and I could pop Singin’ in the Rain in the VCR – and then later the DVD player – every weekend and not get tired of it, and that’s often exactly what we did.
But just because you love something doesn’t mean you can’t look at it critically – or rather, doesn’t mean you can’t help but look at it critically.
When I left for my freshman year of college, I no longer had those leisurely weekends with my family where we could relax together and watch movies. I don’t think I had seen Singin’ in the Rain all the way through since I graduated high school – that is, until Debbie Reynolds died and my mom called us all into the family room for a tributary family movie night.
I was excited to revisit one of my favorite movies, and that I did. But there was another part of my brain that kept piping up against the nostalgia, and just would not be silenced.
In high school, I didn’t consider myself a feminist. I’m from a tiny town in Connecticut with one high school, little to no diversity, and a conservative community.
Feminism, to me, seemed superfluous. Surely women were equal to men. After all, I wasn’t treated any differently from my male peers; if anything, the more advanced our classes were, the more women there were enrolled.
But then I entered college in New York City and I found myself no longer in a rural bubble, but instead stumbling in and out of thousands of new worlds and power dynamics and frames of minds that I had only read about in books. I was introduced to all kinds of critical thinking that I hadn’t even known existed before. The feminist in me was awoken.
And so as I watched Singin’ in the Rain and my childhood-self cheered for Don and Kathy’s secretive, tap-dancing romance and laughing at Cosmo Brown’s unappreciated antics, my feminist self was taking a second look at Lina Lamont. Slowly I began to realize: she wasn’t a villain. She wasn’t ridiculous. She wasn’t dumb. She was tragic.
It’s easy to dislike Lina Lamont from the start. Don and Cosmo establish from the beginning that she’s just one of those people that you wouldn’t come near with a stick. She’s a fair-weather friend, she’s a diva, and she’ll only like you if she can get something out of it. And that’s before we even hear her talk.
Once Lina opens her mouth, our dislikes are not only confirmed, they’re expanded: Lina is grasping, she’s annoying, she’s dumb, and she’s an elitist. Singin’ in the Rain isn’t necessarily telling us that Lina is a greedy female trope; she’s just one of those people that everyone can agree they don’t like, regardless of gender. We all have some Lina Lamonts in our lives.
But consider Singin’ in the Rain through a different, less optimistic lens. Hollywood in the 1920s was brutal place to be a woman. Women had only just gained the right to vote and were barely seen as human beings.
Even an actress as successful as Lina would come up against obstacles that a man of her talent – like Don, for instance – would never encounter. She would be paid less, she would be criticized more, her career would have an expiration date that correlated exactly with her age and weight, and she would hardly get to make any career decisions without the help of a man.
The Pre-Code era, which offered women more meaty characters and storylines rather than just the typical “virgin or whore” roles of the early 20th century, was about to be introduced and then quickly and emphatically shut down.
When you start thinking about Lina’s world in this way, suddenly her irrational tendencies or craziness don’t seem so annoying. Take Lina’s obsession with her costar, Don Lockwood, for example, Don is understandably annoyed that Lina would believe what a tabloid magazine writes about her own love life – specifically, that Lockwood and Lamont are a power couple looking towards marriage.
He’s even more annoyed that she inserts herself into his life as if they really are romantically attached, and that she won’t be dissuaded. But as we learn from the end of the movie, Lina isn’t exactly “dumb or something.”
She may not have brains in the way that her rival Kathy Seldon does, but she knows how to get what she wants.
We can agree that Lina Lamont wasn’t really convinced by a tabloid that she was dating a man she’d only kissed on set – one who openly loathes her, no less.
Lina is a smart businesswoman. She would be aware of the ticking clock that was her career, and she would know that Don didn’t have one. Therefore, the tabloid romance was better for her career than any of the movies she’d made, put together.
While she was on Don Lockwood’s arm, no one would forget her. While she was his costar who could bring the element of real-life romance to the screen, she would continue to get starring roles.
When Lina finds out about Don and Kathy’s romance, she isn’t upset because she’d really believed that she and Don had been dating up till then. She was upset because she realizes the public won’t take her as seriously without a famous man by her side.
For this same reason, Lina is an elitist. When we see her at the beginning of the movie shunning Don’s plebeian charm, and then shooing Cosmo away with a haughty “Are you anybody?!”, the reason might not be as petty as it seems. Lina’s spent enough time in Hollywood to get where she is – successful, lead actress whose name is in every big picture produced by her studio.
During that time, she must have learned that women rarely get anywhere on their own, no matter the depth of their talent. Instead, they have to piggyback off successful men, which Lina has created a habit of doing.
After all, she didn’t become a “household name,” as the reporter gleefully informs us in the beginning, until her high-profile romance with Don Lockwood. Yet she’d been the female lead in what seems like every movie made by Monumental Pictures long before Don had made a name for himself.
It’s why Lina is always sweet-talking RF Simpson, the head of the studio, and casting off poor Cosmo. Lina is too practical to waste her time on men who won’t advance her career. This is a bit cold-hearted, but Lina isn’t really much different than a 21st-century businesswoman: she puts her career over her love life. When she and Don rise to stardom together as romantic leads, the perfect situation has been created for her: her love life could actually catapult her career.
This even frees Lina to have real feelings for Don.
If you begin to look at Lina as a tragic character trapped by the patriarchy, suddenly the whole movie begins to turn on its head.
Don and Cosmo don’t become any less charming, and neither does the alluring ingénue of Kathy Seldon, whose rise to stardom necessitates Lina’s downfall. But patterns start to emerge – Zelda’s exposure of Kathy and Don to Lina isn’t diabolical, it’s a woman protecting her career and that of her friend’s in a woman-eat-woman world.
The constant mansplaining and manterrupting that Lina experiences on set (and everywhere else), despite being the biggest star at Monumental Pictures, stops being a matter of her intelligence and you start to wonder if it’s simply because she’s a woman.
If you look close enough, the women of Singin’ in the Rain – the few that there are – transform from shadows that flit on the walls behind Gene Kelly to hard-working, talented businesswomen who will only ever be given half of what their male counterparts get – and that’s only as long as they stay young and pretty.