Tea and Sympathy Essay
Doherty Tea TEa TEA Vincente Minelli’s 1956 film, Tea and Sympathy is a social problem film which showed both the limitations and potential of the genre. It fits with other films of the genre in that it attacks a point of prejudice, gender role fulfillment, which is related to postwar perspectives. It also contains themes of Freudian psychology through the Oedipal relationship between Mrs. Reynolds/Laura and Tom. However, it also differs from social problem films made directly after the war as the waning of the perfect system of classical Hollywood and the weakening production code are evident in the more risque themes explored. The movie centers around a taboo romance between an older married woman and a young teenage boy who turns eighteen in the last scene of the film. Even more taboo are the themes of homosexuality which are explored but ultimately shied away from which underscores the limitations of fifties culture. This movie is also emblematic of the 1950s in that the theme of the more masculine boys bullying the weaker one is a product of 1950s conformist culture and a reaction to McCarthyism. Thus, the film’s thematic meanings fit with 1950s culture on three levels.
Firstly, we see the explicit meaning of “people are all the same and should be treated equally” which defines its genre in the post-war social problem film. Next, there is the film’s implicit meaning which more closely identifies with the 1950s, telling us that not conforming to culture is detrimental to one’s happiness especially when facing the threat of McCarthyism. Finally, there is the symptomatic meaning which uses Freudian psychology so popular in the 1950s to showcase the Oedipal relationship between Tom and Laura. These three levels of interpretation are represented through dialogue, framing, and color. Together they attempt to redefine what a “man” is in a period that has learned from the second world war but is far enough removed from it that a new culture is developing. The explicit meaning is primarily supported through dialogue.
Laura delivers a typical “prejudice is wrong” speech during a fight with her husband near the end of the film and several smaller speeches throughout all with the basic meaning that Tom is no different from the other boys because masculinity has many definitions. In a more subtle turn, the gender divides are represented thematically in the scene in which Tom is sewing with the faculty wives on the beach. Here, we see the men on one side of the rock and the women on the other. The dividing line of the rocks, like gender divisions, is simultaneously arbitrary and insurmountable. Also like gender Tom is rejected from both sides demonstrating how complex and rounded individuals are rejected by simplistic divides. The rigidity of gender divisions is also thematically demonstrated through color.
Throughout the film the female characters appear primarily in pink colors while the men appear almost exclusively in blue. Additionally, when Laura and Bill fight in their bedroom we see Laura kneeling against the pink wall while Bill sits against the blue wall and the two of them are visually separated by the door frame. This is especially significant because post-war period was the first time that blue and pink were rigidly defined as boy and girl colors reflecting increasingly rigid divisions (Maglaty). Although gender is the most obvious emphasis of the film’s fight against prejudice the more subtle prejudice being addressed by this film is that against homosexuality. Neither the word “homosexual” or any of its synonyms are ever mentioned in the film but subtle points of the dialogue and plot make it clear that the other boys suspect Tom of being gay. When Tom stops the other boys from using his window to peep on naked women they disdain him for not being interested in “that sort of thing.”Additionally, when Al, Tom’s roommate confronts Tom about his inability to conform he points out that Tom has never slept with a woman and Tom defensively replies “Which proves what?” effectively saying what it is supposed to prove without saying it.
In this same confrontation, Al makes a special point about Tom’s walk, a characteristic frequently associated with homosexuality. Of course, as Tom’s love for Laura shows he is not actually homosexual. Nevertheless, there is a subtle implication that Mr. Reynolds may actually be gay. He frequently chooses to spend time with young athletic boys over his wife and implies to Laura that he was once like Tom but abandoned his past life. Additionally, in the aforementioned argument in their bedroom, Laura expresses to an emotionally detached Bill that she is not satisfied by their virtually nonexistent sex life. The end of this arguement is filmed so that we see Bill looking at Laura and the reflection of Laura in the mirror. The resulting mise en scene is that Laura and Bill are facing opposite directions and Laura is framed by the mirror frame. This emphasizes Laura’s isolation and trappedness in her passionless marriage. Although the fact that the concept of homosexuality is being addressed in any respect is emblematic of the end of the Hays era its incredibly coded nature speaks volumes to the level of taboo it held in 1950s society.
Even further below the surface is the film’s message about conformity. The second world war emphasized individual expertise and teamwork. 1950s culture kept the ideas of unity and reacted against individuality in favor of conformity. Although the film explicitly states that Tom is ultimately successful without being traditionally masculine the viewer still spends ninety percent of the film being taught about the negative repercussions of going against the grain. Although the scenes with Tom’s father appear to imply that his father is antiquated in his notions of masculinity it cannot help but to provoke sadness. In a particularly poignant scene when Tom’s father tells him he must quit the play we see Tom looking desperately at his father who sternly looks away while his father’s portrait on his bureau smiles up at Tom emphasizing how Tom could receive his real father’s approval if he only followed his advice. Beyond his father’s approval, during the pajama tearing scene we see the boys attacking Tom against the backdrop of a raging bonfire. The red of the fire frequently represents passion and animalistic nature throughout the film and although here it underscores the brutality of the other boys the emotional impact is fear of the collective force of one’s peers. Scenes like this would make any young boys in the audience extremely unlikely to want to act anything like Tom.
Luckily for them the scenes with Tom’s father and the scene in which Al tries to teach Tom to be more masculine provide a clear blue print for exactly how to conform. This desire to conform is more emphasized in this film than in other social problem films partially due to the political climate of the time. In an era rife with McCarthyist hysteria the need to keep a low profile was especially present. This film is an especially good vehicle for discussing McCarthyism because gender conformity can be changed in a way that race and ethnicity can’t and the focus on bullying and mob mentality is especially reflective of the struggles Hollywood was experiencing under the HUAC investigations. If one delves into the even deeper meaning of this film they arrive at the Freudian undertones of this film. This is unsurprising as Freudian thought was increasingly popular in the post-war era due to the psychological problems presented by returning soldiers. Laura and Tom’s relationship is steeped in Oedipal connotations. In the very first scene of them together Tom mentions that his mother was out of the picture for him as a child. Laura is a clear surrogate mother to Tom through her role as a house mother, the way in which she is obsessed with caring for Tom who she refers to as “a boy”, and her own lack of a son.
In consistency with Oedipal theory, Tom defies his father by refusing to conform and has sex with his mother figure (Wright). As for Laura she too fulfills the Freudian theory of penis envy. Freud believed that the solution for women’s penis envy was to give birth to a son and finally possess a penis (Wright). However, lacking a son Laura instead possesses Tom. The film’s unwavering belief in Freudian thought shows that the sex between Laura and Tom resolves both her chronic dissatisfaction and Tom’s lacking masculinity. Throughout the film, Laura’s role as Tom’s mother is diminished but Minnelli’s use of color puts the sexual relationship in the mind of the viewer from the beginning of the film. In this respect the use of the color blue which represents masculinity is very significant. At the beginning of the film Laura tells Tom (who is dressed in blue) that she needs more blue in her garden suggesting that she actually needs more male attention in her metaphorical “garden”. Tom ends up giving her the blue for her garden by gifting her blue forget-me-nots which he places in her aptly colored blue convertible.
Additionally, when Tom first asks her what she will wear to the dance she says she will wear yellow. Accordingly, Tom sends her yellow flowers but these end up not matching her dress as after numerous scenes in pink and yellow she shows up in a brilliantly metrocolored green-blue dress. It is in this dress that she and Tom share their first kiss. This represents not only their relationship but Laura’s development towards dressing more and more like Tom. Laura’s appearance in blue has the added effect of breaking the strict pink/blue gender dichotomy of the film right as narratively Tom proves his heterosexuality in spite of his effeminite qualities by kissing Laura. These varying levels of interpretation create a complex picture of what a man should be. The film makes it clear why an update from pure machismo is needed. When Laura describes how her first husband died in the war she says that, “In trying to prove he was a man he died a boy.” This underscores how the second world war redefined masculinity from blind bravery to more calculated usefulness. Additionally, the widespread psychological effects of combat which once were portrayed as weakness had to be reframed out of respect for veterans. This is the most explicit function which Tea and Sympathy serves. It spreads the message that it’s not only ok to show weakness as a man but emotional vulnerability is a defining quality of a man. It also gives credence to Freudian theory which was an oft-cited solution to the psychological issues suffered by veterans.
However, the message about overcoming gender and sexuality based prejudice is not as straightforward as earlier films of the social problem genre. Whereas the 1940s featured a fertile ground for addressing previously ignored issues as perspectives were malleable after the against the dangers of going against the grain especially in the accusatory political climate of the 1950s. Additionally, the film sends mixed messages about sexuality as it is deeply coded and hidden. Furthermore, the resolution to the accusations about Tom’s homosexuality is not acceptance like it is for his less masculine qualities but rather proof of his heterosexuality. In fact the only character who might plausibly be viewed as truly homosexual, Mr. Reynolds, receives an unsavory ending while Tom rides the power of his heterosexuality to greatness. This shows how even though the end of the Hays code provided more freedom for Hollywood, the rgidity and conservative nature of 1950s culture rode the brakes on what was acceptable to put in a film.
Although Tea and Sympathy may not satisfy its potential to advocate for radical social change the ideas that are presented were still fresh in a conservative 1950s culture and while discussing this film years from its creation we must respect its intentions and, “be kind.”