The Rise and Fall of the College Widow

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

While watching A Yank at Oxford, I spotted a real, live endangered species of the film world: the college widow. TV Tropes refers to the college widow as a “forgotten trope,” in that it was once a commonly accepted cinematic shorthand but has fallen out of favor. Originally “college widow” referred to a single woman–not necessarily a widow–who hung out with the college men year after year, sometimes hoping to find an educated husband after she had graduated without snagging an engagement ring, sometimes just looking for a good time. On film, directors sometimes made her into an actual widow in order to make her promiscuity slightly more palatable to the audience. Thus the Hollywood college widow is usually a woman whose husband (often a member of the university faculty) died young, leaving her all alone in the full flower of her beauty and sexual experience–which, of course, attracts the attention of the young college men that surround her. This being the first half of the twentieth century, though, the college widow is usually painted as predatory rather than preyed upon, with the men who get involved with her treated as innocent victims.

The reason this trope was invented seems obvious, the reasons it disappeared even more so. Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s-1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.

One Yalie described the college widow thusly:

“For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old — but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.”

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