If movie stars can be role models, then Katharine Hepburn was mine. I loved that old girl from the first time I laid eyes on her. There was something about her that rang true to me and to a generation of girls like me. She was tough, independent, strong-willed and humorous, yet feminine and, yes, sexy.
I doubt many of today's rising generation would get what I mean by "sexy." Hepburn sexy? That "crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!" as Humphrey Bogart's character, Charlie Allnut, put it in "The African Queen."
By today's standards of overt sexuality, Hepburn was a Presbyterian spinster. Yet she had more sex appeal in her right eyebrow than today's adolescent sex symbols have in all of their thong drawers combined.
Hepburn embodied the sort of sex appeal that simmers beneath the surface. She was the carefully removed glove to the in-your-face lap dance, a secret to be discovered, a knowing come-hither whisper to the hysterical "Girls just wanna have fun." Beneath her buttoned-up, cheek-boned, aristocratic air was a highly seasoned tamale. Just ask Spencer Tracy.
But flaunting wasn't her game. When you've got it, contrary to the adage, you don't have to flaunt it. Instead, Hepburn oozed suggestion. Even in her role as the quintessential prude Rose Sayer in "African Queen," she was far more appealing than most of the femmes fatales from today's stable of quick 'n dirty beauties.
Just as the hint of impending doom in an Alfred Hitchcock movie is more terrifying than a bloody chainsaw whacking off someone's limb, the suggestion of romance is more Eros-inspiring than graphic carnality. Chainsaw massacres and precision porn are more shocking, but they're not more interesting or compelling. They're merely extreme, meant to provoke extreme responses.
Even when she was playing a traditionally masculine role, as when she and Tracy squared off as two married lawyers in "Adam's Rib," Hepburn conveyed a strong yet vulnerable femininity. That's tricky stuff, but she pulled it off in spades. She managed to combine intelligent determination with a ladylike femininity that today seems mostly lost.
What I loved most about Hepburn, though, was her indomitable spirit. She was the girl who wanted to play with the boys, who wouldn't take no for an answer, who never met a challenge she couldn't meet. She was a fiery feminist from the old school - equal to a man, but still capable of falling head over high heels in love with one, too. She didn't need to wrestle the boys to the ground in order to win. She won by guile and style, fully feminine yet - by her own legend - fully feminist.
She was, in other words, both a great broad and a great lady, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Looking back, I think how lucky I was to have grown up at a time when the likes of Katharine Hepburn were women to emulate. We didn't have to study the history of feminism or gender dynamics or endure patronizing sensitivity training or cheer the cultural gelding of our brothers. We just watched Katharine Hepburn and learned the craft of being independent, accomplished, humorous women.
Hepburn was our own swashbuckling Annie Oakley riding English saddle. In today's vernacular, she was "liberated," yet I doubt she saw it that way. Her life wasn't meant to be a public statement. She was above all a private person and probably grateful that she didn't have to be anyone's poster girl.
By contrast, being liberated today apparently means to flaunt everything and screw the boys, both figuratively and literally. Young movie-going girls today don't have access to many in the mold of Katharine Hepburn. Instead, by my mall observations, most are Britney wannabes - hip-hugged, tattooed, pierced and Out There. The female navel has become the refrigerator man's continental divide. I hate to break it to you, oh future daughters-in-law, but everybody's got a belly button. Your inney- or outey-ness is not the stuff either of revelation or revolution.
Can you imagine a young Katharine Hepburn wearing jeans down to her bikini line and a navel ring?
I realize these musings place me squarely in the old fogy demographic, but I'm unapologetically grateful to have grown up in the cinematic shadow of a Hepburn. Some things really were better in the old days and she was one of them. Bless her heart and rest her soul.