The Long Hot Summer (1958): Belligerent Sexual Tension ≠ Predatory Romance

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) is directed by Martin Ritt and stars Paul Newman as a handsome drifter with a mean reputation who shakes up a rich Mississippi family by setting his sights on the skeptical, married daughter, played with gusto by Joanne Woodward. The plot and themes are drawn from short stories by William Faulkner.

This essay contains spoilers.

Pop Culture Detective has a great video up called “Predatory Romance in Harrison Ford Movies” in which he dissects the actor’s most iconic characters and their problem believing no means no. It’s a worthwhile video to watch all the way through, but it boils down to the fact that these hyper-masculine characters persist—going so far as to use their physicality—despite clear rejections from their female love interests. And in films like Indiana Jones and Blade Runner and even Star Wars we the audience are primed to be okay with this. These women must secretly want it because, after all, he’s the hero. Pretty gross.

But that got me thinking. We want to like these scenes because, let’s not lie, belligerent sexual tension is hot. Who doesn’t want to see two characters challenge each other? What packs more oomph than characters battling with themselves over whether or not to give in to love? I eat up that up like dessert. But, yikes, the longer I’m alive the more I cannot stand how easily belligerent sexual tension slides into predatory romance. What’s a trope-lover to do?

Luckily, I rewatched The Long Hot Summer (1958) recently and realized, holy vintage, this movie from almost sixty years ago actually subverted predatory romance! This is despite the fact that this film has the male lead joking to a group of good ol’ boys, “A lot of women say no when they mean yes.” On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

On the surface, this movie is about a cold-hearted woman melting for a hot-blooded man. It should be the definition of predatory romance. But it isn’t. Why?

Because this film is a character piece. It’s not after cheap thrills. Based on William Faulkner’s works, the purpose of the film is to poke and prod various social conventions. Clara Varner is repressed, sure, but she also talks frankly about her sexual desires with the man she is pursuing (and has been for six years, which is how we the audience know she knows deep down he’s wrong for her). Ben Quick makes no secret of the fact that he’s pursuing Clara because she’s the holdout, but it’s also clear that it’s not just the challenge he’s after—he understands and sees her in a way that others in her life don’t bother to.

At the halfway point, we get a scene that has all the hallmarks of predatory romance. The male lead kisses the female lead right after she slaps him. Classic Harrison Ford, right? Except not! Check out the scene here:

Without sacrificing the delicious belligerent sexual tension, this scene does a number of things to subvert the predatory romance trope:

The space is large and the door is open. Clara is free to leave.

Ben announces his intentions. He tells her he’s going to kiss her, and he does so from a distance.

“You please me and I’ll please you.” This is an arrogant line, but it’s also an effective seduction because it’s what we know Clara wants. Pleasure.

When Clara smacks him, Ben stops in his tracks. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t move until it’s clear that Clara isn’t moving, either.

Clara never tells him no. She never tries to get away from him and he never tries to stop her.

Ben continues to seduce her with what he knows is troubling her—everyone around her is able to seek out their pleasure, but society and her own justifiably high standards bar her from it. You can see in the small movements she’s making that Ben’s words are affecting her. She’s turned on and fighting it but not fighting him.

At first, Clara stands completely still when Ben kisses her. Then after a moment, we get that romance lover’s dream—she bursts forth with passion. She leans into him. She holds him around the waist. The camera pans out, revealing that Ben has kept his hands off of her. He hasn’t restrained her in any way. But when she takes hold of him, he takes hold of her right back.

By the same token, when she breaks off the kiss, he breaks off his contact. He steps back. He watches her gain her composure. When it’s clear she’s not up for another kiss, he steps back even further.

“All right,” she says, “you proved it. I’m human.” She’s affected by the kiss, but Clara is nothing if not prideful and we love her for it. After Ben’s, “Yes, ma’am, you’re human all right,” she lashes out to take his supposed victory away from him with the two words she knows will cut him down.

Ben is furious at her name-calling and the fact that his “Sunday manners” will never be enough woman of Clara’s class. He’s burning with righteous energy, but the angrier he gets the further he backs away from her. When Clara runs from him, he lets her go. She’s well away from him before he gives his anger physical force by slamming the door to the shop behind him and breaking glass. He stops at the porch, so we know he wasn’t going to run after her.

I love this scene. I love that I can love this scene without feeling gross! It’s fraught and messy and complicated and belligerent and tense all without falling into the abusive subtext that lurks in predatory romance.

So, all that to say, feminist romance fans, we can have our cake and eat it, too—we just need to demand better from our media.


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Virginia Vantries

Virginia hearts vintage—historical fiction, feminist fatales, classic film, and critical history. #AmWriting pulp stories and pop essays.

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