This essay contains spoilers.
What can a film made in 1960 tell us about the sexual mores of the present? I found myself pondering this question as I rewatched Billy Wilder’s award-winning drama The Apartment recently. The year of its release is important: as The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver notes in a recent appreciation, the story unfolds during a peculiar cultural moment “on the cusp of the permissive era”; prevailing norms were being questioned rather than taken for granted, and the uncertainty casts the characters adrift in a confusion that almost kills them. But this uncertainty, and the consequent effort with which the characters must navigate shifting standards, offers a complex portrait of human sexual relations and courtship. This is a topic of particular pertinence to our own cultural moment and it makes The Apartment a fascinating artefact worth revisiting.
The Apartment‘s intellectual value and emotional urgency are generated, in large part, by the contrast between the film’s two main characters and their surroundings. The traits that make Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik lovable are those that leave her alienated from the hordes employed at Consolidated Life where she works as an elevator attendant. Fran is gentle, self-aware, and expects meaning from her relationships with others, and this makes her vulnerable to exploitation by cynics, including the suave, reptilian (married) company executive Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), with whom she is having an on-again-off-again affair. Company employee C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows Sheldrake and Fran to use his apartment in the hope that doing so will assist his career. But Baxter’s plan is complicated by his growing infatuation with Fran, and her mistreatment and unhappiness at the hands of Sheldrake. As she lies near death in Baxter’s apartment following a suicide attempt, we are asked to identify with Baxter’s fascination, desire, and sense of moral outrage. Is it not absurd, we are invited to wonder, that someone as sensitive as Fran should be suicidal while the assortment of lecherous men and frivolous women who populate her world remain blissfully unaware of their limitations? Those characters would never say, as Fran says to Baxter after she stands him up: “It was unforgivable … just because I wear a uniform, doesn’t mean I’m a girl scout.” They lack, above all, her conscience.
Our sympathy for Baxter develops more slowly; when the film opens, he is an obsequious caricature of servility. His awkward posture at the beginning of the film as he stands smoking in the rain – hunched shoulders, taut muscles, rocking from side to side – is that of a man squeezing himself into the least imposing form possible. When Baxter interacts with Fran, we wince at his grinning meekness and docility (as she does surreptitiously, perhaps). But as the story proceeds, he discovers that decency is not the same as sycophancy; being a ‘Mensch’ (as the genial Dr. Dreyfuss frames his role) and accommodating authority, it turns out, are not at all the same thing. Baxter’s gentle goofiness becomes more endearing as its dominance over his personality wanes and, by the third act, as we watch him strain spaghetti through a tennis racket while improvising vaguely operatic strains of music, we love him for it. Baxter’s good character, hitherto latent, has become manifest by the closing scenes. Ultimately, like Fran, he is more ethical and more fundamentally decent than most of the people around him. The two of them are isolated in a culture of amoral secretary-fucking and callous infidelity to which they don’t really belong.
It is in this context that we are treated to the famous Christmas party scene, which resonates rather differently in 2018 than it must have done in 1960 (or in 1980, or even in 2010, for that matter). The workaday hum of Consolidated Life yields to the tune of “Jingle Bells” and a hedonistic spirit of dancing, kissing, gaiety. Alcohol is everywhere. A progressive institution like Vox would never allow such a scene in their offices today. And perhaps they are right to be wary; it’s possible to see the joy of the Christmas Party at Consolidated Life as a meager veneer on a culture of exploitation and the damage wrought by the arrogant chauvinism of men like Sheldrake. In the bitterness of his ex-lover, Miss Olsen, and in Fran’s emotional devastation, are we offered a glimpse of a place and time in which it might have really sucked to be a woman? Or should the scene be understood as a depiction of authentic joy, adopting an attitude towards sexual liberation favored by Laura Kipnis or Cristina Nehring, in which heartache at the hands of bad actors is something to be overcome privately (within certain well-defined limits, of course) rather than treated as evidence of the need for structural reform? On a certain reading, attempts to fully eradicate moments like these in the workplace are suggestive of a dreadful grimness; a cure that may be worse than the disease it is designed to treat.
The ethical nuances of one moment during the Christmas party are particularly interesting. Baxter, somewhat tipsy, finds Fran in her elevator and announces (with the authority of his new managerial role) that her elevator is out of service. He puts her arm in his, and leads her away. He affects assurance and she follows him, a little perplexed. To many of my parents’ or grandparents’ generations, this gesture would not have been troubling. On the contrary, Wilder surely expected his audience in 196o to be happy that Baxter had found the self-confidence to be assertive with Fran. But I suspect that someone of my generation would read the scene differently.
At a consent workshop I recently attended held by a sex-positivity group, it was stipulated that behavior of this sort is unacceptable in the absence of some sort of long-standing agreement or understanding (for instance, between partners in a relationship). To slip an uninvited arm through someone else’s and then lead them somewhere (even just to sip a drink and chat) is the sort of mildly authoritarian gesture about which I wrote in my Stendhal essay; it is gently coercive, peremptory, and suggests that one knows best for another. Given our communal aversion to gestures of authority when it comes to sexual matters, this might raise an eyebrow now. The involvement of alcohol, the power differential between the newly-promoted Baxter and Fran (which he plays up, thinking it might make her more interested in him), the pre-existing romantic frustration between the two, and his affable persona may all exacerbate a contemporary progressive viewer’s feeling of unease.
How harshly are we to judge Baxter for this? I am far more forgiving of him than I would were one of his bosses were to do the same thing. If, say, Sheldrake were to take the arm of a woman who had conflicted feelings for him and lead her toward a secluded room (even if it were only for a benign chat), this would surely strike us as more morally dubious. Sheldrake’s character and motives are ignoble: screwing women and ditching them is his MO. To lead someone confidently is to project control. But in Sheldrake’s case, the intent would be malign and any trust someone might have in him at such a moment would almost certainly be misplaced.
Baxter is different. We understand – probably better than he does, at this point in the film – that he will never be a Don Juan. We understand that he is not interested in wielding power in a way that consumes others and that his feelings for Fran and concern for her welfare are sincere. We understand that a projection of a little sexual authority is a step, perhaps a necessary step, along the path of courtship from insubstantial, trivial loneliness to a life of Menschhood. We understand, in other words, that he does not project authority out of a willingness to exploit, but rather as a result of his developing sense of what goodness requires.
Reflecting on this scene, I was reminded of an essay by David Foster Wallace entitled “Authority and American Usage.” In the context of reviewing a usage dictionary by Bryan A. Garner, Wallace delves into questions of linguistic authority – who gets to decide which uses of language are considered “correct,” and how do these authorities justify their decisions? These questions, Foster Wallace argues, are microcosmic of broader cultural issues. (For instance, Foster Wallace claims that the attitudes of grammar pedants like himself about questions of authority “resemble religious/political conservatives’ attitudes about contemporary culture.”) As such, some of Foster Wallace’s insights are relevant to the ethical issues raised by the Christmas party scene in The Apartment, and the larger issues of authority and sexual norms under consideration here.
Central to Foster Wallace’s essay is the idea that norms for language use – and with it, notions of authority – cannot be escaped. In the course of defending this position, he explains the difference between ‘prescriptivists’ and ‘descriptivists.’ Prescriptivists, who are stereotypically bow-tied conservatives, insist on notions of linguistic right and wrong; descriptivists claim to be doing something less value-laden, more scientific, and also more egalitarian. Questions of who gets to say what have traditionally been decided by white men, or so the descriptivist thinking goes; to avoid perpetuating this tendency, it is probably better to avoid value judgments about language usage entirely. Foster Wallace argues that, while prescriptivism can be myopic, cloistered, and even racist, it is ultimately preferable to the descriptivist position, which is intellectually untenable. We all are making judgments, all the time, about correct and incorrect usage, and we all look to the norms provided by institutions and individuals who wield power in the field; issues of authority and normativity are therefore omnipresent. Moreover, attempts to deny the relevance of authority are dangerous in the long term: in what Wallace dubs a “Lenin-to-Stalinesque irony,” anti-authoritarian descriptivism can yield to a “more rigid and inflexible prescriptivism” in the form of what he calls Politically Correct English.
What interests me here is applying Foster Wallace’s insights to our understanding of sexual ethics. We might contend that the idea of a world free of sexual norms, and thus free of some authority which one is compelled to either affirm or deny, is impossible. It’s intrinsic to human societies that someone is generally nudging you to act a certain way, and consent, sexual and otherwise, always takes place in such a restricted context. We may have some say over what we do with our bodies, but these choices are never completely free. Even in a time and place that prides itself on being a “consent culture,” authoritarianism is still present, and that authority shapes both norms and the language we employ when we think about sex, rather than our individual actions. Those who wish to disentangle sex from questions of ethics and power can themselves be quite authoritarian as they institute and insist upon an inflexible set of new norms. This does not mean they are wrong, of course; the sexual culture they endeavor to build may in fact be the best available, and ought to be judged on its merits. But a moral framework that denies that our choices are always being shaped by some authority ought to be seen as employing a dangerous rhetorical trick.
When we watch Baxter take Fran’s arm at the Christmas party today, the question of consent has become more complicated than it was perceived to be in 1960. The question now is not whether or not Fran has enthusiastically consented to being led by the arm. Instead, we ought to ask whether she’s acquiescing to the right authority, a good authority – because none of us, men nor women, can escape the obligation to acquiesce to some authority, at least some of the time. Is having one’s body and one’s life guided by Baxter better than having it guided by Sheldrake, or Fran’s brother’s family, or by an (anachronistic) advocate of ‘affirmative consent’? If the answer isn’t immediately clear, it is because we are working with an impoverished sense of what better might mean in this context.
One further insight from “Authority and American Usage” may help with this problem: Foster Wallace is concerned with the issue of how authority justifies itself, and his great affection for Garner’s usage dictionary derives from its willingness to openly and honestly discuss and defend its assertions about language, rather than merely gesturing toward their rightness in a dogmatic and ultimately circular manner. Garner’s authority, according to Foster Wallace, is earned, not asserted; he projects a degree of geniality and competency, and he implicitly asks readers for their trust. This is how authority should operate, according to Foster Wallace – by justifying itself at every turn.
When Baxter takes Fran by the arm, he is implicitly asking her to trust him, and she acquiesces. She decides that Baxter has earned the trust he seeks through the rapport they have developed. She seems surprised but game, and follows him off to chat and drink from paper cups in his office. We do not condemn him for his presumption because he has earned that authority in our eyes, too. We know that the trust Fran puts in him will ultimately be justified and we understand that, while Baxter may be superficially affable, he is in the process of becoming a Mensch.
What’s interesting is how relative and context-dependent this aspect of courtship ethics seems: if it were Sheldrake nudging Fran toward the office, it seems likely that her consent would be more explicit – but we would be much less likely to treat the action as ethically acceptable. Were Sheldrake to ask for Fran’s trust in this way it would be sinister and false – we know his character is no good, even if Fran can’t see it yet. Questions of sexual ethics and consent, then, are not just about trust but also about whether or not that trust has been rightly earned; the same action, taken by multiple individuals, may be seen as carrying different ethical valences. Such questions are also dependent on what happens after the moment under consideration: the knowledge that Baxter would treat Fran decently after this scene, while Sheldrake almost certainly would not, further impacts our judgment.
Knowing Baxter’s character as we do, we ultimately forgive him for the sin of presumption he may be committing. And as the film’s conflicting imperatives continue to weigh upon him – the need to keep his bosses from encroaching upon his living quarters; the need to gain power within Consolidated Life; the need to become a Mensch – we understand that the only really just outcome must be union with Fran, which is why we root for it. In the final scene, after he’s asserted his independence from his amoral, predatory bosses, Fran’s eyes start to shine, and she rushes to meet him. Shuffling cards clumsily on his sofa, she is nevertheless self-possessed, demure; Baxter, meanwhile, still has a hint of the overbearing puppy-dog, charmed by the presence of a woman with whom he has fallen in love. Baxter’s irritating traits are mixed with something else now. And as he smiles, projecting a little authority and a lot of decency, she is interested in seeing what the next moment might hold. And so are we.
Matthew Stahlman is a post-baccalaureate student and writer living in Portland, Oregon.