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Mr. Smith and the original girlboss

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) features Jimmy Stewart in his typical role as a muddled everyman—Stewart almost always plays the same character, a character you can identify as yourself; that is to say, he’s handsome but not too handsome and reasonably intelligent but not stellar and good-natured too—nobody loves him but nobody hates him and yet somehow he gets muddled up in a remarkable series of events (international kidnappings, extraordinary appointment to the US Senate) and yet, shucks, if it doesn’t all work out swell for lil’ ol’ Jimmy Stewart in the end. You can come along with him because he’s just like you, or just like you would imagine yourself to be “averagely above average”.

MSGW is a film by Frank Capra (Crapa?) and it is about as wholesome as wholesome can be; it’s among my favourite films. The plot is that the eponymous Mr. Smith is picked up by a cynical political machine to fill a vacated Senate seat until the next election (the office holder died unexpectedly). Smith is beyond naïve and idealistic; he weeps at the Lincoln Memorial and is over-awed by the fact he sits at Daniel Webster’s desk in the Senate. He still lives with his mom and his main occupation is to run a club for little boys (remember, in 1939 people were not as they are today—single men who lived with their mom and ran “the Boy Rangers” were not either homosexuals or perverts or both; they were naïve patriots—and there is no hint that Smith is anything other than a normal red-blooded American).

The machine in Smith’s state intends to use the patriotic dupe to keep the seat warm for their man come next election—Smith is an ideal cut-out for them, since the local citizenry were wise to the machine’s otherwise bent candidates and so acquiesced to innocent Jefferson Smith. The Machiavel who “runs” Smith in Congress is Senator Paine—“Jefferson”, “Paine”, do ya getit? Subtle Capra was not.

Actually, although Capra has a reputation for sentimentality—notoriously with It’s a Wonderful Life (and haven’t we all considered throwing ourselves off a bridge? I know I have)—MSGW is actually quite hard-bitten and cynical itself about how Washington runs, complete with rigged political machines and rebarbative journos who set Smith up right off the mark. What’s unrealistic and sentimental about Capra is that there is such a man as “Jefferson Smith” who, after he inadvertently uncovers graft with his plan for a “national boys’ camp” (no comment), is set up as corrupt and has to heroically clear his name and bring down the machine that controls his state with an epic filibuster from the Senate floor (with a little help from the grizzled but sympathetic Speaker—atta boy, he’s saying all the things I always wanted to but couldn’t).

So where does the girlboss come into it? Firstly, what is a girlboss? A girlboss is a kind of woman who works in a large glass skyscraper in Chicago (it doesn’t really matter where, you could just say “a large city in the West”) in an office that has something to do with an app—she has a title like Systems Operational Manager II. She went to an elite university, she has a perfect exam transcript, and she makes cute little TikToks that describe what is in fact an ideal day for 85% of the world’s population in a self-deprecatory “ya, like so this is a thing that happened to me” manner (morning at the gym, update the sysreg, meeting with strudels and coffee, sushi with gay bf at lunch, kale smoothie, update sysreg, pop into the boutique bakery). The girlboss also thinks she is “system critical” when she is not and is girl-bossy—overbearing, arrogant, entitled.

Well, the fact is that this is not a new thing, contrary to what Internet “misogynists” might say. Indeed, in MSGW our poor old Mr. Smith would be lost without the original girlboss—his office manager, a girl called “Saunders” (very masculine first-surname). Saunders hangs out with a drunk HL Mencken-type journalist called “Dizzy” (presumably because he’s pissed all the time) and she’s as hard-bitten and cynical as they come—especially about Stewart, the original “Daniel Boon”. She’s basically a man, she dresses in tweed like a man and she thinks like a man and talks like a man—you get the impression from the clip above.

It’s Saunders who rescues Smith; she helps him write “baby’s first bill” and she guides him—through arm signals from the Senate gallery—to the correct pages in the manual of standing orders so that Smith can wrangle what he needs from the Speaker. In other words: no girl, no Mr. Smith—she’s the brains of this here operation, see. What Smith provides is not intelligence or guile—although, arguably, he is courageous—but rather naïve idealism that wins the hardbitten Saunders over to his side, over to true blue American idealism and values gosh-darnit.

Obviously, they fall in love and win the day. What this demonstrates is that feminism—girlbossery—has been the norm for a long time in the West. Girls have been on top since 1939 at least; if not in actuality, then the path was already set. The girl is the brains of the operation; she’s the tough operator—men are naïve dupes, so it was in 1939. So people who think this is new have just woken up: the West is decadent and the decadence runs very deep indeed. Saunders might not be university-educated but it is noted that she’s “a doctor’s daughter” who has to work because her father (like Smith) is some sappy idealist who works for charity among the poor of Baltimore (so you can tell classy women didn’t work at the time, that’s why the character needs a “respectable” backstory—but it was being set up that way).

The other female character in the film is the daughter of Senator Paine—and she’s a purely feminine woman who is beautiful, captivates Smith, but does no work. Naturally, she’s a tool of the political machine out to destroy Smith. So there you have it: women who stay home and are feminine are corrupt and evil—women who work in the hardbitten world of Washington are saints. Um, maybe it’s the reverse…

The model goes back so far as A Room with a View (1908), in which the upper-class heroine threatens her mother that she’ll “get a flat with a few girls in London and learn to typewrite”—quel horreur. That was when it became a mass proposition, not just something religious nutters like Mary Wollstonecraft talked about—the Edwardian upper-class girlboss got a bicycle, “rational dress”, and learned how to typewrite and do shorthand; by 1939, the middle classes, via Hollywood, were in on the action too and we were already in the “Lois Lane, girl reporter” era. To say “girl” anything today is considered beyond condescension, but at the time this was “progressive”; it was necessary to have “girl reporter” to have pure “woman who happens to be a reporter”. Even Mr. Smith notes, “You’ve done pretty well, for a woman,” to Saunders.

The bottom line is that it has been like this since “forever”, the fact that we have transgenderism today—where you can say you’re a “he” if you feel like it, or “she” if otherwise—is just the culmination from decade upon decade of feminisation where “the girls wear the pants” (often as a joke at first but then it turns out to be serious, or nobody can tell if it’s a joke anymore—in the end, nobody mentions it).

When the psychiatrist RD Laing visited a Buddhist monastery in the 1970s, the monks encouraged him to ditch his wife and kids and stay to seek enlightenment. Laing was horrified, but the monks said, “Is your wife Asian?” “No,” replied Laing, “she’s European.” “Then she’s half man anyway,” said the monks. What they meant was that European women work, look after themselves, and are not like an Asian wife who might legitimately die in the gutter if her husband absconded. As with Jesus, who said you must abandon your family to follow him, the monks didn’t see earthly attachments like a wife and kids as important (not serious). Besides, European women are half men—and they were in 1939, and they practically were in 1908.

It’s why we have transgenderism now: we’re deep, deep into decadence—in many ways, we’re so deep in that we have no idea how far we have departed from fundamental norms. No, we’re up to our necks in Capra.


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