Oct 8, 2013

The Catbird Seat: Strong Women, Gay Men

I hated a lot of the stories that teachers foisted on us in school. They were always heterosexist, and usually depressing, dreary, and boring.  One of my least favorites was James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat."

You know James Thurber (1894-1961) -- the mid-20th century writer who made a career of pointing out the humorous foibles of men as they pursued women, or women as they pursued men, heterosexual desire to the max: "The Male Animal," "My World and Welcome to It," "Is Sex Necessary?", etc., etc.

"The Catbird Seat" (1942) is about mild-mannered, gay-vague Mr. Martin, who is not interested in women and therefore reprehensible.

He clashes horns with brash, braying Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, who comes to work in his office and starts dating the boss.  She loves incomprehensible catch phrases derived from baseball, like "Are you sitting in the catbird seat?"

She's really annoying, and about to take over the business, so Mr. Martin decides to kill her.  But his plans don't work out as expected.

So its basically a conflict of wills between two people who are outcasts in 1942 society, a strong woman and a "weak" (read: gay) man.

Strong women and "weak" (read: gay) men were savagely lampooned during the 1940s.  On the Burns and Allen radio program, Mel Blanc played a mild-mannered, nebbish postman who dreamed of killing his overbearing wife.  But "The Catbird Seat" is notable for its utter misogyny and intense heterosexism.

It's a very short story, but still, it's been filmed twice.

1. In a 1948 episode of Actor's Studio, starring Broadway actor Hiram Sherman, who often played gay-vague roles.

2. In the 1959 movie The Battle of the Sexes, with Peter Sellers (34 years old, but wearing old-man makeup), which frames the conflict as a modern American vs. old-school British.

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