Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ich möche kein Mann sein, 1918) does not so much exemplify the gender-bender comedy as it does transcend the genre altogether. At its best, because gender is socially conditioned, the gender-bender is always about inhibitive social politics in general. Exposing the arbitrary ways in which women and men are defined and shoehorned, this ostensibly light-hearted form has an almost inherently riotous bent to it.
Lubitsch’s film, ahead of its time, extends its gender-oriented critiques to age as well as to class. Moreover, it takes shape as a revenge comedy, as heroine Ossi (played by early Lubitsch regular Ossi Oswalda) takes much relish in revealing the hypocrisies that stem from the contradiction between other people’s inner selves and social selves. Outing someone as a hypocrite has never been or seemed so much fun.
In I Don’t Want to Be a Man, Oswalda plays a boisterous tomboy whose unbecoming manners upset both her uncle (Ferry Sikla) and governess (Margareta Kupfer). Ossi’s enthusiasm for manly leisure is evident from the get-go, in the way she slams her playing cards down while “playin’ a bit o’ poker”, and in the way she sticks her tongue out to the back of her governess’s head before taking a puff of a cigar and blowing it in the latter’s face.
Oswalda is stupendous, taking what might in a similar film today be obnoxious behavior and encouraging us to revel in it with her. Perhaps, in a 1910s Germany in dire need of a shake-up, such behavior wasn’t obnoxious enough. Anticipating stabs at wider social prohibitions, Lubitsch concludes the scene by having the governess test her own apparently iron morals by taking a smoke, and another, and another… She laughs at her own private rebellion.
Ossi takes to drink. It’s a performative gesture more than anything. Asked what on earth she’s doing, she rasps: “I’m drinking my troubles away!” We’ve all been there, as adolescents testing boundaries by actively taking up self-destructive resistance, but Ossi is in fact mirroring social norms. In a man’s world, troubles are seemingly a given. Just as accepted, is their go-to answer: alcohol.
Indeed, in swigging back a bottle of liquor with such mimetically masculine vigor, Ossi articulates multiple tensions. Firstly, she demands that the troubles ordinarily reserved for men are not beyond a woman’s daily experience. Secondly, in expressing a demand to drink such troubles away (because it’s the manly thing to do!), Ossi inadvertently acknowledges the social pressures on society’s self-elected decision-makers. As Ossi is soon to learn, it is precisely because of such pressures—to conform to ideas of manliness—that she wouldn’t like to be a man.
That’s the catch. You wouldn’t want to be a man, but you don’t like being a woman. When rhetorically asked by her governess, “And you want to be a refined young girl?” Ossi retorts, “No, I don’t want that at all!” Lubitsch here again shows signs of a wholesale rejection of that most basic of social norms: gender conditioning. Not only does the film visualize the ‘invisible’ examples of such conditioning, but also exposes the violent underpinnings of patriarchal order, most notably when Dr. Kersten (Kurt Götz), the psychiatrist hired by Ossi’s governess to correct the girl’s wayward boyishness, remarks, “I’ll break you down yet!”*
Said with such condescending joviality, this line gets to the heart of the matter: if so bold as to aspire to anything resembling independence—to say nothing of equality—women are to be broken down (“Stand up when you talk to me… and curtsey”). Ossi retreats to her bed and cries. “Why didn’t I come into this world born a boy!” Oswalda, hitherto so joyously unruly, reveals a vulnerability and unhappiness with touching economy.
But let’s not forget that Ossi’s struggle against gender conditioning is also a struggle against all received wisdom: if social expectations are reinforced through a class war, the top-down ideas of respectable society are upheld through an honor-your-elders ageism. With regard to class, note the sheer exhaustion Ossi feels when struggling into the suit she’s had tailor-made for a night out at the ball. As for age prejudice, look no further than that moment in a tram carriage, when an older gentleman, mistaking Ossi for a man, is put out when the latter unthinkingly retains her own seat without giving it up for him: “Such a cheeky boy, won’t even stand up!”
At the ball, of course, Ossi bumps into Dr. Kersten—who doesn’t recognize her. Though his profession is seemingly based upon the preservation of the status quo, Kersten’s inebriated self is another thing entirely. Getting steadily drunk with whom he assumes is a younger gentleman, Kersten makes romantic advances upon the latter (“To brotherhood!”). Happy to play along, Ossi returns Kersten’s kiss, out of a joint desire to pursue her own physical satisfaction at the same time as getting one up on her male senior.
The revelation here isn’t that Kersten is a homosexual, but that his own sexual fluidity would be in sharp contrast to the strategies by which he reinforces patriarchal values through his profession: values by which he retains all the authority and adolescent girls like Ossi are to be broken down. Having pushed her boundaries, Ossi drunkenly demands to be taken back to her governess….
Is such a return not problematic? Indeed, when at the very end of I Don’t Want to Be a Man Kersten discovers Ossi’s true identity, his outrage soon turns to relief: she’s a woman after all! The two embrace; parity is restored. That is, however, parity on patriarchal terms: genders are reconciled here, back into a man-woman divide. With such a reconciliatory gesture, the previously scandalous fluidity on display ends with a conservatively happy ending, one from which a tomboy teen may very well recoil.
But then, if I Don’t Want to Be a Man did not return to a more acceptable order, it might have been one subversion too far. In concluding harmoniously, with Ossi seemingly happy to accept her own womanhood, opposite and presumably subjugated by men, the film avoids making the utopian suggestion that real social change is possible within current political parameters. By its final fade-out, though, the film has shown enough of a what-if scenario without restrictions to have made its pointed arguments clear.
*This is the English translation on the Region 2 DVD release by Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema label. In other versions, the line reads, “I’ll bring you into line yet!”