November 11th, 2008
Forty years have passed since the making of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? making it invaluable as a primary source about the late 1960’s. Miscegenation laws had a three-century long tradition in America, beginning in the 1660’s that Who’s Coming to Dinner? argues directly against. Thomas Wartenberg has argued that the 60’s created a climate that was more aware of racism and the movie comes out of this. This is not surprising. This movie is a huge step forward in film from previous depictions of African-Americans. (see Lyman) It is hard to imagine this movie coming out just a decade before. It accurately depicts the uncomfortably that many people had with the idea of an interracial union. It is important to note that all of the objections and shock in the movie are related to their plan to marry more so than their being together. Peggy Pascoe has claimed that contrary to popular scholarly knowledge, miscegenation law and taboos were about marriage more than sex because marriage is a socially sanctioned, legitimate relationship as opposed to sex, which can be socially disapproved. This movie is set in the state that made the first real legal decision against anti-miscegenation law. Exactly 20 years before the movie was made, California struck down its miscegenation law.
In the movie, Mr. Prentice, John’s father, says, “In 16 or 17 states you’d be breaking the law,” referring to his son’s plans to enter into an interracial marriage. In fact, by the time the movie came out, this was no longer true. Just six months before, the Supreme Court decided in Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstutional under the fourteenth amendment.
Writing in the time of the movie, Thomas Mohanan claimed that the subject of interracial marriage was of great interest to the American public, even though interracial marriages were not a large proportion of total marriages at that time. He goes on to argue that there existed a prevailing belief that interracial marriages were more likely to fail. The article then argues that this is not the case. The movie shows just this. Mr. Drayton, Joanna’s father, argues that he does not oppose the marriage on ideological grounds but because it is doomed to fail. Contrasting this is the character of the monsignor, who claims interracial marriages are more likely to succeed. The movie addresses many issues it could have easily avoided, such as Dr. Prentice’s parent’s opposition to the marriage as well as Tillie’s, the maid. Instead, it chose to address not only white racial prejudice but African-American prejudice as well. It shows religious prejudice as well when Mr. Prentice asks “are you Catholics?” with a tone of voice suggesting he would be even more unhappy if that were the case. The movie also tackles liberal hypocrisy, pointing out that just because someone stands against racism publicly does not mean he or she is immune to it when it comes to his or her own family.
The movie is, of course, an excellent source about race at the end of the 60’s, as it intends to be, but it is also unintentionally a useful source about gender during this time. Peggy Pascoe argues that the miscegenation law served to enforce patriarchy by allowing white men to avoid the responsibilities they would have to African-American women, if married. While Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? shows progress over miscegenation taboo, it has not yet overcome gender stereotypes. The wives/mothers are shown as understanding while the husbands/fathers are shown as authoritarian and harsh. At one point, Mrs. Drayton says to her husband that she has never before disagreed with him before this. It is impossible that this would ever happen in a marriage but the movie seeks to portray what it considers an ideal wife. This reinforces ideas that women should be differential to their husbands. Even in the new, post racial couple, John is making the decisions and the decision of whether they should marry is arbitrated between him and the father. The women are effectively left out. It is the father’s approval that matters and even the liberal-minded Dr. Prentice believes that he need Joanna’s fathers permission in order to marry her. The film portrays this as a positive thing. John rationalizes his belief in needing her father’s blessing as being in Joanna’s best interest, the same rationalization used by her father for being against the marriage. These gender stereotypes are expressed by other anti-racists from the same time. For instance, while arguing against racism, Sister Mary Peter Traxler writes, “All women must serve. They must be appreciated and needed” and “the Negro woman herself has a distinctive record of heroism. For the most part, her service has been to supply the great cohesive component in the Negro family.” [10.]