Richard grows; and the realisation of all the

Richard
Sherman: husband, father, and businessman – defined by these very set figures
of masculinity, but clearly seeking something to relieve his itch. Like every other husband in
Manhattan illustrated at the film’s beginning, he allows this itch to grow greater,
as the geographical distance between him and his wife grows; and the
realisation of all the mischief he could get up to in order to relieve his
“overactive and underworked libido”(Cohan 1997, p.61) surfaces. In order to
even contemplate making these decisions, we recognise that he must feel some
sort of discontent, the first symptom of the itch. This itch arriving precisely
seven years later “specifically indicates the paradoxical masculine discontent
which followed upon the post-war rush to get married and settle down” (Cohan
1997, p.61). Men like Richard were desperate to regain this American Dream they
fought so hard for following the chaos of the war, once this dream was attained
and their achievement amounted to no more than the newest kitchen appliance or latest
model of pram, they finally realised their “disenchantment with this role as
a husband and father”, (Cohan 1997, p.65) that I shall be greater exploring in
Chapter Three. This shell of a man who goes to work to provide, and comes home
to provide “was defined through his invisibility as a man in a grey flannel
suit”(Cohan 1997, p.xvi), and Richard Sherman perfectly embodies this typical
American male as he is incapable of joining his family at the seaside due to
his work commitments, and so like all the others he stays, he works, and he
waits, thrown into the unfamiliar housewife position.

 

The
second symptom of the itch:
frustration. Richard is confined to the four walls of his house, which
“represents more of a trap than a home for him”(Cohan 1997, p.64). This
domestic sphere is unfamiliar terrain for Richard to be residing over, and
since he cannot attain serenity here, or in the workplace (that is the very
reason for his current predicament), he resorts to seeking this comfort
elsewhere. The one area of the home that would be considered male territory in
the 1950s is the bedroom, however we get a brief glance of this room during the
film to see it as nothing more than a drab, beige, sexless chamber, and this
frustration may be a direct result of an absent sex life as denoted by energy
of the room. A “character’s mental landscape is written on the mise en scene of
the film”(Pomerance 2005, p.23), and Richard is drowning among the feminizing,
floral patterns and flat colour palette, which shows a clear disconnection and
alienation from the home – further fuelling the temptation to scratch this
itch.

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Helen
displays a maternal strength in her smooth operation of the Sherman household
during her absence, leaving Richard with even less responsibility in his own
home. With media and advertising persuading women to turn their attention back
to their domestic duties following the war, this professional operation of the
house creates a very structured environment for family life. This means, for
many men across America, “the poor father is a complete outsider”(Chopra-Gant
2005, p.68), becoming more like furniture in his own home as he fades into the wallpaper
watching his wife bring up their children and tend to the housework, thus, this
heavy longing becomes the final symptom of the
itch.  Of course he benefits from
this unconditional and dutiful care his wife provides, in Richard’s case she
rings to check he has eaten well, taken his medicine and even arranges for the
snagging rug to be replaced; but he too swore a vow at marriage to always look
after her, and so is left with a looming feeling of failure. Even during the war, “the army was so structured
that it could be a mom surrogate”(Chopra-Gant 2005, p.84), and so he has never
felt true fulfilment and independence, and recognises this as a failure to
achieve adulthood and masculinity. This feeling of failure is visually represented
in The Seven Year Itch through the
symbol of the paddle that Richard’s son leaves behind. Ricky is missing out on
the water sports that other children are enjoying due to his father’s inability
to simply return the paddle to him. We see the paddle in the background of some
of the shots as a reminder of this burden Richard must carry around with him,
and his duty to his family. In
the ‘new woman’ of the 1950s, “visions of femininity clashed… the old America –
that corseted society – met the new”(Byars 1991, p.89), and the product of this
clash was The Girl.  This blonde catch may just be what these
Manhattan husbands need to make them feel like men again “as to make men feel
big, women had to be little girls, looking up”(Burchill 1984, p.36), the
argument here made by Julie Burchill is that women like The Girl depicted in
film amount to no more than a “sex doll” for these middle aged white men; a
tool for their own ego. Unlike Helen, The Girl has no intention of commitment
or living by a routine governed life, and so this quick fix remedy might just secure
him his recovery with no lasting damage done to the integrity of the nuclear
family.   

To
support Burchill’s argument of The Girl as
a glorified doll, this commodification of her character places her under direct
possession of Richard and other men across America as she is shelved on their
bookcases featured in modelling magazines, and on their television sets for Dazzledent Toothpaste. This restoration
of control with Richard makes him believe his pursuit for The Girl is an
achievable one, especially once he realises the price to pay for her company is
merely air conditioning. Once he’s lured her to his chilled apartment and
realised how amenable she is, together they are able to enjoy the things he enjoys – playing chopsticks on the
piano, listening to Rachmaninoff, and going to the movies. He is already
feeling cured of his itch as he is swept up in his new, thrilling companionship
where she abides by his rules – not
to mention this upgrade on his current housewife comes with all new
accessories: a cuticle pusher, a silver cocktail shaker, and undies in the
icebox (whatever undies in the icebox might promise!) As
well as having an abundance of ‘new woman’ accessories, The Girl has a striking
look that stuns Richard on their first meet. Her lavish costumes, cherry lips
and “cotton candy hair”(Leaming 1998, p.105) provide the delectable look for her character, and replace her
need for a name, as she is instantly codified as “a flesh, thus a passivity”(De
Beauvoir 2015, p.88). As “The Girl/Monroe is less a woman than a product of the
average middle-aged man’s overactive imagination”(Pomerance 2005, p.142), it
makes sense for her appearance to be very designed
for the use and disposal of the male. In particular, the blonde bombshell
aesthetic was so sought after as it “signified the superiority of the American
men who possessed them”(Cohan 1997, p.13), their high maintenance and well-kept
look serving as a testament to their man’s wealth and status; he feels a sense
of power here in controlling beyond that of his own image. Furthermore, those
platinum shades is “the most unnaturally white a woman can get”(Cohan 1997,
p.13), suggesting Richard’s innate attraction to a hyper-constructed image of
femininity in the image of The Girl.  Audiences
would never grow sick of The Girl and would demand to see her again and again,
as she had “embodied precisely the right character to appeal to the American
psyche”(Leaming 1998, p.135) and proved that sex could actually be harmless and
provide comic relief (this innocence perfectly captured in the iconic skirt
blowing scene). The Girl creates no
lasting damage to the nuclear family and Richard merrily returns to his wife at
the end of the film, his wife being none the wiser as to his foolish actions. Of
course we expect this ending; we would not expect Richard to walk off into the
sunset with The Girl when he was only after a quick fix to relieve his itch,
and while we can laugh at his follies we fail to ask ourselves what happens to The Girl? This was,
however, not the story audiences of the 1950s were interested in, as she was
antithetical to family – “this is not
the forum for her story”(Byars 1991,
p.100), film would not be the platform for her voice.