Sitting down to a bit of New Year’s telly, I started to watch one of my mum’s favourite films, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and realised to my surprise that I’d never actually seen it before. I remembered some dancing and brightly coloured shirts, but that was about it. Watching it all the way through for the first time, I was slightly shocked at what I saw.
I’m not much of a feminist. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been born in an era where I’ve yet to encounter many obstacles because of my gender. Then again, as a woman, I recognise patriarchal authority when I see it, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers stirred some feminist instincts that must have been buried somewhere deep inside me. Who knew?
In a nutshell, the film tells the story of seven brothers who live in the woods out of town, and when one day the oldest brother brings home a wife, the other six decide they want one too. While the film appears to espouse values of gender equality and of treating women with respect, the story doesn’t necessarily follow suit. Admittedly the film was made in 1954, but watching it I got frustrated at its failed attempts to break the women out of traditional roles. Here is my rant, bare with me.
At the beginning of the film the oldest brother, Adam (Howard Keel), comes to town to trade and find a wife. He is swiftly rebuked by the vicar’s wife for treating women as goods to trade. So far, so good. But then he wanders into an inn and is served food by a beautiful young woman who immediately falls in love with him. Easy as pie. Adam takes said woman, Milly (Jane Powell), back to his cabin in the woods, where Adam’s brothers greet her with a degree of suspicion and curiosity. But pretty soon they’ve worked out that she’s there to cook and clean for them.
Milly is having none of it and storms upstairs to her room. Her girl power is for the moment reinstated. Adam, frustrated at not being able to take his new wife to bed, as one is supposed to, sings her a beautiful love song after which all is forgiven. All women are clearly suckers for romantic ditties. After this breakthrough, Milly realises that her role is in fact to cook and clean, and change the younger brothers from ignorant woodsmen into eligible young men.
It’s credit to Milly that she tries to educate the brothers to respect women, but all the while she’s busy giving their cabin ‘a woman’s touch’. The brothers eventually meet some nice town girls, who seem enchanted with these young rural men, but the girls already have suitors and the brothers become depressed. Adam, who’s stupid enough to use a story based on the Rape of the Sabine Women as a motivational tale, encourages his brothers to go out and take what’s rightfully theirs. So begins a horrifying sequence in which the six brothers kidnap the young women and haul them back to their cabin, all the while being pursued by the girls’ fuming families. Cleverly, or barbarically, the brothers block the pursuers’ path by using the girls’ screams to cause an avalanche.
Of course Milly is furious when six terrified young girls arrive on her doorstep, and orders the brothers out of the house. But abduction is a crime soon forgotten, and the girls develop Stockholm syndrome, pining after the banished brothers. After Milly gives birth to a baby girl, Adam soon learns the error of his ways and tells his brothers they must take the girls back to their families. But whaddyaknow, the girls don’t want to go back.
So begins another kidnapping scene, in which the younger brothers try to force the girls back to town. Amid all the hoo-ha the townsfolk arrive, the avalanche having finally cleared. Fighting ensues, naturally; but soft, the cry of a baby is heard sending terror into the hearts of the fathers who worry the baby might belong to one of their unwed daughters. When asked to whom the baby belongs, in an inspired stroke of genius all the girls cry “Me!” knowing that they’ll have to get married if they’ve had a baby out of wedlock.
The film ends on a multiple marriage scene, proving that no amount of violence, abduction or idiocy can keep a girl from her man. These young women were destined to be wives and that’s what they’ve become. Fair enough those were different times, but the brothers don’t seem to have learnt any lessons by the end. In between all the (very fine) dancing and singing, we see seven women plucked from their urban lives to be country wives. Happy ending? You decide.