Teaching Pillow Talk

Pamela Robertson Wojcik


Pillow Talk (USA, Michael Gordon, 1959)












Pillow Talk is a film I have taught more than any other individual film.  I have taught Pillow Talk almost embarrassingly often, in at least five different courses.  But my most recent experience teaching the film this semester may prevent me from teaching it again.

For a few years, in an introductory course “Basics of Film and Television,” I taught Pillow Talk as a representative typical classical Hollywood film. For our discussion of film sound, Pillow Talk proved to be an ideal example, as a film that hinges on the fissure between sound and body and the mistaken identity plot engendered by the shared party phone line.  I would discuss internal diegetic sound, using the instances of internal monologues heard when Jan (Doris Day) first meets Rock Hudson’s Brad pretending to be Rex.  I would also discuss the voice and accents, as Brad adopts the accent of his southern date for his masquerade as Rex. And we would discuss the use of pop music in film, highlighting the scene with the band and the scene in which Rock and Doris sing “Roly Poly” with Perry Blackwell.

I stopped teaching the intro course for a few years, so picked up Pillow Talk for use in “Film Theory,” a required upper level class. In that course, I would teach the film to think about the way in which sound is gendered.  Students would consider ideologies of eavesdropping in film — including both Jan and Alma’s eavesdropping on Brad’s phone calls, and Brad’s eavesdropping on Jan’s date — using Elisabeth Weiss’s essay “Eavesdropping: An Aural Analogue of Voyeurism.”[1] Kaja Silverman’s essay “Dis-Embodying the Female Voice”[2] opened up questions about why Brad was able to control and manipulate his voice, even borrowing his accent from a woman, but Jan’s voice was tied to her body (the “other end” of her party line, as Brad’s refers to Jan’s rear end in internal diegetic voiceover when he first recognizes that she is the woman with whom he shares a party line).

In the class “Sex and Gender in Cinema,” I used Pillow Talk to talk about stardom and queer reception.  Following a class in which we would discuss Alex Doty’s ideas about the queerness of mass culture, we would discuss the film in relation to Richard Dyer’s essay on Rock Hudson, “Rock — The Last Guy You’d Have Figured?” and Mark Rappaport’s film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), considering the film’s queer subtext, its relation to Rock Hudson’s star image and the changing understanding of his star image after his outing.[3]

In recent years, as my own work has shifted toward studies of space and urbanism, I have used Pillow Talk mainly for a discussion of the apartment in the graduate course “Gender and Space in Cinema” and the undergrad class “The Apartment Plot.”  In these courses, I use my own chapters on the bachelor pad and the single girl apartment from The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Poplar Culture, 1945 to 1975.[4] In the grad course, students also read essays by Bill Osgerby and George Wagner on the bachelor pad, Helen Gurley Brown on single girl apartments, and George Chauncey on the importance of apartments for gay men.[5] In these classes, we talk about the meaning of the apartment as a sexual space, the difference between a young woman’s bohemian apartment and Jan’s professional/spinster apartment, the taming of the bachelor scenario, the importance of redecorating as a trope, the links between the bachelor pad and the closet.

In all these classes, the student response to the film has been largely positive.  Students found the film somewhat retrograde in its gender politics but they enjoyed the queer subtext, the chemistry between Rock and Doris, the jokes about male pregnancy, the visual wit of the shower scene, Brad’s masquerade, Playboy magazine ideology, and more.  Over the years, many students opted to write about it for course papers, looking at such topics as the temporality of Jan’s apartment and single status, the queer dynamics of Brad’s impersonation of Rex, the queer characters of Alma and Jonathan, the role of the telephone in the apartment plot, and the open-ended gender play of the film’s ending, which focuses on Brad’s “pregnancy,” rather than the couple’s clinch.

Most recently, I put Pillow Talk on the syllabus for an upper level undergradate elective called “Cinemasculinities.” I included it so that we could discuss the figure of the playboy and the bachelor pad, as an alternative to the hegemonic masculinity of the 1950s with the goal of breaking down students’ tendency to view the fifties in one monolithic way and recognize the complexity and multiplicities of masculinities in the period. Using Steven Cohan’s discussion of the “the paradox of hegemonic masculinity,”[6] I wanted to explore whether the film countered the dominant ideal and offered an alternative, or just provided a temporary outlet for frustration that was ultimately contained by film’s end. I showed it after we had seen Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954) and The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953), each of which deals with the 1950s crisis in masculinity in different ways. On the first day, I started our discussion of the film but only minimally – I mainly talked about Cohan’s description of the paradox of hegemonic masculinity, showing clips from many other 50s films, such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson, 1956) and The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955), to get at the sense of discontent with the hegemonic ideal, and the difficulty of living up to it. We spent only a few minutes talking about Pillow Talk, focusing on the scene in which Brad questions the bedrock assumption of the 1950s hegemonic ideal, repeatedly asking “why?” as Jonathan (Tony Randall) articulates the need for men to marry and have a family. As class ended, I told students that next time we would discuss Playboy in the 1950s, the magazine’s ideology of bachelorhood and its promotion of the apartment as a sexual space; and that we would consider Rock Hudson’s star persona as well.

After class, a student asked if we would talk about sexual assault in the film. “You mean when he takes her from her bed through the streets?” I asked.  “Partly,” she said, “but I meant in terms of consent. When she consents to have sex with Rex (when she sings ‘Possess Me’ at the cabin and prepares to sleep with Rex), since she does not know he is Brad, she is not consenting, so it would be sexual assault.” Taken aback, I nervously mumbled something about retrospective readings and how in our current climate we might read it that way but that in its historical context it would be bad behavior, but not assault; and I asked her to bring it up in the next class for discussion.

This student’s question raised a lot of questions for me: Is lying to get in someone’s pants assault? Is being conned the same as being raped?  (In this light, is it assault when the Sandra Dee character lies about where she lives to the Bobby Darin character in That Funny Feeling [Richard Thorpe, 1965], in her effort to seduce him? Or in Gidget [Paul Wendkos, 1959] when Moondoggie hides his wealthy collegiate background from Gidget?) Her question also made me sad — that she did not find Rock charming, that Pillow Talk made her angry. And it made me feel embarrassed, that, as a feminist who has talked a lot about consent and rape on campus, it had not occurred to me to read this film in that way at all.

Before taking it up in class, I turned to Facebook, and asked my fellow academics what they thought about this. Many academics felt as strongly as my student that the film did portray sexual assault, that it raised issues of consent, and that it was, at a minimum “creepy,” if not downright offensive.  Some defended the film, arguing for an understanding of historical context, literary tropes and changing mores.  The argument did not spit entirely among generational lines, but all younger scholars read the film in terms of assault and only older scholars resisted that reading (while some older scholars agreed with the younger scholars).

In class the next day, we talked about a number of things. We considered the literary tradition of the rake and issues of deception and mistaken identity in Shakespeare, to consider how this film fit into larger traditions.  We talked about how the film could help illuminate how much ideals of masculinity have changed and how what had seemed playful seduction could now seem criminal. We considered historical context and the fact that a reading of assault was a retroactive reading that would not have been available to 1959 viewers.  We considered how this reading interacted with a retroactive reading that acknowledged Hudson’s gayness.  We also considered how the film would need to be historicized in terms of changing ideals of femininity: I suggested that in a culture (the 50s in America, e.g.) in which women can’t say yes easily or openly (when expectations of virginity may still dominate), then deception may seem more acceptable as a means for her to access her own desire.

The discussion was productive and spoke to student concerns.  But I am not sure I want to have that discussion with that film again. I resist the idea that we should only teach what fits our ideology or contemporary mores, that we should avoid “triggers,” or uncomfortable subject matter; but I also resist the idea that Pillow Talk should be seen in that category at all, or that, in teaching it, I would be pushing students beyond their comfort zones. At the same time, I do not think I can teach the film and ignore these issues anymore.  Recognizing that the film reads as assault for many people – not only my students but also my peers and colleagues – has transformed the film for me.  In many ways, this instance of teaching Pillow Talk has destroyed my pleasure in teaching the film. This destruction of pleasure is different for me from the way in which 1970s feminism destroyed one kind of pleasure in cinema and replaced it with another – the pleasure of seeing anew, of deconstructing assumptions, of understanding the mechanisms of pleasure.  A reading that notes the male gaze in Pillow Talk illuminates a structure of looking and our complicity with a masculine point of view. In a different vein, a queer reading provides access to understanding different pleasures: the pleasures of reading against the grain, the pleasure of the spectator who does not identify with heterosexists positions. A reading that looks at the queer subtext may have a retroactive component – it may be generated by an understanding of Hudson’s own gayness, or by contemporary theory.  But the reading of queer subtext seems to me to illuminate something in the film; it draws attention to the jokes about gayness embedded in the text (Brad’s questioning of Rex’s sexuality, jokes about gender inversion in Brad’s trips to the obstetrician) and it highlights subcultural readings that were available at the time (in gay male fan practices that may have seen Hudson as a pinup if not a fellow traveler, in lesbian fondness for Thelma Ritter). In contrast, reading assault into Pillow Talk does not seem to me to illuminate the film, or provide access to understanding the past: rather, it casts a light on our contemporary mores and the bleak realities of sexual assault in contemporary culture.


Pamela Robertson Wojcik is Professor in the Department of Film, Tv and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame and President-Elect of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.



[1] Elisabeth Weis, “Eavesdropping: An Aural Analogue of Voyeurism?” in Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film, ed. Philip Brophy (North Ryde, N.S.W.: Australian Film Television and Radio School, 1999), 79-106.

[2] Kaja Silverman, “Dis-embodying the Female Voice,” in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington, IN: 1999), 309-327.

[3] Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Richard Dyer, “Rock – The Last Guy You’d Have Figured?” in You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies and Men, ed. Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumim (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 27-34.

[4] Pamela Robertson Wojcik, The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[5] Bill Osgerby, “The Bachelor Pad as Cultural Icon: Masculinity, Consumption, and Interior Design in American Men’s Magazines, 1930-1965” Journal of Design History 18.1 (2005): 99-113; George Wagner, “The Lair of the Bachelor,” in Architecture and Feminism, ed. Debra L. Coleman et al (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 183-220; Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl  (Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2003); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

[6] Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and Movies in the Fifties (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 1997).

The Cine-Files, Issue 9 (Fall 2015)

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