My mother named me after Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn, but what made a working-class girl grow to love this posh celebrity so much? The obvious answer is that my mother aspired to be posh herself; but lack of money or sophistication were not the only things impacting her potential— there was also gender. The voices in my mother’s home and school told her to be a woman, to do the things society expected of a woman, and leave the rest to men. In my estimation, though, Katharine Hepburn was the one voice that subverted these socially constructed imperatives. My thesis emphasizes the importance of voice in gender performance by conducting close-listenings of Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1935) and The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) in order to better understand how Hepburn’s Transatlantic accent contributes to the gender fluid persona that drew my mother’s attention and affection.
While many look to Hepburn’s progressive fashion sensibilities as evidence of her non-traditional gender performance, consideration of her “fake” accent is often dismissed simply as a marker of her upper-class status. However, I argue that Hepburn’s voice is equally important as her appearance in terms of defying a classically feminine persona, and ask instead how the classist, historic, and psychoanalytic underpinnings of the geographically ambiguous Transatlantic track with its gender fluid implications. The films I examine represent two periods of Hepburn’s career. Although her star image shifted slightly after being labeled “box office poison” in 1938, attention to her accent reveals a consistent element of fluid gender constitution, and as a style of spoken English used to this day to portray characters outside the realm of binary gender performance.