The Queer Tragedy of The Children’s Hour Is More than a Trope

Movies Features Audrey Hepburn
The Queer Tragedy of The Children’s Hour Is More than a Trope

In recent years, the 1961 film The Children’s Hour has garnered a reputation for its “outdated” depiction of queer shame and its “bury your gays” ending. But a film is more than the sum of its parts, not bits and pieces to be plucked off and filed away into a folder of tropes, and what The Children’s Hour was trying to say with its characters back in the ‘60s is still fairly radical for a mainstream queer film.

Adapted by director William Wyler and screenwriter John Michael Hayes from Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play of the same name, The Children’s Hour stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as Karen and Martha, two young schoolteachers whose lives are destroyed when a cruel child tells her grandmother Mrs. Tilford (Fay Bainter) a tale about the teachers’ supposed lesbianism. Pupils are immediately pulled from the school, and when Karen and Martha lose a libel suit against Mrs. Tilford, they are left in social and financial ruin. Their only friend, Karen’s fiancé Joe (James Garner), loses his job for continuing his association with them, and later, Karen, overwhelmed by these troubles, dissolves her engagement with Joe.

Though it is true that The Children’s Hour ends tragically, with Martha struggling over her own very real feelings for Karen and then committing suicide, the suicide doesn’t take the form of the traditional “bury your gays” structure, which was originally used to appease moral codes and then often later used to narratively banish ambiguous or complex characters from the story so that the other more “normal” characters could have a conflict-free future.

In The Children’s Hour, Martha is a fully-realized central character, and her death affects those around her in a complicating way, not a simplifying one. She isn’t the strange, othered person who must be relegated to the graveyard for other characters to live more comfortably. Nor is she only there to serve as a lesson. Instead, she is a character the audience is meant to relate to, with the later reveal of her queerness likely meant to keep audiences from holding her at arms-length from the start. 

The Children’s Hour makes a point not to judge Martha’s queerness, and the characters who do—like Martha’s dreadful aunt, Mrs. Tilford and the gawking townspeople—are all framed as antagonists. Martha’s love for Karen is treated as wholly human, jealous at times, but never any different from what one might expect from a heterosexual attachment. The film even includes a shot of Martha watching Karen lovingly, and it is framed as any other romantic shot might be. Though Martha is clearly suffering, she is not set up to deserve suffering—and she is not suffering alone. She is not the only victim.

We are meant to identify with all three victims (Martha, Karen and Joe) as a trio, and they are not much distinguished from each other, beyond Martha’s personal feelings for Karen. These are young people who are just getting on their feet, who have to deal with the headaches of starting a business, having little money and awful aunts. They’re designed to be sympathetic and relatable. When trouble comes, they’re all overwhelmed by it in varying ways.

Who we aren’t supposed to identify with are the “righteous” members of society, with whom many audiences then and now would likely relate if the film were structured differently. Though it is a cruel child who sets off this chain of events, it is a respectable older woman with power and influence who truly causes the irreparable harm, all in the name of “protecting the children.”

When Martha, Karen and Joe confront Mrs. Tilford for spreading this rumor and leading to the school’s closure, Mrs. Tilford replies, “What they are is possibly their own business, but it becomes a great deal more than that when children are concerned.” Her argument could potentially sound reasonable for some members of the film’s contemporary audience (and some members of audiences today), but The Children’s Hour does not treat it as reasonable. The response that Martha makes to that argument—“This is our lives you’re playing with. Our lives.”—is the one the film stands behind. (It’s also important to note that, throughout the film, there’s never any implication that Karen is unfit to be a teacher.)

Lillian Hellman based her play off a real-life Scottish defamation case, in which a girl accused two schoolmistresses of engaging in “irregular sexual practices.” Though in the real case, the two teachers won their suit, the accusation still shuttered their school and left them ruined. It is particularly interesting that Hellman would decide to make one of the teachers in her play actually a lesbian. It complicates a story that could have solely been about malicious gossip into one that deals with more. We see how the accusation destroys Karen, who is straight, and how it affects Martha in different but parallel ways.

While the situation is life-shattering to Karen, shuttering her school and destroying her engagement and future family (she had been planning on having a baby in just a year), it forces Martha to confront her own feelings (“I’ve never loved a man. I never knew why before”). This notably happens against the background of a community publicly shunning her and insisting that those like her aren’t fit to work with children. When she exclaims, “I feel so damn sick and dirty,” it doesn’t feel out of place, because it is backed up how people are treating her.

To counter Martha and society’s perspective, the film presents Karen, the friend (and other protagonist you’re meant to relate to) who listens and understands Martha’s confession of love and still decides to ask her to come away and begin anew together. But the damage has already been done. Beyond the emotional trauma, Martha has seen how the world treats people like her, and that is not something she can escape, even after Mrs. Tilford finds that she has been lied to and attempts to rectify her mistake by overturning the suit’s verdict. 

Perhaps the most significant decision the film makes that centers Martha and her experience is that there is simply no escape for any of the characters (and thus, the audience) at the end of the movie. There is no silver lining. A less interesting film would set up hope for Karen and Joe to have a life for themselves away post-Martha’s death, but The Children’s Hour doesn’t create a vent for its discomfort; it makes the audience sit in it.

Everyone’s lives are ruined, from Martha to Karen to Joe to Mrs. Tilford, who will be forever shaken by what she has done. And while the central thrust of the film is focused on lies (as Karen says to Martha “But it could have been any lie”), it is important to note that, as Martha points out, that it is a lie with “the ounce of truth,” and it has brought to the forefront the community’s ringing implication that because a teacher was “unnatural,” she would somehow poison the children.

But The Children’s Hour makes it clear that it isn’t Martha who serves as the poison in this film. She, like Karen and Joe, is a victim to cruelty, fear and false righteousness, to someone able to claim that they’re an upstanding member of society simply doing what they had to do to protect their children. 

The Children’s Hour ends at Martha’s funeral, where there are only two chairs, one for Karen and one for Martha’s aunt. The rest of the town stands apart as onlookers, as they have the entire film, this time looking upon the tragedy that they have wrought. As Karen walks from the funeral and through the onlookers, most of them nameless, we’re reminded again what is at stake when it comes to the gossip, the slander, the gawking, and the righteous shunning: Actual lives.

Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art.

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