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Adam’s Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Teaching on June 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Directed by George Cukor, the film Adam’s Rib tells the story of Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn), New York attorneys whose marriage smacks of “tough love.”  The couple square off when Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman (Judy Holliday) who has attempted to murder her philandering husband—a bumbling dweeb—in the apartment of his mistress.  Amanda, who approves of the woman’s act, which she views as resistance to patriarchal society, takes up the case as defense counsel.

Genesis tells us that God fashioned Adam from dust, Eve from Adam’s rib.  Adam’s Rib tells a different story.

If anything, Amanda, or “Eve,” is the starting-point—a source of controversy, inspiration, and curiosity.  Adam’s Rib isn’t the first production to render gender contests in comedic tones—it’s part of a tradition dating back at least to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed, and probably much further—but it is one of the more remarkable of all twentieth-century productions, especially in light of Amanda’s advocacy for a doctrine that, in American family law, came to be known as “formal equality.”

What, exactly, does Adam’s Rib offer law students?  What does it teach law students, and why should law professors bother with it?

A film that’s in no way after verisimilitude is unlikely to teach law students how to file motions, write briefs, analyze statutes, or bill clients—tasks that we assume are requisite to becoming “good” lawyers.  So what’s the point?

In his cunning way, James Elkins, during his Lawyers & Film course that I took in law school, responded to questions of this variety by drawing two boxes on the blackboard: one representing law, the other film.

“We’ve gotta get from this box to this box,” he explained, retracing the diagram with the tip of his chalk.  “One place to start,” he suggested, “is with the movie scenes depicting lawyers or the courtroom.” 

With this careful, leading push, the classroom conversation took off.  Soon my peers were debating the pattern of juxtaposed settings in Adam’s Rib: bedroom, courtroom, bedroom, courtroom, and so on.

Some students speculated that the bedroom signaled privacy and domesticity whereas the courtroom signaled publicity or “the outside.”  The courtroom, these students argued, represented a place for Adam’s and Amanda’s professional selves—that is, for performed identities.  But the bedroom, a closed and private space, was for intimacy and, ironically, openness: a place for speaking and acting freely, without supervision.  These dichotomous settings (public and private) point to a larger dilemma: the “two-worlds” problem by which one negotiates competing identities, unable, as it were, to settle on one or the other.

Law students can, I think, relate to the “two-worlds” problem.  In fact, many law students are first exposed to this problem during law school—often to much embarrassment.

Law students learn, for instance, that lewd jokes and gossip don’t go over well in the student lounge, or that trying to date classmates is, as one student put it, “like shitting where you eat.”

I remember speaking to at least one student who longed for friendships like he had in college, and to another who wished he’d transferred before becoming associated with a scandalous rumor.  I’ve heard of law students showing interviewers tricks that they could do with double-jointed arms, and even of law students ostracizing another student who, hunkered down in the bathroom stall, thinking himself alone, rather noisily went about his “business.”

How we lawyers or law students cope with these opposite pulls—toward private selves on the one side, public selves on the other—is a question I expect many lawyer films to raise.

I wouldn’t expect these films to give explicit coaching because lawyer films—indeed, films generally—aren’t good if they’re didactic or superficially instructive.  Because many law students are at a crossroads when the “two-worlds” problem is thrust upon them, they would do well to focus on the “two-worlds” problem as played out on screen—if only to raise awareness of their own dual (and dueling) identities.


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