Jordin Althaus / AMC / AP

The war between the sexes in the elevator car

Throughout the 20th century, elevators were a proving ground for women. What went wrong?

September 11, 2014 6:00AM ET

After this summer’s celebrity scandals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a new gender war is brewing in America’s elevators. In May, the tape of Solange Knowles attacking Jay-Z in a hotel elevator as his wife, Beyoncé, looked on caused a pop culture sensation. More disturbingly, the recent videos of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching and dragging his unconscious fiancée from a casino elevator have begun a national conversation about domestic violence and impunity in the National Football League.

But elevators have always had a firm hold on the public’s attention. For most of the 20th century, popular culture showed elevators as a proving ground for women. Subjected to sexual harassment, they knew how to fight back. By the last decades of the century, though, depictions of sexual harassment gave way to depictions of sex, with women as instigators and willing participants. It is unclear whether this new trend was more or less empowering for women.

Perhaps the new spate of scandals will allow us to rethink this question and acknowledge that real problems still exist in the way men treat women, problems that cannot be erased by pressing the stop button and taking off our clothes.  

Punch in the eye

Today we have security tape to document transgressions between floors, but a century ago print cartoons presented a battle of the sexes inside elevators — men sexually harassing women and women responding with a punch in the eye.  

By the middle of the 20th century, Hollywood films had taken up the theme. A quartet of movies — “Skyscraper Souls” (1932), “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941), “The Big Clock” (1948) and “The Apartment” (1960) — showed women confronting sexual harassers successfully, with a laugh. The four midcentury scenes are a primer in small reversals of power — strategies for women to mock and shame men who tried to degrade them. (In a fifth film — “Some Like It Hot” [1959] — a man dressed as a woman shows significantly less aplomb when faced with similar harassment.) Decades before feminists taught us that sexual harassment is about power, not sex, actresses such as Lana Turner and Shirley MacLaine had already shown it and figured out how to respond. Women took note: My mother, pinched on the bottom in a hotel elevator in Leningrad in 1987, pinched right back. 

In retrospect, it’s clear that there are two big problems with these midcentury sexual-harassment elevator scenes. The first is that they uniformly trivialize sexual harassment. Recent years have offered more serious depictions of harassment in elevators, notably in the television show “Mad Men.” We need those depictions of the past to show us the injustice and trauma of harassment, but we also need elevator scenes to depict the future we want. Those midcentury scenes helped people imagine a world where every woman was strong enough to pinch back.

The second problem with midcentury sexual-harassment-in-elevator scenes is that they aren’t funny. The scene in “Skyscraper Souls” isn’t bad — broad physical humor as the man tries to approach the woman in a crowded elevator, the woman tries to get away and the rest of the passengers are pushed around — but the others aren’t so great:

So he looks me over fore and aft, and when he gets to my feet he says, “You’ll do my dear. I like my ankles slim too.”

Yeah, and how’d you come back?

Hard. I said, “Yeah, and how do you like your heels, mister?  [Ankle, heel — get it?]

Ah, gee, that’s terrific. 

“Ziegfeld Girl”


We’ve got nice elevators in our building too. Come on over sometime. I’ll give ya a free ride … What’sa matter? I got poison ivy?

We are not allowed to speak to people in the elevators.

Mr. Janoth doesn’t permit it. [A running joke about a control-freak boss.]

“The Big Clock”


Nineteen. Watch your step. And watch your hand, Mr. Kirkeby.

I beg your pardon?

One of these days, I’m gonna shut these doors on you and … [Pantomimes losing a hand.]

“The Apartment”


Maybe the last one is kind of funny but not as hilarious as when the gorilla gives the finger to everyone in the elevator in Lily Tomlin’s “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” or the naked chase into the elevator in “Borat” or the elevator-masturbation fantasy scene in the second season of the television show “Louie.” 

“The Apartment” is the most famous of these movies. A dark comedy by Billy Wilder (who also directed “Some Like It Hot” the year before — evidently he had a fixation on this leitmotif), it features two office workers, played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who are crushed by corporate America but find solace in each other’s company. At a screening of “The Apartment” several years ago in New York City’s Bryant Park, MacLaine’s elevator punchline received moderate laughter, about equal to the joke the harasser then makes at MacLaine’s expense once he has stepped off the elevator and she can’t fight back.

The loudest, most sustained laughter of the entire screening, however, came when Dr. Dreyfuss, played by Jack Kruschen, shakes MacLaine, who has overdosed on pills, and gives her a surprisingly loud slap. After a stunned half-second of silence, peals of laughter erupted from the crowd, along with cheering and hooting. One guy yelled, “Hit her again,” two or three times. A family of Dutch tourists — mother, father and two teenage daughters — in attendance were smugly horrified; they had traveled all this way to have their worst American stereotypes confirmed, they told me afterward. 

At the time, I was surprised. I had seen “The Apartment” as a critique of patriarchy; evidently I was in the minority. I’ve thought of this moment of uproarious laughter several times during the Ray Rice scandal — another moment that revealed the nonchalance and amusement with which too many Americans still view violence against women.

Sex or harassment?

When “The Apartment” was released, reviewers thought it was really dirty, one step down a slippery slope that (let’s face it, they were right) would get us to the smutty world of titillation we live in today. After “The Apartment,” Hollywood began a slow but wholesale shift to a new idea about gender relations in elevators — from “sexual harassment is funny” to “sex is fun.” The new idea became a lot more popular than the old one ever was. Though at first moralistically anti-sex (the elevator murder as punishment for infidelity in “Dressed to Kill,” the elevator scene in “Fatal Attraction” that comes before the stalking starts), by the end of the 1980s, most sex-in-elevator scenes were sex-positive: the video for Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” (1989), “The Doors” (1991), “Speaking of Sex” (2001), an episode of “30 Rock” in which Jack calls elevator sex the best sex ever, with White House sex at No. 2 (2010). Instead of resisting strangers’ advances in elevators with confidence and clever quips, women were going for it in movies and on television, mainstream, indie and porn, in casinos and hospitals, in apartment houses, office buildings, college dorms and department stores, in cold industrial cabs and fancy European models with elaborate grillwork. 

In the music video for “Express Yourself” (1989), Madonna’s tribute to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and, to my knowledge, the only video in her oeuvre that shows the interior of an elevator (she writhes in front of the closed doors of an elevator in “Vogue”), a buff, shirtless factory worker takes the elevator aboveground to return Madonna’s errant pussy. 

It’s empowering for women to say yes to sex in elevator — and anywhere else they choose, for that matter. But it’s empowering and important to be able to say no, and I wish Hollywood would return to that point. It seems blatantly obvious that men and women shouldn’t hit each other in elevators. Evidently, that lesson must also be learned again and again.

Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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