The "girl-next-door" was most notable for what she wasn't: Marilyn Monroe. Seductress Monroe represented one end of the spectrum of 1950s female roles, and she was decidedly at the opposite end of the girl next door. In a time of national crisis (first World War II, and later the Cold War), the girl next door offered a wholesome and patriotic image. Harvey argues that the Marilyn-type was on the decline, starting in the 1940s, in favor of the girl next door. The 1950s ideal was "nicer, simpler, younger...more girlish than womanly." Harvey argues that already famous stars of the period, like Lucille Ball, adapted themselves to fit into this model.
Hepburn, who was just becoming famous, didn't have to adapt, but she certainly did fit the part. In Sabrina, she was innocent to the point of being child-like, also reflected by her demure wardrobe and polite way. Her thin body is the opposite of Marilyn Monroe's ample curves, embodying the "girlish" part of the girl, not woman, next door. Harvey argues that this image is emblematic of most female stars, aside from Marilyn Monroe, in the 1950s, an opinion also echoed by Potter (see "I Love You, But..."). Harvey doesn't really get into the implications of this stereotype, or why Monroe was allowed to remain outside of it, but he offers many examples that give a picture of a casting and acting trend of the 1950s.
In this book, Potter discusses romantic comedies in relation to the era in which they were produced. She has chapters on each decade from the thirties through the nineties. She begins by discussing the overarching cultural ethos of each decade, taking into account important historical events that could have had an influence on what movies were successful or even produced to begin with. She discusses in detail films from each decade, providing a good background to fit any film into its historical framework. Potter does not discuss Sabrina in the 1950s chapter, but the film does fit in easily with the historical background she provides.
Potter sees the cold war as the most important feature affecting 1950s films. The post-World War II rapture had faded, leaving an all-encompassing but largely invisible fear. For this reason, Potter argues, people focused on making themselves happy in areas of their lives that, unlike foreign affairs, they did have control over: home and family life. This sense of escapism clearly manifests itself in Sabrina's fantasy quality.
People became concerned with living in the suburbs and owning the latest commodities, while civil rights issues, like women's role in the workforce or race and class issues, seemed to evaporate from the national conscience. We see this in the emphasis on the suburban Larrabee family's opulent wealth in Sabrina, and the absence of ambition for Sabrina to do anything but fall in love with one of the powerful Larrabee brothers, rather than using her new education and sophistication to further her individual lifestyle. Women in the 1950s were expected to remain domestic, or at least quit their jobs upon marriage. Any woman who did not adhere to this was said to have a "masculinity complex." These ideas were also shaped by Dr. Spock's baby boom child-rearing advice.
In movies, Potter saw women's roles converging to fit into one of the two studio-promulgated stereotypes of the era: virgin or whore. Hepburn's Sabrina would be classified as a textbook virgin, and was thus only allowed to "exude a vague air of flirtatious sexual promise." Men had more power than women, but also had to fit into molds of upstanding masculinity, like John Wayne, the honest and fatherly cowboy, or laid-back sexual suaveness, like Rock Hudson. Humphrey Bogart's Linus can clearly be read as in line with what Wayne represented.
Using Potter's historical information, we can understand and read films in their proper context.