Love Actuarially: Privacy, Intimacy, and Information in The Apartment

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Information and seduction go hand-in-hand in Billy Wilder's 1960 film, The Apartment.1 When C.C. Baxter, an over-earnest insurance employee, flirts with the office elevator operator, Fran Kubelik, he rattles off the intimate information he's garnered by looking up her card in the company file: "I...know who you live with - sister and brother-in-law. I know when you were born and where...I know all sorts of things about you...I know your height, and your weight and your social security number. You had mumps, and measles and you had your appendix out."2 Laughing, Fran warns him, "Don't mention the appendix to the fellas in the office, Ok? I wouldn't want 'em to get the wrong idea about how you found out." Fran's concern that Baxter's data-sleuthing might make her home and body visible "to the fellas in the office" is emblematic of postwar anxieties about the decline of privacy, particularly in the growing information economy. More surprisingly perhaps, Baxter's research also challenges the generic conventions of the romantic comedy. If the drama of seduction is composed of intimate revelations and flirtatious concealments, then the omnipresence of data threatens to short-circuit the romantic narrative itself. Fran's company card would seem to make her date with Baxter redundant; after all, he can already tell "the fellas" about her most secret scars.

Connecting the controversial information-management systems of the postwar corporation to the swiftly changing mores of sex and romance and to highly-charged debates about the limits of confessional disclosure, Wilder uses Fran's company card to ask a surprising question at the intersection of data and dating: can self-revelation still create intimacy in a world where private information has become ubiquitous? The Apartment is set in a massive insurance company where a mania for data-collection has produced an uncomfortable proximity between co-workers. The information economy of the office extends beyond the symbolic and quantitative to include the homes, bodies, and deepest secrets of its employees. As secretaries and managers alike become vulnerable to intrusion and over-exposure, Fran and Baxter struggle to locate a mode of intimacy that would be distinct from the violations they experience at work. Indeed, much of their relationship replicates the exploitative logic of the office, subjecting Fran to gendered forms of manipulation and surveillance.

Because their final scene of reconciliation is set in Baxter's apartment, we might be tempted to read the film's conclusion as a straightforward endorsement of the privacy of the domestic sphere. Yet Wilder does not simply contrast the improper familiarities of the corporation with the normative intimacy of heterosexual union. Rather, he uses Fran and Baxter's romance to imagine an alternative form of interrelation. In the iconic final scene, she rushes to his apartment and pulls out a deck of cards. As Baxter struggles to understand the meaning of her sudden appearance, Fran remains resolutely fixated on the parameters of gin rummy, on shuffling, cutting, and dealing. When he confesses, "I love you, Miss Kubelik," she retorts, "Shut up and deal!" Refusing to offer the expected response to Baxter's own confessional declaration, Fran disrupts the perpetual (and often gendered) cycle of intrusion and revelation that dominates the rest of the film. She refuses to locate their affection in mutual self-disclosure and instead grounds it in the playful, reticent gestures of a card game. Exchanging company cards for playing cards, she also displaces and resists the office information economy.

Wilder's critique of the postwar corporation draws on widespread anxieties about the declining autonomy, and rising conformity, of the white-collar worker. In the decade prior to the film's release, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950), C. Wright Mills' White Collar (1951), and William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) warned of the growing power of the postwar corporation to surveil and manage the private lives of its employees. Although each of these texts shares important affinities with Wilder's film, Erving Goffman's 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life best illuminates the peculiar combination of familiarity, license, and alienation that characterizes The Apartment's corporate landscape. Goffman traces the minute interactions that help to convey both intimacy and distance precisely the social signals that have become hopelessly crossed in Wilder's film. From a Goffmanian perspective, the office information economy does not violate any immutable private self, but rather, disrupts the subject's capacity to autonomously manage her own performative self-presentation. It is this capacity, I will suggest, that Fran seeks to restore at the film's conclusion. The rote gestures of the card game are liberating for her and Baxter because they provide a structured form of reciprocity that does not depend on the twin imperatives of investigation and confession. The game offers a schema for togetherness that is consistent with their newly won right to reticence.

Of course, this 'right to reticence' may strike the reader as retrogressive. We are accustomed to viewing any appeal to privacy as a symptom of containment culture and as a blow against women's full political equality.3 Fran and Baxter clearly do not seek their liberation in radical, public self-expression. In fact, Wilder suggests that self-disclosure may only entrench them further in the information economy they seek to resist. But neither do they reconcile themselves to a normative or repressive vision of the private sphere. Mid-century American culture from Pillow Talk (1959) to Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) tended to define the private sphere as the proper space of mutual exposure and surveillance (particularly the woman's surveillance by her husband). Yet Fran and Baxter do not simply construct an intimate information economy beyond the reach of the broader public. Instead, they actively challenge that form of relationality. Fran emphatically refuses to confess even in the context of this most intimate bond. In Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (2001), Deborah Nelson argues that the long (and deserved) association between the private sphere and heterosexist individualism should not require us to completely abandon the concept of privacy, especially in the face of surveillance and information technologies much more sophisticated than those decried in The Apartment.4 Wilder's film, I will argue, provides a novel portrait of the relationship between autonomy, intimacy, and information one that may help us to answer Nelson's call for a revitalized vision of privacy.

When Fran warns Baxter, "Don't mention the appendix to the fellas in the office...I wouldn't want 'em to get the wrong idea about how you found out," she demonstrates the entanglement of corporate and romantic information economies, of the film's generic commitments and its sociological critique. The Apartment's Goffmanian grammar ultimately produces an idiosyncratic yet generative vision of intimacy.


I. Punch-Cards

The Apartment follows the obsequious C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in his increasingly humiliating bid for corporate advancement. In exchange for promises of a promotion, Baxter loans his apartment out to company executives looking for a discreet place to meet their mistresses. He stocks up on liquor and "cheesy crackers," fishes lipsticks and compact mirrors from his couch, and sleeps fitfully on a cold park bench in December. When Baxter loans the apartment to his boss, J.D. Sheldrake, he is unaware that Sheldrake plans to use it to meet with Baxter's own crush, Fran Kubelik. He discovers the truth when Fran following a particularly callous treatment by Sheldrake attempts suicide in Baxter's apartment. While nursing her back to health, Baxter vacillates between his affectionate concern for her well-being and his professional obligation to Sheldrake, who is entirely focused on whether the suicide attempt will lead to the exposure of his own philandering. Finally fed-up with the manipulative economy of the office, both Fran and Baxter abandon Sheldrake at the film's conclusion and affirm their love for one another through a playful game of gin rummy.

The comic desperation Baxter evinces throughout the film draws on a "discourse of constrained agency" common in postwar portraits of white-collar work.5 As Andrew Hoberek explains in The Twilight of the Middle Class, the mid-century growth of the professional-managerial-class led to "a skepticism about organization as such and [a] nostalgia for the putative autonomy of the property-owning middle class."6 The Apartment clearly expresses a similar skepticism about the demise of the property-owning, independent middle-class and the attendant rise of the corporate employee. Baxter pleads that his apartment is "private property, not a public playground," but it is obvious that he has already sacrificed any claim to property-ownership in favor of his commitment to the organization. The film thus registers widespread anxieties about the loss of autonomy and the rise of social conformity within the postwar middle class. Yet while The Apartment obviously echoes such near-ubiquitous warnings about the decline of white-collar autonomy, it also provides a uniquely comic portrait of the postwar organization man: the harder that workers like Baxter struggle for acceptance and approval, the more ridiculous they are made to look. Thanks to the intervention of the film's female workers, even powerful figures like J.D. Sheldrake are subjected to the over-exposures of the information economy. In contrast to many mid-century social critics who were alarmed by the growth of managerial power in the postwar organization, The Apartment envisions an information economy that evades even the control of management, subjecting all employees to a kind of universal indignity: as workers seek more information about one another, they are increasingly drawn into an uncomfortable, often humiliating, intimacy. It is that strange closeness, I will argue, that Goffman can best help us to understand.

As Hoberek notes, postwar authors and commentators frequently describe the organization (professional, political, and otherwise) as a primary threat to the autonomy of the individual subject.7 William H. Whyte contrasts the Protestant Ethic of America's frontier past with the conformist "Social Ethic" of the mid-century corporation.8 C. Wright Mills argues that the "material hardship of nineteenth-century workers" has been supplanted by the "psychological hardship" of the white-collar employee caught in a never-ending quest for prestige.9 Perhaps the most influential and sophisticated work in this vein is David Riesman's 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd, which describes a fundamental shift in the "character-structure" of the American middle-class - from an individualist "inner-direction" to a conformist "other-direction."10 The "inner-directed" character-type, which, Riesman argues, dominated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is defined by a fidelity to rigid norms internalized at an early age. By contrast, the "other-directed" type, ascendant in the mid-twentieth-century American city, is guided by the constantly shifting preferences of the peer-group. Although Riesman is clear that neither type is inherently superior, he sees each as falling short of the ideal of self-direction; rigid personal ambitions and fluid prestige economies each, in their own way, threaten the subject's capacity for autonomous action.

For Riesman, as for Whyte and Mills, the rise of the other-directed personality is connected to the technological and managerial transformation of the postwar office:

 ...the newer industrial revolution which has reached its greatest force in concerned with techniques of communication and control, not of tooling or factory layout. It is symbolized by the telephone, the servo-mechanism, the IBM machine, the electronic calculator, modern statistical methods of controlling the quality of products; by the Hawthorne counseling experiment and the general preoccupation with industrial morale.11

The semicolon in Riesman's second sentence links two discreet, but apparently interrelated, forms of innovation. Technological advancements make it easier to collect and manage data; new human resources techniques place that data in the service of managerial "communication and control." The symbolic labor performed in the office transforms the conditions of work, generating a new focus on interpersonal relations between co-workers and across managerial strata. As the worker turns her focus to human language and behavior, she is met by a symmetrical scrutiny of her own language and behavior. Riesman thus traces an intuitive, if somewhat hazy, link between the communicative and symbolic nature of white-collar work and the interpersonal focus of the other-directed character.

Wilder's film posits a similar connection. The information economy in The Apartment has turned in upon itself, generating a peculiar, intrusive intimacy between co-workers. This critique is particularly legible when read against Wilder's 1944 film, Double Indemnity. Like The Apartment, the earlier film uses the insurance industry to explore the relationship between information and subjectivity. Yet this classic film noir provides a potentially heroic image of the white-collar worker: Barton Keyes marshals statistical analysis to read the vast range of human experience. The Apartment, by contrast, reimagines the relationship between the information economy and its employees. Fran and Baxter are read by a corporation that exceeds everyone's comprehension and control.

The primary antagonists in Double Indemnity the murderer Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and his confessor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) also stand for alternative conceptions of work. As a salesman, Neff's labor is primarily interpersonal. He is a "peddler, gladhander, [and] backslapper."12 Keyes' work, by contrast, is intensely inner-directed. He is guided by a "little man inside" a voice that provides the conscience and prescience Neff lacks. At one point, Keyes attempts to draw Neff over to this more autonomous vision of work, offering him a position as assistant claims manager. "You're too good to be a salesman," he explains, "The job I'm talking about takes brains and integrity."13 Neff (who, it turns out, has too little of both) turns down the job and commits himself to Phyllis Dietrichson's fateful plot. But while things end badly for Neff, his glad-handing style of work will ultimately triumph over Keyes' conscientious "little man." Fred MacMurray, who plays Neff in Double Indemnity, will go on to play Sheldrake, The Apartment's almighty Director of Personnel. As the insurance company grows exponentially in the postwar period (Fig. 1), there is apparently less space for Keyes' idiosyncratic misanthropy and more demand for Neff's 'backslapping' interpersonal labor. The two films thus chart the rise of human relations management and the demise of the autonomous white-collar worker a transformation that also entails a changed relationship to actuarial data.


Fig. 1.1 The insurance company office in Double Indemnity.

Fig. 1.1. The insurance company office in Double Indemnity.


Fig. 1.2. The office in The Apartment. Although the layout is similar to its counterpart in Double Indemnity, the office radically increases in size in the later film. In fact, Wilder strove to make The Apartment's office appear infinitely large. In Some Like it Wilder, Gene D. Phillips quotes Wilder explaining his use of forced perspective in this scene:

Fig. 1.2. The office in The Apartment. Although the layout is similar to its counterpart in Double Indemnity, the office radically increases in size in the later film. In fact, Wilder strove to make The Apartment's office appear infinitely large. In Some Like it Wilder, Gene D. Phillips quotes Wilder explaining his use of forced perspective in this scene: "we had tall extras seated behind normal desks; then shorter extras behind small desks; some dwarfs at miniature desks; and finally some cut-outs at toy desks."See Gene D. Phillips, Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 234.


Statistics empower Barton Keyes, granting him an almost supernatural understanding of the human psyche: "Those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation," he explains, "they're alive. They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams."  Wilder's earlier film makes insurance seem like an exciting industry, and that excitement depends on our perception of the claims manager as an insightful interpreter of complex human experience, as (in his own words) "a surgeon...a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father-confessor all-in-one." Baxter, by contrast, is a victim of this same analytic power: as the white-collar corporation turns inward, and as the Human Resources department becomes increasingly powerful, employees shift from agents, to objects, of analysis. At a company party, Baxter jokes, "later on there will be human sacrifices white collar workers tossed into the computing machines, and punched full of those little square holes." Here, insurance employees are imagined as punch cards as information to be mined and analyzed. Whereas Keyes penetrates the human psyche and body as a "doctor...and a father-confessor," Baxter is penetrated by the new technologies of white-collar work.

This same transformation is emphasized in Baxter's opening monologue. As he speaks, Wilder moves from an aerial view of New York City, to the exterior of the massive corporate headquarters, and finally, to an interior view of Baxter at work (Fig. 1.2). The office is composed of infinite rows of rectangular desks, which mirror the rectangular ceiling lights above, making the entire space into a repeating geometric pattern that itself resembles a punch card. Rather than offering us insights into any human narrative or subjective interiority the monologue sorts Baxter's neighbors and co-workers into vast statistical categories:

On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company, Consolidated Life of New York. We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi or Gallup, New Mexico. I work on the nineteenth floor Ordinary Policy Department Premium Accounting Division Section W desk number 861. My name is C.C. Baxter C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford however, most people call me Bud. I've been with Consolidated Life for three years and ten months. I started in the branch office in Cincinnati, then transferred to New York. My take-home pay is $94.70 a week, and there are the usual fringe benefits.

Here, Baxter seeks to locate himself and his life story in the context of a simultaneously massive and insular corporation. The office is compared to a city, while the city is expanded to envelope much of the earth ("to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan"), leaving little space that is not colonized by the company's statistical imagination. The postwar workplace, Wilder suggests, has become a kind of self-referential world of its own. Even the names of Wilder's two insurance companies reflect the shifting horizons of middle-class work: Keyes' "Pacific All Risk" evokes the dangers of the American frontier while Baxter's "Consolidated Life of New York" describes the consolidation of public and private life in the new, white-collar Manhattan.14

Wilder's first insurance film focused on two employees who in their own ways rebelled against the expectations of their employer: the independent, misanthropic Keyes bristles at the interventions of the owner, Mr. Norton, while Neff seeks to deceive Keyes and defraud the company. By contrast, Baxter and Sheldrake locate their highest ambitions within the social and professional networks of the corporation. Wilder connects these shifting priorities with two of the technical innovations that Riesman identifies in The Lonely Crowd: the growth of information technology and of human relations management. If, as Baxter jokes, employees can be read like punch cards, then they can also be subjected to increasingly intrusive social and managerial pressures. When Baxter offers Sheldrake a report concluding that "37% of our female employees leave to get married," it is clear that the Personnel department has learned to deploy information technology in the management of its employees' personal lives. For both Wilder and Riesman, the growth of the information economy facilitates a new focus on peer-group approval and on the management of interpersonal relations. As human resources data focus the corporate gaze on the individual employee, the employee focuses his own gaze on the vast social networks of the corporation.

For Wilder, this new emphasis on the personal life of the white-collar worker produces a broader culture of surveillance and intrusion. The film's information economy quickly extends beyond the rather sterile realm of facts and figures to encompass its employees' homes and bodies. When Fran tells Baxter, who is suffering from a cold, that she never gets sick, he responds:

Baxter: Really? I was looking at some figures from the Sickness and Accident Claims Division. Do you know that the average New Yorker between the ages of twenty and fifty has two and a half colds a year?
Fran: That makes me feel just terrible.
Baxter: Why?
Fran: Well, to make the figures come out even, since I have no colds a year, some poor slob must have five colds a year.
Baxter: That's me!

Here, Fran and Baxter read physical contagion a profoundly messy, bodily affair in the actuarial terms of the office. And indeed, physical and intimate information seems to circulate through Consolidated Life as readily as statistical figures and bureaucratic forms.

For Wilder, this vastly extended information economy produces two self-contradictory effects simultaneously: on the one hand, it places new emphasis on the management of interpersonal relations and on the achievement of peer-group approval. At the same time, it subjects its employees to an over-familiarity that places any claim for respect and esteem on shaky ground. When he loans out his bedroom to gain the approval of executives in middle-management, Baxter also exposes himself to the indignity of cleaning up after their affairs, just as their own improprieties make them appear unworthy of his admiration. When he is called into Sheldrake's office, hoping for a promotion, he struggles to present himself respectably because he is still sniffling from a night spent on a park bench. Meanwhile, Sheldrake, who wants access to the apartment himself, is made to reveal his own marital indiscretions. When Baxter tries to show off his new junior-executive office during a staff party, he finds a drunken couple making-out on his couch (a reprisal of the affairs taking place in his home). Even his final promotion to Assistant Personnel Director comes with an office adjoining Sheldrake's and a much-coveted key to the "executive washroom" prizes that draw him, his boss, and their bodily functions into an even more uncomfortable proximity. Throughout The Apartment, Wilder treats the imperative for social belonging identified by critics like Riesman as a kind of Sisyphean task: the more Baxter tries to impress his co-workers and superiors, the more vulnerable they all become to potentially embarrassing intimacies.15

Fig. 2. The more Baxter tries to impress his co-workers, the more foolish he looks. Here, he proudly models a new

Fig. 2. The more Baxter tries to impress his co-workers, the more foolish he looks. Here, he proudly models a new "junior executive model" hat for Fran.


This central irony also fundamentally shapes the film's gender politics: although powerful men like Sheldrake assume that the information economy works primarily to their advantage, its power can also be claimed by the film's lower-paid, female employees. As one might expect, the sensitive, personal information that flows through the office is often leveraged against female (and lower-status male) workers. Baxter's knowledge of Fran's appendix scar gives him the power to shape her sexual reputation, while his effort to protect the sexual secrecy of middle-management requires that he take on a false reputation of his own (Baxter's neighbors, living on the other side of a thin wall, assume that he is a prolific philanderer). Even Sheldrake is ultimately made vulnerable to violation and over-exposure particularly at the hands of The Apartment's women workers. As typists, secretaries, and telephone operators, the women in the film serve as an interface between male employees and the communication apparatus, a position that gives them a unique (though often overlooked) proximity to information.

In many postwar romantic comedies, working women are treated as extensions of the machines they operate an elision that produces a kind of fantasy of female automaticity.16 In Wilder's 1955 comedy, The Seven Year Itch, Richard Sherman imagines telling his wife: "Take my secretary, for instance. To you, she's just Miss Morris, a piece of office furniture. Ten fingers to type my letters. Well, let me tell you."17 While Sherman describes Miss Morris as an unlikely romantic interest because she is just a piece of office furniture, her literal objectification (not to mention dismemberment - "ten fingers to type") also makes her particularly vulnerable to his sexual advances. In The Apartment, female employees are similarly identified with the machines they operate. The telephone operator Sylvia shouts, "I'm ringing!"and Fran tries to deter Sheldrake's advances by joking: "I'm sorry Mr. Sheldrake I'm full up, you'll have to take the next elevator." Even the code word Fran uses to describe sex "ring-a-ding-ding" underscores the connection between physical intimacy and secretarial technology. But Wilder also shows how women workers might manipulate and disrupt the communication apparatus. Fran explains that she became an elevator operator because she "flunked the typing test." "Too slow?" Baxter asks. "No, I can type up a storm," she replies, "I just can't spell." This response belies the vision of the typist as strictly automatic, reminding the viewer of the mental labor involved in translating spoken words to written ones; her poor spelling threatens to disrupt the seamless flow of information through the female body, necessitating her transfer to a less demanding post.

Indeed, Fran demonstrates the real threat she might pose to the office hierarchy when she considers exposing her affair with Sheldrake, telling Baxter that she plans to write a letter to Mrs. Sheldrake, "as one woman to another." Still seeking to protect his boss, Baxter responds: "I don't think that's a very good idea, Miss Kubelik...for one thing, you can't spell." Here, Fran threatens to usurp the information system that protects Sheldrake's secrets, converting it into a kind of female communication network ("one woman to another"). Baxter, in turn, reproduces the patriarchal logic of the office by removing her access to communication at the moment when her agency threatens to disrupt it. But although Fran is persuaded to abandon her letter, Sheldrake's "busybody" secretary and former mistress, Miss Olsen, produces her own female network, revealing his long history of infidelity (first to Fran and then to his wife). Although Sheldrake tries to limit her "personal" calls, Miss Olsen uses her desk phone to contact Mrs. Sheldrake and end his marriage. Together, Fran and Miss Olsen convert women's association with information technology often imagined as facilitating male sexual entitlement into a means of redress for harassment and philandering. In doing so, they also demonstrate that no one (not even management) is free of the potentially embarrassing exposures of Consolidated Life.

If employees like Baxter submit to workplace humiliations in the hopes of eventually transcending them, Wilder emphasizes the futility of that ambition. Even Sheldrake, who would seem to have risen above such exposure, overlooks the privileged informational access that his female employees wield. The information-flow at Consolidated Life thus works to empower patriarchal and managerial power while simultaneously threatening to undermine its authority. Although the film's characters aim to manipulate the information economy for their own ends, they only achieve an even greater vulnerability to surveillance and exposure. In this way, The Apartment's vision of the white-collar workplace demonstrates a tension inherent to Riesman's other-directed character-structure: the very interpersonal labor that Baxter and Sheldrake leverage for their professional and sexual advantage also draws them into a curious intimacy that makes real esteem and authority untenable. In other words, they struggle for a professional prestige that will always prove elusive because it is necessarily tied to the indignities of an intrusive information economy. Although Riesman certainly worries about the tradeoffs the organization man may make in his quest for advancement, Erving Goffman can best help us to understand the precise dynamic Wilder explores. Goffman's work traces the minute social signals that convey affection, distance, and respect precisely those signals that have become thoroughly crossed in The Apartment's curious world of professional intimacy.

Goffman's groundbreaking 1959 study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, describes identity as a performative construction, built up from the daily scenes of social interaction:

The a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.18

In any social scene, Goffman argues, subjects seek to achieve and maintain a socially appropriate "definition of the situation."19 This definition may allow them to project authority or humility, intimacy or distance, but its primary aim is to establish a cohesive identity and a stable interrelation. To project a positive impression and to achieve an appropriate interrelation, subjects mobilize available information about themselves and about each other. "When an individual enters the presence of others, to acquire information about him or to bring into play information about him already possessed," Goffman argues in his book's opening sentences, "...Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him."20 Social interaction is, on this account, "a kind of information game."21 In their efforts to project a desired impression of themselves and to correctly read the impressions projected by others, subjects engage in "a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery."22

Social interaction thus requires a canny management of information; while concealment may produce distance or respect, revelation helps to produce feelings of intimacy and mutual trust. Because a successful performance often relies on a receptive audience and a supportive 'team' of social colluders, it may foster distance and intimacy simultaneously:

Whatever it is that generates the human want for social contact and for companionship, the effect seems to take two forms: a need for an audience before which to try out one's vaunted selves, and a need for team-mates with whom to enter into collusive intimacies and backstage relaxation.23

Here, Goffman invokes one of his key sociological terms: the frontstage/backstage distinction. Any "frontstage" social performance (at work or at play) will require particular constrictions and concealments, he explains. As such, it also generates an opportunity for selective relaxation and revelation, for the "collusive intimacies" of the social "backstage." Goffman is clear that this "backstage" space does not offer absolute authenticity or total privacy; it likely serves instead as the site for another performance (the performance of friendship and intimacy, for example). Nevertheless, it does provide a respite from the demands of at least one audience. "Obviously," Goffman writes, "control of backstage plays a significant role in the process of 'work control' whereby individuals attempt to buffer themselves from the deterministic demands that surround them."24 "Backstage" space, on this account, provides a momentary escape from the requirements of a specific audience, allowing the subject to achieve greater autonomy over her full range of social, professional, and intimate performances.

As may be obvious by now, the defining fact of The Apartment is the total lack of backstage space. Both Fran and Baxter literally invite their bosses into their beds. When Fran confesses her suicide attempt, Baxter reports his concerns to Sheldrake, and even Sheldrake works side-by-side with his bitter ex-mistress, Miss Olsen. Goffman explains that it is conventional to (at least) give performers backstage control "over the place in which they attend to what are called their biological needs," but Consolidated Life violates even that rule.25 Baxter sniffles in Sheldrake's office, Sheldrake (we imagine) has sex on Baxter's couch and in his bed, and the two share a highly prized "executive washroom." As Riesman explains (echoing Goffman's own critique), such blurring of public, professional, and personal boundaries tends to produce a kind of uncanny intimacy:

For [the other-directed person] the border between the familiar and the strange...has broken down...while the inner-directed person could be "at home abroad" by virtue of his relative insensitivity to others, the other-directed person is, in a sense, at home everywhere and nowhere, capable of a superficial intimacy with and response to everyone.26

The Apartment takes this "superficial intimacy" to its most literal conclusion; through his apartment-loaning scheme Baxter insures that his superiors can be 'at home' in Manhattan, while simultaneously insuring that he is at home nowhere. In this way, Goffman and Riesman can help us to read the strange familiarity that characterizes the office as a result of its intrusive information economies. The film's characters express a universal "superficial intimacy" because they lack the performative boundaries necessary to autonomously generate either superficial regard or collusive intimacy. In strictly Goffmanian terms, The Apartment demonstrates what happens when the vulnerabilities typically preserved for backstage space are made inextricable from the pressures of frontstage performance.

The Apartment clearly draws on postwar anxieties about the loss of autonomy in the white-collar workplace. Particularly when read in contrast to Double Indemnity, Wilder's film demonstrates how the rise of human relations management and the growth of information technology have produced a claustrophobic organizational landscape and a sycophantic corporate personality. Though many postwar critics would read these changes in starkly serious terms, Wilder reveals the big joke: that anyone who tries to leverage the office information economy to his own advantage (from the earnest Baxter to the self-serious Sheldrake) will also find himself drawn into its uncomfortable intimacies. The film thus demonstrates how the loss of privacy associated with new information technologies tends to produce a concurrent loss of autonomy over one's own social performance. Of course, this critique also poses a unique challenge for the genre of romantic comedy: How can Fran and Baxter establish a form of intimacy that would be distinct from, or even opposed to, the rampant humiliations of Consolidated Life? In my next section, I will argue that their concluding game of gin rummy expresses an affection grounded in respect and reciprocity, rather than intrusion and revelation. In exchanging punch cards for playing cards, I will suggest, Fran and Baxter allow each other to regain some measure of the autonomy they have lost at Consolidated Life.


II. Playing-Cards

            Throughout the film, Baxter's tiny, shabby apartment serves as a clear visual counterpoint to the massive, glossy office. Despite this contrast, the space (thanks in large part to Baxter's scheming) remains deeply embedded in the manipulative economies of Consolidated Life.  The apartment is a distinctly hostile space for Fran: it is the scene of Sheldrake's callous mistreatment of her, of her own attempted suicide, and of Baxter's subsequent surveillance on Sheldrake's behalf. We might wonder, then, how the apartment could serve as the backdrop for her and Baxter's final moment of intimacy. As I will argue below, the film clearly refuses any vision of the domestic sphere as an unproblematic or obvious retreat from an intrusive public sphere. Instead, it uses Fran and Baxter's two games of gin rummy to imagine alternative ways of occupying shared space. The first game remains firmly embedded in the office information economy it tries and fails to leverage confession as a mechanism for producing intimacy. By contrast, the second game explicitly rejects confessional discourse and instead uses the simple gestures of the game to structure a more reticent form of relationality. Refusing to ground love in mutual self-revelation, Wilder ultimately locates intimacy in a Goffmanian-inflected vision of playful, autonomous reciprocity.

We have already seen how The Apartment echoes mid-century anxieties about the postwar office, but Wilder's critique also draws much of its force from contemporaneous concerns about the architectural form of the apartment building. As Sharon Marcus argues, the apartment building has challenged public/private dichotomies since at least the nineteenth-century.27 Certainly, Baxter's home is no exception, standing somewhere between (in his words) "private property" and a "public playground." Goffman, for his part, specifically identifies the apartment as a threat to "backstage" relaxation:

A somewhat related instance of backstage difficulty is to be found in the architecture of some current housing projects. For walls that are really thin partitions can separate domestic establishments visually, but allow the backstage and frontstage activity of one unit to sound through into the neighboring establishment...Here neighbors who may know each other very little find themselves in the embarrassing position of knowing that each knows about the other too well.28

Wilder's film explores this exact possibility. Baxter's neighbors, the Dreyfusses, overhear the near-constant parties and rendezvous in his unit and assume he is a uniquely virile seduction artist. This prompts the curiosity of Dr. Dreyfuss, who hopes to break down the final barrier to surveillance and peer directly into Baxter's body: "I'm doing some research at the Columbia Medical Center ...Would you mind leaving your body to the University?" The case of mistaken identity means the Dreyfusses do not really know Baxter "too well" (as Goffman writes), but the thin walls still expose him to their salacious prying and sanctimonious disapproval. The lack of a proper "backstage" thus makes it impossible for Baxter to manage his two conflicting performances as an amenable co-worker and as a responsible neighbor.

For Wilder, Baxter's apartment serves both as a counterpoint to the office, and as an extension of its logic; rather than providing a distinct space of domestic privacy, his home seems to afford (through contact with the Dreyfusses) a somewhat warmer, more benign form of intrusion. Pamela Robertson Wojcik's The Apartment Plot (2010) can help us to understand the tension between these two spaces of uncomfortable proximity. Wojcik's book extends Marcus' project by considering the cultural status of the apartment building in postwar America. Wojcik argues that the apartment's characteristic blend of public and private enables a range of specifically urban plot devices:

The apartment plot comprises various and often overlapping subplots, including plots in which lovers encounter one another within a single apartment house or live in neighboring apartment buildings; plots in which voyeurism, eavesdropping and intrusion are key; plots that focus on single working women in their apartments; plots in which married or suburban men temporarily inhabit apartments in order to access "bachelor" status; and plots in which aspects of everyday life are played out and informed by the chance encounters and urban access afforded by apartment living.29

Of course, Wilder's film deploys nearly every one of these devices. Baxter has set up a scheme which allows married, suburban men "to...access 'bachelor' status." This scheme leads, in turn, to his unsettling surprise encounter with his future lover Fran, who is herself rescued and nursed back to health with the aid of his eavesdropping neighbors. Wojcik argues that the apartment plot " emphasize the erotic possibilities for accidental and surprising encounters in the city," offering a "revitalized sense of neighborhood and community."30 Baxter's apartment building provides some glimmers of this more positive "philosophy of urbanism."31 Despite their meddling, the Dreyfusses, stand as unique figures of warm, neighborly affection. While the office information economy is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, the unexpected intimacies of apartment living provide a potentially positive form of community.

But while the apartment building, taken on its own terms, allows for a more affirmative vision of urban encounter, its implication in the economy of Consolidated Life makes it a highly vulnerable refuge. Fran and Baxter's final game of gin rummy occurs amidst a stack of moving boxes, suggesting that the success of their romance will ultimately depend on their ability to leave the tainted space of the apartment. This promise of escape marks a clear departure from their first game of rummy, which serves only to replicate the exploitative logic of the office. Together, the two games demonstrate two possible fates for domestic intimacy: it can function as an extension of corporate control, or it can offer a potential alternative to that intrusion.

The first game occurs while Baxter is nursing Fran back to health, following her attempted suicide. Apathetic about the game itself, she engages in a lengthy confession, describing some of the failed romances that led her to attempt suicide:

I just have this talent for falling in love with the wrong guy, in the wrong place, at the wrong time...The last one was the manager of a finance company back home in Pittsburgh. They found a little shortage in his accounts. But he asked me to wait for him.  He'll be out in 1965...So I came to New York and moved in with my sister and her husband who drives a cab. They sent me to secretarial school and then I applied for a job at Consolidated... and that's how I met Jeff. Oh god I'm so fouled up. What am I gonna do now?

With Fran reclining in bed, gazing dreamily upwards, and with Baxter sitting rigidly in his chair     and occasionally scribbling on a notepad, the two resemble a psychoanalyst with his analysand (Fig. 3.1). Yet the analysis Baxter provides remains firmly tied to the priorities of Consolidated Life. The two frame her confession in actuarial terms ("What do you call it when people keep getting smashed up in automobile accidents?" she asks. "Bad insurance risk?" he responds. "That's me with men." ), and unbeknownst to Fran, Baxter continues to serve as a professional proxy for Sheldrake, who is primarily concerned with whether his own philandering will be revealed. The game (and her monologue) occur shortly after Baxter has secretly phoned Sheldrake to report on her condition. Baxter continues to represent the interests of the Personnel Director afterwards as well, dissuading Fran from writing a letter to Mrs. Sheldrake. Even if Fran may hope that her self-disclosure will produce a genuine connection between herself and Baxter, it remains mired in the uneven and manipulative economy of Consolidated Life. As she makes herself emotionally vulnerable, Baxter seeks to mitigate Sheldrake's exposure.


Fig. 3.1. During their first game, Fran and Baxter are positioned as an analyst and analysand. This produces an uneven surveillance economy: her gaze is fixed on the bedroom wall while he is able to scrutinize her from his chair.

Fig. 3.1. During their first game, Fran and Baxter are positioned as an analyst and analysand. This produces an uneven surveillance economy: her gaze is fixed on the bedroom wall while he is able to scrutinize her from his chair.

Fig. 3.2 The second game restores the reciprocity of their relationship, as expressed by the symmetry of their bodies and by their mutual, affectionate gaze.

Fig. 3.2 The second game restores the reciprocity of their relationship, as expressed by the symmetry of their bodies and by their mutual, affectionate gaze.


Fran and Baxter both (in their own ways) return to Sheldrake once she has recovered: she takes him back as a lover and Baxter is promoted to his assistant. But Baxter finally quits when Sheldrake asks again for the key to his apartment. Then, upon learning that Baxter has abandoned Sheldrake, Fran decides to leave Sheldrake too. In the film's iconic final scenes, she flees a New Year's Eve party with Sheldrake and races to Baxter's. Yet this time, she insures herself against the manipulation she experienced during their first game of gin rummy. Her final lines avoid any confessional content and are instead fixated on the parameters of the game:

Fran: What'd you do with the cards?
Baxter: In there.
[Fran takes out the cards, sits down, and begins to shuffle.]
Baxter: What about Mr. Sheldrake?
Fran: I'm gonna send him a fruitcake every Christmas. Cut.
[Baxter takes a card.]
Baxter:  I love you, Miss Kubelik.
Fran: [She cuts a card for herself] Three. [Reads Baxter's card] Queen.
Baxter: Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.
Fran: Shut up and deal!

As Baxter continues to both investigate and confess ("What about Mr. Sheldrake?" "I love you Miss Kubelik"), Fran punctuates his speech with monosyllabic references to the game ("Cut." "Three." "Queen."). At the close of the exchange, she counters his dramatic confession ("I absolutely adore you") with a sharply anti-climatic reply ("Shut up and deal!"). Evading the demand for self-revelation implied by his own declaration, and so resisting the logic of Consolidated Life, she seeks to ground their affection in some new form of reticent relationality.

Wilder often concludes his films on an anti-confessional note, pairing a dramatic revelation with a surprisingly cavalier response. After realizing (at the conclusion of Double Indemnity) that Keyes has overheard his confession of guilt, Neff laments, "[I] suppose I get the big speech. The one with all the two-dollar words in it. Let's have it, Keyes." "Walter," Keyes responds simply, "you're all washed up." At the end of Some Like It Hot (1959), Jack Lemmon's character Jeff  who has spent much of the film in drag tries to convince his male fiancé to call off the wedding. He confesses: "I'm not a natural blond. I smoke...I can never have children." When none of these pleas bring the expected result, he pulls off his wig and shouts, "I'm a man!"32 "Well," his fiancé concludes, "nobody's perfect." In both cases, the film's climatic revelation is deflated by a lackluster response, leading the viewer to question the actual importance of otherwise crucial facts (Neff's guilt, Jeff's gender). Like Barton Keyes, and like Jeff's billionaire, Fran refuses to offer the expected response to a dramatic revelation. Instead, her final line marks a decisive end to the film's insistent, prying, ingratiating chatter.

Fran and Baxter's final game of gun rummy is intuitively appealing because it allows them to momentarily set aside the continuous quest for social, professional, and sexual advantage that has dominated the rest of the film; it allows them to simply be together. Its quaint, even chaste, playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the frank seductions and crass wheeling-and-dealing of the office, not to mention the uneven revelation and surveillance that characterized their first game. By concluding his film with the quiet affection of a card game, Wilder clearly distinguishes his film from the contemporaneous "sex comedy" genre. As Kathrina Glitre explains in Hollywood Romantic Comedy (2006), this genre (prominent in the late fifties and early sixties) typically focused on a "bachelor playboy" who gradually wears down the defenses of a "virginal career girl."33 Pillow Talk (1959) is perhaps the quintessential film in this genre, and together with The Apartment, one of the most iconic romantic comedies of its era. But the two films offer radically different visions of the relationship between intimacy, privacy, and information technology. Reading the two side-by-side will set Fran's anti-confessional posture at the film's close in sharper relief and help us to better understand its consequences.

Doris Day plays Pillow Talk's uptight Jan, a frigid woman with "bedroom problems" who repeatedly rebuffs the advances of eligible men.34 Rock Hudson, meanwhile, plays the over-sexed Brad Allen, whose promiscuity makes him something of a sexual deviant.35 Both Jan and Brad, the film suggests, must undergo some kind of psychosexual adjustment in order to achieve the monogamous, heterosexual romance the genre requires. Intriguingly, this adjustment is accomplished through select violations of privacy. Jan and Brad meet because she is prone to eavesdropping on their shared "party line" phone a unique form of proximity that Brad leverages in his own complicated and deceptive seduction scheme. The film's conclusion relies on similar violations of privacy. After Jan redecorates Brad's apartment with gaudy kitsch meant to expose his inner debauchery, he pulls her out of bed and drags her through the street in her pajamas (Fig. 4).  As Brad carries Jan unwillingly across the threshold of his hideously decorated apartment in the film's final moments, each is made to embrace the mutual humiliation that (according to this film at least) constitutes marriage.36

Fig. 4. Brad carries Jan across the street in her pajamas and electric blanket.

Fig. 4. Brad carries Jan across the street in her pajamas and electric blanket.


The differences here are stark: while The Apartment worries about the effects of urban communication technologies, Pillow Talk embraces the "party line" phone as a mechanism for breaking down barriers between eligible strangers. In contrast to Fran and Baxter who seek a connection that will liberate them from the intrusiveness of Consolidated Life, Jan and Brad see intrusion as a central feature of their romance. If the "sex comedy" is predicated on the erosion of personal boundaries, then Wilder's film is interested in building these back up. Fran's "shut up and deal" functions as a decisive rejection of the model of intimacy advanced by the contemporaneous sex comedies (and Pillow Talk in particular); it seeks to ground affection in something other than mutual exposure and revelation. Of course, Wilder's final scene is on some level revelatory: Fran's laughing smile as she removes her coat clearly signals her desire and affection. Yet the love she reveals is explicitly tied to her and Baxter's ability and willingness to set aside confessional disclosure. The sex comedy imagines love as the willing embrace of humiliation, whereas The Apartment reads it as the limit of a coercive and manipulative information economy.37

But if Fran defies the logic of the office, what positive form of relationality does she offer in its place? The card game is so central, I will suggest, because it allows her and Baxter to reconstruct the autonomy they have lost at Consolidated Life. In The Lonely Crowd, Riesman identifies "the right to play" as central to the development of the self-directed individual.38 It is in the non-utilitarian space of the game, he suggests, that subjects can recover their "autonomy and political imagination."39 Although we can readily perceive how play in general might help to liberate Fran and Baxter from what Goffman calls the "deterministic demands" of the workplace, we might wonder how this game in particular could generate autonomy. The gestures that Fran insists on are rote and ritualized (they rely on highly specific rules: that the player who shuffles does not cut first, that the player who cuts second does not deal,etc.)  On its face, the game seems at least as constraining as it is liberating. What is it about gin rummy then that Wilder and Fran find so promising?

Erving Goffman can again help answer the question. The small gestures of the game are crucial to the film's conclusion because they allow Fran to enact a structured form of deference and reciprocity. Through the set of mechanisms of turn-taking, she provides a framework for the kinds of basic mutual civilities which Goffman analyzes throughout his work. He argues that it is precisely such simple ceremonial gestures (the "little salutations, compliments, and apologies which punctuate social intercourse") that allow for the experience of autonomous selfhood.40 In his 1956 essay, "The Nature of Deference of Demeanor," for example, Goffman describes the subject's sense of self as the result of an elaborate set of social rituals:

While it may be true that the individual has a unique self all his own, evidence of this possession is thoroughly a product of joint ceremonial labor, the part expressed through the individual's demeanor being no more significant than the part conveyed by others through their deferential behavior toward him.41

It is by expressing one another's separateness, through physical and verbal gestures, that we grant each other a sense of individual subjectivity. Goffman contrasts this typical form of sociality with life in a mental asylum, where a tendency to violate rules of deference and demeanor (on the part of both patients and staff) challenges patients' senses of individual autonomy. He explains: "An terms of the ceremonial component of activity, is a place where it is easy or difficult to play the ritual game of having a self. Where these practices are not would appear difficult to be a person."42

The Apartment depicts a world much like Goffman's mental asylum, where it is "difficult to play the ritual game of having a self." It is a space that consistently violates the equilibrium of social intercourse: employees are so focused on achieving closeness and intimacy that they abandon their capacity to foster respect and autonomy. As Goffman explains:

There is an inescapable opposition between showing a desire to include an individual and showing respect for his privacy. As an implication of this dilemma, we must see that social intercourse involves a constant dialectic between presentational rituals and avoidance rituals. A peculiar tension must be maintained, for these opposing requirements of conduct must somehow be held apart from one another and yet realized together in the same interaction: the gestures which carry an actor to a recipient must also signify that things will not be carried too far.43

The card game is so appealing as a concluding image (even for a viewer with no knowledge of Goffman) because it provides a framework for close interaction while simultaneously promising that "things will not be carried too far." It offers a space where, as I have argued above, Fran and Baxter can set aside their prying, manipulating, and social climbing to engage in simple, playful togetherness. It offers a return to respect, reciprocity, and turn-taking, a return to a form of intimacy that eschews uncomfortable or excessive exposure, and that instead provides an opportunity to reconstruct one another's sense of self. The rules that would seem to constrain Fran and Baxter's interaction at the film's close thus serve as the framework for a new, more autonomous form of social performance. Although Wilder does not offer the kind of detailed critique of subjectivity and sociality available in Goffman's work, his final scene trades on a pair of basically Goffmanian insights: that our autonomy hinges on our ability to (at least sometimes) evade revelation and surveillance, and that meaningful affection and respect may reside in the seemingly rote gestures of ritual deference.



III. Re-reading Privacy

The Apartment raises a series of questions central to mid-century American culture: How were new management strategies and information technologies affecting the autonomy of the middle-class worker? How were changing mores of sex and dating shifting the contours of privacy, particularly for women? How did self-disclosure either disrupt or entrench social and professional conformities? As we have seen, Fran and Baxter ultimately eschew confessional disclosure in favor of a set of virtues that would appear far from radical: respect, dignity, civility, reticence. It is clear then, that they do not view radical self-expression as an antidote to the conformist pressures of Consolidated Life. For many critics, their rejection of authentic self-expression and their commitment to privacy at the film's close would align Fran and Baxter with a retrograde vision of heteronormative domesticity (the type that would be famously enshrined in the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut). Yet I would argue that the film's conclusion refuses such a blunt contrast between radical authenticity and reactionary privacy. I would like to suggest, instead, that The Apartment offers a potentially generative vision of privacy as autonomy. In making this claim, I will draw on Deborah Nelson's book Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America, whose final chapters call for a renewed vision of the private defined not as a separate domestic sphere, but quite simply as the capacity to autonomously "refuse or embrace the confessional moment."44 Wilder's final scene, with its decisive refusals and quaint Goffmanian rituals, might help us toward this revitalized vision.

In recent years, several critics of mid-century American culture (including Mary Esteve, Abigail Cheever, and Michael Trask) have sought to recuperate the discourse of autonomy which is legible in Riesman's and Goffman's work, but which was largely forgotten in the wake of the New Left's emphasis on authentic self-expression.45 In his 2010 essay, "Patricia Highsmith's Method," Trask argues that countercultural activists misread Goffman and Riesman's influential critiques of social performance as pleas for radical authenticity. "[M]id-century sociologists," he explains:

did not confront the problem of a compromised autonomy by appealing to an inner reality or an individual's self-determined essence. Nor should it surprise us that, for these deeply constructionist thinkers, at issue in the historical shift from the competitive frontiers of producer culture to the protectionist dominion of the National Security State was less authenticity or its absence than autonomy or its absence. And just as they cared more about authoritarianism than artifice, so they entertained a view of performance that got lost in the translation of their critical thought to the activists of the sixties.46

Indeed, it is clear that Goffman places little stock in self-revelation. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he criticizes "evangelical social movements" and "group therapy" sessions for instituting an "anti-dramaturgical...cult of confession."47 As Trask emphasizes, Goffman is uninterested in breaking-down the artifice of social interaction; instead, he is much more concerned that subjects retain autonomy over their sometimes competing and often instrumental performances.

As we have seen, The Apartment is similarly skeptical about whether self-revelation could meaningfully challenge the social and managerial pressures of the corporation. Fran's own confession touches on several of the themes that would later be associated with the confessional poetry movement in general and Sylvia Plath in particular (romantic disappointment, callous sexism, suicidal ideation). Yet whereas that work is often linked to the radical imperative of the second-wave feminist movement to make the personal political in Fran's case, it serves only to further entangle her in a system that has already reimagined the "personal" as a sphere of managerial control. This entanglement in turn raises a question about The Apartment's relationship to postwar, and contemporary, feminist politics: when Fran pulls out the deck of cards and settles into a moment of private affection, does she relinquish her independence and freedom? In concluding with this image of domestic, heterosexual romance does Wilder communicate a regressive conception of privacy?

Mid-century debates about privacy were starkly gendered, especially following Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which established the first constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy, five years after The Apartment's premiere. The decision legalized the use of birth control by married couples by designating the marital home as a "zone of privacy" free from the interventions of the state. In a line that dominated press coverage, Justice Douglas asked, "would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?"48 For Douglas, heterosexual marriage was a fundamentally private institution, marked by intimate information ("telltale signs") that must not be made legible to the state. But detractors argued that, while the decision ensured the privacy of marriage, it did not grant any new rights to the individual male, or more pertinently, female subject. As Justice William J. Brennan would later observe: "in Griswold the right to privacy in question inhered in the marital relationship. Yet the marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals, each with a separate intellectual and emotional make-up."49 A right shared by an association is, of course, a right vulnerable to unequal distribution, and many feared that the privacy granted to marriage would only serve to ensure patriarchal surveillance and control.50 Even though Griswold sought to protect the secret signs constitutive of the marital bond, it did not account for the specific autonomy or privacy of the female subject.

For many feminist critics, Griswold exemplifies a long-held suspicion: that individual, liberal-democratic rights serve only to consolidate the power of (typically white) property-owning males. Accordingly, in the decades since the decision, feminist and queer activists have sought to transgress the boundaries of the private sphere, which they argue, silence those falling outside a heterosexist conception of the individual, rights-bearing subject(While feminists sought to make the personal political in the sixties and seventies, later AIDS activism coalesced around the provocative equation: "Silence=Death").51 Lauren Berlant offers a philosophical elaboration of this critique in her highly influential essay "Live Sex Acts." Berlant writes: "In the fantasy life-world of national culture citizens aspire to dead identities constitutional personhood in its public sphere abstraction and suprahistoricity; reproductive heterosexuality in the zone of privacy. Identities not live or in play; but dead, frozen, fixed, or at rest."52 For Berlant, privacy is a space sanctioned by national authority that can be occupied only by conforming ("dead") identities. By contrast, "live" sex acts are those that "threaten because they do not aspire to the privacy protection of national culture."53 They are part of a queer "sexual subculture" that "sees sexuality as a set of acts and world-building activities whose implications are radically TBA."54 At stake for Berlant is an opposition between privacy and agency; one can choose either a shielded but "dead" identity, or an exposed but "live" one.

This critique of heteronormative privacy has been both necessary and politically effective. Yet as Deborah Nelson suggests in Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America, it has not provided (and usually would not want to provide) any alternative conception of privacy. Nelson's book reads postwar American culture through two genres particularly preoccupied with the limits of the private sphere constitutional law and confessional poetry. Feminist and queer poets, she argues, have helped to destabilize heteronormative visions of privacy, making gender inequality, queer sexuality, and reproductive rights available for public, political contestation. Nevertheless, she suggests that this thorough and warranted critique of the private sphere has made it difficult to offer any theoretically robust response to still urgent privacy concerns, from NSA spying, to abortion regulations, to corporate surveillance and data collection. As Nelson explains: "'we' not want to 'return' to a genteel, patriarchal, and property-based norm of privacy. But that does not mean that privacy is something we can live without." Nelson offers only the broad outlines of a more liberatory conception of privacy, but she is clear that such a theory would eschew distinctions based on the content of disclosure (it would not make taboos out of sex, pregnancy, or the domestic, sphere for example). Instead, it would "acknowledg[e] the terms on which self-disclosure is made" and would seek to "maintain a viable distinction between voluntary self-disclosure and coerced confession."55  This vision of privacy, Nelson argues, would enable a "fluid relationship with the public world," allowing the speaker to autonomously "refuse or embrace the confessional moment."56

The Apartment envisions a world where it is particularly difficult to distinguish between voluntary and coerced disclosure: the employees of Consolidated Life have made their intimate information broadly accessible under conditions of intense managerial scrutiny. Baxter's decision to loan out his apartment is mostly voluntary but he is able to access Fran's company card without her consent. She volunteers her personal romantic history but is unaware that he has already been reporting her condition to Sheldrake. By eliding participation and manipulation, The Apartment's corporate world resonates with the contemporary information economy, which often seeks our consent while simultaneously obscuring the nature and extent of our self-disclosure (consider the "privacy agreements" offered by social media companies).

Wilder's film thus registers Nelson's concern about the elusive boundaries of voluntary and coerced confession. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also evades the central pitfalls she identifies. Though clearly maintaining a commitment to some version of privacy, Fran and Baxter do not submit to the patriarchal form enshrined by Griswold. Justice Douglas seeks to protect the private, intimate information shared by the married couple. The court's right to privacy thus hinges on the couple's continued surveillance of one another (and more particularly, on the wife's surveillance by her husband). Indeed, this is precisely how marriage is imagined in Pillow Talk. When Brad carries Jan across the street in her pajamas, her requests for help are casually ignored by neighbors, strangers, and even a policeman. "Officer, arrest this man," she calls, "he's taking me up to his apartment!" "I can't say as I blame him Miss," the officer responds, before greeting Brad by name. The exchange allows Brad to publicly perform the newfound "privacy" of their romantic relationship. While they violate and expose each other, these violations are protected from the intrusion of the state, as represented by the officer. Heterosexual romance is thereby marked as a protected space of mutual surveillance and exposure. By contrast, Fran insists on her right to determine what she will reveal and when, even in the context of her most intimate relationship. Her vision of love does not simply fall beyond the purview of state or corporate information economies; it actively resists its logic, seeking to ground affection in reciprocity rather than revelation.

The Apartment is a profoundly generative text for reading privacy in the postwar period because it shares a common anxiety (the growth of the information economy and the apparent demise of privacy) but avoids two of the most common responses. Fran and Baxter do not retreat into a conventional privacy that would designate the domestic sphere as the proper space of mutual violation and surveillance.  Through their first game of gin rummy, the film demonstrates how that conventional form of disclosure might be made continuous with a broader, patriarchal information economy. Yet Wilder's leads do not reject privacy outright either; they do not seek to locate their agency in radical self-expression, nor do they demand deep knowledge of one another's 'authentic' selves as a condition for affection. Instead, Fran reimagines their intimacy as a space that would permit them to build their capacities for distance and reticence, to regain, as Nelson puts it, their ability to "refuse or embrace the confessional moment."57

Ultimately, the film provides a vision of privacy as autonomy. Drawing from the insights of Riesman and Goffman, it emphasizes the ways that periodic and momentary retreat from the scrutiny of the corporate and patriarchal information economy allows subjects to retrieve some capacity to autonomously manage their social performances. It permits them to produce meaningful distance and affection because they have not been assimilated into, as Riesman describes it, a universal "superficial intimacy." The film's final vision of love obviously falls short of any utopic solution to Wilder's (and our own) anxieties about autonomy and privacy, but it offers a novel set of terms, images, and priorities one that may prove generative if we hope to follow Nelson's lead in reimagining and revitalizing our conception of privacy.


Katie Fitzpatrick is a PhD candidate at Brown University, where she is writing a dissertation on law and democracy in the post45 American novel. Her writing has also appeared in Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She can be reached on twitter at @katiefitzpat.



  1. I borrow my title from a 2014 article in Wired magazine. Kevin Poulsen, "Love Actuarially: How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love," Wired, February 2014, 82. A quick Google search suggests that this is also a favorite pun among bloggers and writers in the actuarial and insurance industries. I would like to thank Deak Nabers, Tamar Katz, and the editors of Post45 for their invaluable comments on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank all the participants of the ACLA 2013 seminar "Intimate Mediations," led by Christopher A. Grobe and Shonni Enelow, and the attendees of the Fall 2013 Brown Graduate Student Forum. []
  2. The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder (1960; Santa Monica, CA: MGM Entertainment, 2001), DVD. []
  3. For discussions of "containment culture," see Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988) and Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). []
  4. Deborah Nelson, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 159. []
  5. Andrew Hoberek, The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 8. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. While acknowledging that many of these critiques were unnecessarily alarmist, Hoberek insists that they identified a real problem: the increasing proletarianization of the middle class. Catherine Jurca, meanwhile, is much more skeptical about those who bemoaned the losses experienced by white-collar workers: "One effect of ubiquitous complaints about mass production, standardization, dullness, and to generate a twentieth-century model of white middle-classness based counterintuitively and, indeed, incredibly on the experience of victimization" (6). Certainly, Jurca is correct to point out that white, middle-class Americans were hardly the greatest victims of postwar consensus culture. Yet I would also agree with Hoberek that their concerns were often real and valid (even if they were not the most pressing ones we might locate in the period). As Hoberek argues, these critics identified "the middle class's loss of its historical control over property, which in a capitalist economy rendered it vulnerable as a class to future losses of income and job security" (9) a vulnerability that has resulted in increasing economic precarity in recent decades. Moreover, their concerns about the information economy and the violation of privacy also remain pertinent, particularly with the rise of new surveillance and data collection technologies. Methodologically, I would like to follow the lead of Deborah Nelson, whose book on privacy in the postwar period identifies the alarmist and regressive dimensions of privacy discourse without discarding the concept entirely. Although we may criticize Mills, Whyte, and Riesman for offering exaggerated critiques of the period, their fundamental concerns with autonomy and privacy are enduringly relevant, and I will treat them as such. In addition to Hoberek and Nelson, see Catherine Jurca, White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). []
  8. William H. Whyte, Jr. The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 6. []
  9. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), xvi. []
  10. David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 9. []
  11. Ibid., 132. As Whyte explains in The Organization Man, the Hawthorne experiment was conducted by Elton Mayo in 1927 at the Hawthorne Illinois plant of Western Electric (33). The study found that changes in the physical work environment did not affect productivity as much as the feeling among workers "that their participation had been solicited" (34). This "dramatized the inadequacy of the purely economic view of man" and demonstrated the centrality of social and interpersonal incentives for labor management (34). []
  12. Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (1944; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 2006), DVD. []
  13. A similar contrast is set up between Keyes and his boss, Mr. Norton. Keyes distinguishes the superficiality of "front office" work from the profundity of his own vocation: "You know you ought to take a look at the statistics on suicide sometime," he tells Norton, "You might learn a little something about the insurance business." When Norton responds, "Mr. Keyes, I was raised in the insurance business," he retorts, "Yeah, in the front office. Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you?" []
  14. In White Collar, Mills writes: "By examining white-collar life, it is possible to learn something about what is becoming more typically 'American' than the frontier character probably ever was. What must be grasped is the picture of society as a great salesroom, an enormous file, an incorporated brain, a new universe of management and manipulation" (xv). While Pacific All Risk evokes the frontier spirit, Baxter's opening monologue allows us to perceive these new images of American society. []
  15. Mills captures this vision of the organization man as a foolish, helpless figure: "He is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb. He is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody's office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand" (xii). []
  16. In That Touch of Mink (1962), for example, Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) struggles against  Phillip Shayne's (Cary Grant) assumption that her body can be accessed automatically. Facing a row of slick, modern office equipment, she shouts: "I'm not like one of these machines where you push a button and it just does what you want it to do. You can just push all you want, you're not gonna push my buttons, I'm not a robot, I'm people, and I quit!" Similarly, in Desk Set (1957), Katherine Hepburn's character, Bunny Watson, fights a computer named Emerac for her job and for Spencer Tracy's affections. "That monster machine you created, you're in love with her!" she laments. But she and Emerac also have a lot in common. Bunny has an astounding capacity for mental cross-referencing and brags, "I'd match my memory against any machine any day!" Both Cathy Timberlake and Bunny Watson are ultimately presented as worthy romantic partners precisely because they are less docile and more spunky than a computer as though these films felt the need to warn viewers that a machine was not a suitable replacement for a woman. That Touch of Mink, directed by Delbert Mann (1962; Santa Monica, CA: Republic Entertainment, 2007), DVD; Desk Set, directed by Walter Lang (1957; Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment, 2004), DVD. []
  17. The Seven Year Itch, directed by Billy Wilder (1955; Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment, 2001), DVD. []
  18. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin, 1972), 245. []
  19. Ibid., 24. []
  20. Ibid., 13. []
  21. Ibid., 20. []
  22. Ibid. []
  23. Ibid., 201. []
  24. Ibid., 116. []
  25. Ibid., 122-23. []
  26. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 26. []
  27. Sharon Marcus, Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (Oakland: U of California P, 1999). []
  28. Goffman, The Presentation of Self, 121-22. []
  29. Pamela Robertson Wojcik, The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945-1975 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 3. []
  30. Ibid., 40. []
  31. Ibid., 114. []
  32. Some Like It Hot, directed by Billy Wilder (1959; Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2001), DVD. []
  33. Kathrina Glitre, Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934-1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 34. []
  34. Pillow Talk, directed by Michael Gordon (1959; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 2004), DVD. []
  35. Brad attempts to seduce Jan by disguising himself as an earnest (even naïve) Texan named Rex Stetson. Working a kind of reverse psychology, he draws out her sexual desire by hinting that he might not be attracted to her at all, that he is one of those men who "[are] very devoted to their mothers...the type that likes to collect cooking recipes [and] exchange bits of gossip." Alan Nadel links this queerness and femininity to Brad's new double identity; while Jan perceives herself in the context of the virgin/whore dichotomy, Brad must now move between his own oversexual and asexual (or homosexual) personas (136-141). This feminization is literalized when Brad hides in an obstetrician's office, leading the nurse and doctor to believe that he is somehow pregnant. For Nadel, see note 3. []
  36. Nadel argues that Jan's redecoration serves to reveal her sexual desire at the same time that it exposes Brad's oversexualization: "If the décor she chooses parodies Brad's sexual activity, it projects equally her sexual desire" (140). Wojcik also reads the décor as a kind of exposure: "when Jan redecorates his apartment, it is an act of disclosure rather than transformation: she reveals one of many identities lurking in his apartment - an identity that is simultaneously a caricature of the playboy and somewhat queer" (119). For Nadel, see note 3. For Wojcik, see note 30. []
  37. Although the fast-paced, witty dialogue of The Apartment is clearly inspired by earlier screwball comedies, Wilder's conclusion also parts ways with the conventions of that genre. In Pursuits of Happiness (1981), Stanley Cavell offers a profoundly insightful (if intensely idiosyncratic) reading of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Reclassifying the iconic films of the genre as "comedies of remarriage," Cavell argues that they convey intimacy by establishing a kind of "private" language shared by the two lovers. Through the genre's characteristic jibes, witticisms, and double entendres, the pair "lear[n] to speak the same language" (88) Conversation, therefore, does not function as an exchange of pertinent information, but as a way of conveying intimacy; it offers not directed communication but in Cavell's Kantian terminology the purposive purposelessness of a game (88-9). What the conclusion of these films promises above all, is an ongoing, if basically purposeless, conversation a kind of endless, playful banter out of which love and intimacy will grow. The Apartment follows in the tradition of the screwball comedy by closing on a scene of non-instrumental, playful, even child-like interaction. Yet Wilder takes this vision of intimacy one step further: rather than imagining conversation as a game, he replaces conversation with the game. Indeed, it seems that the information economy has become so treacherous for Wilder, that self-revelation of any kind risks being implicated in the logic of Consolidated Life. While Cavell's romantic leads downplay the informational dimension of their exchange, Fran rejects this aspect entirely. See Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981). []
  38. Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, 337. []
  39. Ibid., 347. Mary Esteve connects Riesman's concept of autonomous, non-utilitarian play to Kant's account of the purposive purposelessness of aesthetic experience. "Riesman's autonomous figure," she argues, "is...everywhere marked by Kantian conditions for the aesthetic endeavor: disinterested interest, critical reflection, and imaginative play" (334). Stanley Cavell, meanwhile, identifies the playfulness of the screwball comedy with Kantian aesthetics (see note 38). Wilder's turn to non-utilitarian play at the close of The Apartment thus reaches back to Kant through two distinct genealogies: Riesman provides a Kantian account of postwar subjectivity, while the screwball comedy (in Cavell's reading at least) provides a Kantian vision of romantic love as something akin to aesthetic experience. Needless to say, this connection opens a fascinating avenue for further research. See Mary Esteve, "Shipwreck and Autonomy: Rawls, Riesman, and Oppen in the 1960s," The Yale Journal of Criticism 18, no. 2 (2005): 323-349.


  40. Goffman, "The Nature of Deference and Demeanor," American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (1956): 478. []
  41. Ibid., 493. []
  42. Ibid., 497. []
  43. Ibid., 488. []
  44. Nelson, Pursuing Privacy, 140. []
  45. In "Shipwreck and Autonomy," Mary Esteve seeks to recover the discourse of autonomy legible in the work of John Rawls, David Riesman, and George Oppen. In Real Phonies, Abigail Cheever considers how subjects might autonomously choose to forego authenticity in favor of superficial conformity. For example, Cheever argues that at the end of The Bell Jar: "what not whether Esther is conforming or not, but rather whether she is choosing to conform or not" (78). See Abigail Cheever, Real Phonies: Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). For Esteve, see note 40. []
  46. Michael Trask, "Patricia Highsmith's Method," American Literary History 22, no. 3 (2010): 592. []
  47. Goffman, The Presentation of Self, 200. []
  48. Griswold v. Connecticut. 381 U.S. 479 (1965). []
  49. Quoted in John W. Johnson, Griswold v. Connecticut: Birth Control and the Constitutional Right to Privacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 200. []
  50. Nelson, for example, argues that Griswold merely subordinated the wife's privacy to her husband's in claiming to represent the couple, thus bolstering masculine autonomy while also protecting national domestic ideology. "Masculinity was smuggled into conceptions of privacy in the universalizing gesture," (57) she writes, adding that "what [later] individualized the right to privacy...was the discovery of the wife's autonomy from her husband" in Roe v. Wade (70). For Nelson, see note 4. []
  51. Nelson, Pursuing Privacy, 25-26, 35 []
  52. Lauren Berlant, "Live Sex Acts (Parental Advisory: Explicit Material)," Feminist Studies 21, no. 2 (1995): 382-3 []
  53. Ibid., 385 []
  54. Ibid., 402 []
  55. Nelson, Pursuing Privacy, 140 (emphasis mine). []
  56. Ibid., 159, 140 []
  57. Ibid. []