Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square includes characters that do not necessarily fit what society has deemed appropriate for their sex. The heroine of the book, Catherine, is not an ugly woman. However, she lacks the grace and stunning beauty that stands out in a crowded party. In contrast, Catherine's love, Morris, is very talkative and energetic. He is much more likeable and handsome. While this is evident in the book, the movie version really lets us see better the differences between Catherine and Morris.
In the 1949 movie version of the book titled The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, Catherine is portrayed by Olivia de Havilland as a klutz with very little talent, not even the ability that James's Catherine has to play the piano. Indeed Catherine lacks anything at all that society would call feminine. Thus, Catherine is not considered an ideal woman. Her father (Ralph Richardson on screen) is especially disappointed in her because she does not seem to be as clever, and obviously not as beautiful, as her mother was. Though, things might have been very different for Catherine had she been born a boy. First of all, her plain looks would not have been a problem for her. It was more acceptable for a man to be plain. Catherine, as shown at the end of the book, is much more intelligent than her father gave her credit for. She could have easily used her intelligence to make a living, along with her inheritance. Catherine had a very stable and reliable nature. These were good qualities for men but not for a woman. Catherine also tends to be very shy. These qualities were not necessarily a good thing for a man either, but men could get by without their shyness being called a downfall.
Catherine's suitor, Morris, has more of the qualities that a woman during this time period would want to possess. Especially as he is portrayed by Montgomery Clift in the movie, Morris is a very handsome man and manages to be noticed easily by his looks. Though he does not have a specific skill, he is very clever when speaking to others. He can make himself seem witty and sincere. In the movie version, he can play the piano, while Catherine cannot. This is another sign of the switch in gender roles. Catherine possesses the masculine characteristics, while Morris possesses more of the feminine characteristics that Dr. Sloper wishes in vain that his daughter would have.
Catherine's father is against Morris as a son-in-law from the beginning. He even states that he is not against him because he dislikes him. He does not want him to marry Catherine because he does not possess the qualities of a man. He believes Morris is just after Catherine's money. However, there are many instances of women marrying men because they are rich. During this time period especially, there were few parents that would encourage their daughters to marry poor men. So, if Morris had been female and Catherine male, her father would have fewer objections to their match. I also believe that, in order to survive, many women had to marry a man that may have not been the most handsome in the world. Many of them managed to stay in a happy relationship. Catherine had plenty of money to last her lifetime. If her father had given his blessing for Catherine and Morris to be married, I believe they would have had a decent chance at being happy.
The gender roles at the time did not allow Catherine's father to give her and Morris his blessing. This set about a series of events that would leave Catherine unmarried for the rest of her life.