(WARNING! Some spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film.)
In the 1954 film Student Prince, directed by Richard Thorpe, a German prince named Karl is sent to Heidelberg University to improve his social skills after being told by his fiancé that he is too uptight. While at Heidelberg, the prince meets a barmaid named Kathie who he eventually falls in love with.
Having seen this film time and time again since childhood, I’m genuinely concerned for how the prince’s behavior might have subconsciously affected my perception of abusive behavior in romantic relationships. Now that I’m re-watching it at seventeen years old, I’d be rich if I got a dollar for every time I cringed at the prince’s treatment of Kathie throughout the film.
When Prince Karl arrives at Heidelberg’s local inn, Kathie welcomes him with music and kindness. Prince Karl, on the other hand, makes advances on her despite the fact that she noticeably looks uncomfortable as he sings the line “Strange things happen on a summer night” into her ear. He then gets up, grabs her, and kisses her against her will, to which she screams, “That does not come with the service!” From the very beginning, it’s clear that Prince Karl is self-entitled and thinks it’s there’s nothing wrong with kissing people without their consent.
At the beginning of the film, Kathie is portrayed as very cheerful, fun loving, and popular amongst the students of Heidelberg. The only time she shows discomfort is when she’s around Prince Karl. He speaks to her again that night at dinner, and she STILL remains kind and polite as she serves him beer and sausages. NOTHING seems to have been addressed about the prince’s problematic behavior. Prince Karl tries to kiss her again thinking he deserves a “new reward,” and she pushes him to the ground. What really makes me cringe about this scene is that Kathie still apologizes, saying, “It’s not your fault… you just had too much beer.” Upon being sexually harassed by Prince Karl, she instead should have pushed him harder AND warned him never to go near her again, drunk or not!
And if it wasn’t enough for Kathie to be portrayed as passive towards Prince Karl’s behavior, the valet Lutz announces, “The prince has just been assaulted.” He then proceeds to demand that the innkeeper banish and exile Kathie out of fear that she will tempt Prince Karl to misbehave. Shouldn’t THE PRINCE be the one who’s asked to leave due to his disgusting behavior??? When placed side by side, this line of thinking isn’t too far from the mindset perpetuating rape culture in which women are expected to adjust how THEY dress in order to prevent sexual harassment.
Kathie already feels so threatened after the “assault” that she doesn’t even need to be asked to leave Heidelberg. She takes another job at a restaurant where the prince follows her and makes excuses such as, “I don’t blame you for being angry, but it wasn’t my fault.” He sits down, pulls her by her dress, and says, “You’re leaving here with me if I have to drag you.” After Kathie screams that he tried to molest her, he tells the restaurant owner, “Really, do I look like the sort of person who would do that kind of thing?” As if the prince couldn’t get any worse, it’s clear that he’s the type of person to constantly brush off Kathie’s attempts to keep him away despite being aware that he makes her extremely uncomfortable.
The worst part of the relationship between Prince Karl and Kathie is that after a while, she actually begins to warm up to him after he says, “Last night when I kissed you it wasn’t the beer.” (As if that’s really an excuse for sexual harassment.) They then proceed to sing a pretty song called “Serenade” and she IMMEDIATELY falls DEEPLY in love with him. Prince Karl’s behavior changes considerably, but ONLY after he gets Kathie to fall in love with him. Doesn’t this send out the message that it’s okay for men to mistreat women in the interest of courtship? And doesn’t this show that instances of sexual harassment can be brushed off as if they were nothing?
Throughout Student Prince, Prince Karl repeatedly puts Kathie in uncomfortable situations until she finally gives in to a romantic relationship with him. Taking a look at the similarities between Prince Karl’s behaviors and those of perpetuators of abuse and rape culture, it might be a good time to ask – have things really changed as far as the media’s portrayal of women in romantic relationships is concerned?
Nowadays, Prince Karl’s behavior would have certainly been labeled as sexual harassment at his university. And given the diversity of female characters present in the media, a modern-day Kathie might have been more aggressive with Prince Karl’s behavior regardless of his nobility. However, the problematic behaviors and attitudes in Student Prince aren’t so far from those that are still encountered today in romantic relationships. If this type of behavior was passed off as suitable for children and packaged nicely into a G-rated musical fairytale, then surely it must have had an effect on how its viewers perceived abuse and sexual harassment in romantic relationships. As entertaining as the film may be, the only thing I learned from it was that as much as I love anything vintage, I could most definitely do without the problematic treatment of women that was even worse then than it is today.