You could say I was intrigued, sexually, by the way Guy Patterson said “hey” in That Thing You Do, or the way Phoebe Buffay shimmied in the opening of Friends, but few things stirred young me quite like Goldie Hawn in Housesitter.
Released in the balmy summer of 1992, Housesitter stars Hawn and Steve Martin at their most quintessential. The story follows a stylish vagabond named Gwen as she cons her way into the cushy New England life of an architect named Newton. Yes, Newton. It hits all the rom-com beats, the fashion is flawless, and its opening credits run a full three minutes set to light jazz. It’s a masterpiece.
The film served as a kind of sexual awakening for me — not because it turned me on, but because it reworked my understanding of sex appeal entirely. This revelation can be applied generally, but it sharpens to a point during one scene about three quarters of the way through. The arc of what I find sexy bends around this moment.
To understand this scene, you must know that Newton (Martin) and Gwen (Hawn) are in the height of feigning a relationship, a ploy devised to both afford her a certain lifestyle and make his ex jealous. It’s a rainy night and Newton has returned home with some Chinese takeout for Gwen, who is sitting cross-legged on his bed folding laundry. She’s wearing a sloppy ponytail and an oversize blue button-down, the sleeves cuffed casually at the elbow. Below is the conversation that ensues, which I’ve transcribed in its perfect entirety:
“By the way, if it’s not too much to ask,” Newton says, dropping the takeout on the bed, “would you mind not going around the house dressed like that?”
“Like this?” Gwen replies in surprise, touching the collar of her shirt.
“Yes, like that! And not just that, you know, because in a lot of what you wear, you happen to look very…pert. And I have to live here, too, and I just… I wouldn’t want to…”
“…confuse the situation!”
“Oh,” Gwen says, “you mean, like, nothing too revealing or too tight?”
He waves her off. “Like this kind of thing,” he picks up a baggy shirt from her laundry basket. “Whether you know it or not, it’s a turn-on. Or like THIS for god’s sake!” He picks up a huge crewneck sweatshirt.
“….that’s a turn-on?”
“Are you kidding me? You look INCREDIBLE in this! Just…don’t wear it!”
“How ‘bout this old thing?” she asks, holding up a large Christmas sweater with reindeer running across the front.
“No! Especially not that!”
And just like that, I was changed.
It would be easy to chalk this scene up to the women-in-men’s-clothes trope, which sells a version of sex appeal innately tied to size and “natural” beauty, but I think that would be reductive. Gwen has a distinct sense of style. It’s not engineered to look effortless nor modest; it’s concerned only with explaining who she is — a woman who is a great time and superbly comfortable with herself. She wears Levi’s and a white T-shirt with a long gold chain. Black leggings and a crewneck sweatshirt decorated with a plum-sized brooch. All manner of leotards and bodysuits, sometimes layered over each other, other times under a cropped leopard fur coat that she wears throughout the movie like a neutral.
Costume designed by a genius named Betsy Cox, Housesitter was far from the first movie to peddle this quasi-subversion of sex appeal, but it was the first time I understood why it worked. Gwen, played by a 47-year-old Hawn, is not trying to bait Newton; she’s just living her life how she wants to live it — she’s expressing her agency, sexual and otherwise. This is why, later, I would never understand why makeover movies dressed their heroines in comfortable clothes and glasses before their evolutions. And why, to this day, I feel sexier in a big T-shirt than a nightgown; cotton underwear than a lace thong.
The key to Gwen’s sex appeal isn’t in her looking small in big clothes; it’s her wearing whatever the hell she wants, with no one else in mind. The movie may be downright ridiculous (albeit perfect), but that point is dead serious. Sex appeal, it seems to say, belongs to anyone who belongs to herself.
Photo by Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection.