The objectification of women in film is nothing new. From the advent of the medium, filmmakers, studios, and even sometimes the actresses themselves, have used their beauty and sexuality to reel in viewers, build up a fan base, and maintain mankind's engrossed attention. Sex is power. The sexual muscle is the easiest one to flex, mostly because we do so unconsciously, subconsciously, and unwittingly, countless seconds of every day. From a business stand-point, it makes sense to appeal to our sensual selves. Show a pretty face, a bit of leg, a pair of breasts, and voila! You've flipped the switch. You have our attention. Women aren't innocent either, salivating unapologetically over bare, muscular torsos and perfectly formed asses when the Joe Manganiello's of the world take the screen. But when does this purely visceral, instantaneously physical appeal become too much? Particularly with regard to the female form-- which is continually scrutinized, perfected, and promoted as being thin, voluptuous, barely clad, and above all young-- there seems to be a continuing saga of damage with regard to the pin-ups, love goddesses, and sex icons that we visually fornicate with, fantasize over, and eventually cast aside. But who is the real victim: the girl in the ever-erotic pose or the voyeur gawking uncontrollably. What is a sex-object, and can the pawn just as equally be the player???
There was a point in time when Theda Bara was regarded as the sex-siren of the screen. Fashioned by Fox, Thedosia Goodman was built from the ground up to be a dangerous, foreign temptress. Her sex-appeal was desirable because it was bad. With her coal-black eyes and opulent figure, not to mention jaw-droppingly revealing clothing-- particularly in those times (left)-- Theda as "the vamp" was the embodiment of sin. If Sex was the Devil, then she was one of his minions. Much as Cecil B. DeMille would use religious plotlines to delve into his own naughty sensibilities, Theda was the warning of evil that we were all meant to learn from-- i.e. the "slut" you were not to do or be-- and while learning the lesson, we got to indulge in her sins along with her-- "win-win," as they say. The issue with Theda's highly specific and sexual film persona, like many of the ladies to follow her, was that it boxed her in. The character, both public and private, that Fox designed for her was so well-ingrained in the public consciousness that she could not escape it. Thus, when the fad of "Theda Bara" had lost its allure, so too did Theda lose her career. William Fox had drained every last ounce of coin that he could and cast her aside. She became, thus, the aged whore-- used up and no longer desired. Her career on film was over as of 1926 when she was just over 40-years-old. Age, of course, could have also had something to do with it. Hollywood needed young blood; Theda was old hat. As her persona and sex were inseparable, she could not translate to other genres. Her identity as a siren completely derailed her career.
Not all women were so lucky. Not all were so shrewd. Clara Bow is a prime example. Clara's success was certainly aided by her extraordinary beauty and unapologetic sensuality. The carnal desire that she displayed in her films was the first of its kind-- at least coming from a woman. Girls were used to being hooted at, jeered over, propositioned, insulted, etc. Suddenly, with Clara in the driver's seat, it was the male sex that received this sultry level of objectification. In It, when Clara sets her sights on Antonio Moreno, her eyes light up in excited lust and she spouts out, "Sweet Santa, give me him!" In Dancing Mothers, she shamelessly pursues Conway Tearle, and won't take "no" for an answer, even when it means he has to carry her bodily out of his home. In Mantrap, Clara makes a sport of sex, attaching herself to any man-- and she appreciates all types-- who strikes her fancy. Clara's saving grace in portraying such sexually forward women was her warmth and depth. Her predatory nature was tempered by the humor she injected into her performances, as well as the pathos that-- when allowed time to shine-- revealed that she wasn't some over-sexed trollop, but a flesh and blood woman whose sexual nature was but one aspect of her invigorating and fully formed personality. Yet, Paramount didn't support her growth as an actress. Clara was the ace up the studio's sleeve, and they played the sex card where she was concerned over and over again, until fact and fiction began to collide. Clara's true self eventually merged with her screen self, which always possessed more confidence and power than the real her. Her popularity, it seemed, was dependent upon her appearance in sexy dresses, lingerie, or even less. The bare-backed shot of her in Wings was a big shocker in its day, which had no place in the wartime film other than to give the audience what it wanted: Clara nude (left).
In time, it would prove that Paramount had done its job too well. Clara's raucous private life became serialized scandal in the press, which had previously praised the former qualities that they now used to label her as a "slut." Never taking time to give Clara well-written material or to allow her roles to mature as she did, she maintained her onscreen presence as the fun-loving, good-time girl with a heart of gold buried beneath an erotic veneer. Like Theda, people tired of this. They didn't tire of Clara necessarily, and the success of her career and longevity can be attributed to both her talents as an actress and her charismatic and attractive personality. Her goodness always effected her audiences more than her skin. The failure of her career, exempting her personal stresses and the effect of the talkie revolution, is almost entirely dependent on the short-sightedness of the studio, who did not allow Clara to be more than a sex object, or do more than be sexy. It is a tribute to her that she was able to give so much with the shoddy material she received as to make it in the business at all. Any number of her films, without Clara Bow in the lead role, would have been quick-fix B-movies and footnotes in history and not the box-office sensations that she made them. Her downfall was in the fact that she was denied her identity and sold the idea that she was a sex-kitten and nothing more. As she wasn't the Hell Cat and ambitious diva that many others in the industry were, she didn't fight back but played along until she was played out. At least she had the glory of taking her final bow by choice.
Clara's career was echoed in that of Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Unlike Clara, neither of these ladies quit Hollywood. Their early exit was determined by their deaths. In both of their lives, Jean and Marilyn had moments of reflection and pain over the fact that they were looked upon as desirable fixtures for the male gaze and nothing more. Jean took a more light-hearted approach to it, her sexuality thus appearing accidental and just as comical in her films as it was enticing. Her screen presence was very much like Clara's, yet with more of a bitterness. Clara openly indulged in sex; Jean's girls mostly accepted sex as a means to an end, until a charmer like Clark Gable or Franchot Tone entered the frame and convinced her that there was still life to be had. Jean's heroines were strong and worldly, where Marilyn's, particularly earlier in her career, were oblivious, if not ignorant, if not completely vacant. Marilyn's form of sexual attack was, "Who, me?" rendering her, like Clara and Jean, as non-threatening. Yet, as a business-woman, there was nothing about her screen presence that was not carefully studied and constructed. Her lack of self-esteem and value as a child had only been quelled when she began receiving attention as a well-formed teen. Thus, she only believed her sexual self had the capability to gain, in essence, love. She learned how to use it to get what she wanted. Yet, when she tried to undo the damage, she could not completely let go of the only pleasing aspect of her character that she had ever had any confidence in-- her body-- in order to translate to an actress of any real repute. Even when critically acclaimed and recognized for her performances, the stigma of "bimbo" was always attached. Even after her death, her talents as an actress are recognized second to her reputation as a sex icon. She is recalled in still images-- her skirt blowing up in The Seven Year Itch-- or as as a joke-- the tramp that screwed the Kennedy brothers. (Jean pulls a Clara and reveals bare back in Hold Your Man, right).
Thus, the plight of the sexual woman is that she allegedly gets what she asks for, but she asks only for sexual recognition after she is initially denied her humanity. Beauty is both glorified and punished in the same breath-- the Virgin and the Whore scenario. I'm reminded of an image from Belle de Jour wherein Catherine Deneuve is pummeled with mud-- one of her sexual desires is to be debased. The audience watches with rapt attention, enjoying in her defamation as her character too relishes in it. Taking this moment and applying it more figuratively to women in the Clara-Jean-Marilyn chain of sexual heroines, a disturbing connection can be made. The director yells, "action," the woman rolls in the metaphorical mud for our amusement-- turning us on, debasing herself, and theoretically liking it-- and we watch. Yet, she is the only one who goes home dirty. The director is clean. The studio is clean. We're clean. Thus, the women that we eagerly watch pollute themselves for our amusement as sexual playthings and toys, are applauded for their eroticism but raped of common decency and mutual respect. When they take efforts to escape the sex bomb mold carefully created for them, they cannot ever wash themselves clean. When it comes to the Bond girls, topless horror actresses, Playboy bunnies, we salivate but we internally condemn. As such, when Marilyn Monroe died, Clara was intensely sympathetic, publicly stating that she understood the pressures of being a sex symbol and how they weigh on the soul. Her insinuation, of course, was that Marilyn's existence as a beautiful thing crippled her hopes of being a beloved woman. One wonders, since Jean Harlow passed away at the age of twenty-six, whether the same self-same burden too took its toll on her? She certainly bore similar stresses: she couldn't even win the commitment of William Powell in matrimony because he didn't want to be married to another bombshell-- Carole Lombard being the first. (Marilyn is cornered, left, and at our mercy, but does her duty in giving the impression that she likes being our prey).
There are a series of women that were fashioned to be sex-goddesses who crippled under the pressure. Some of them rebelled by sooner or later flipping Hollywood "the bird" and getting the hell out of town-- Greta Garbo, Veronica Lake, Kim Novak. Others suffered, simultaneously seeking to destroy their own beauty yet being equally distraught when it began disappearing, thus leaving them powerless-- Ava Gardner, Bridget Bardot, Lana Turner (right). Hollywood would thereby seem to teach us that you cannot be beautiful and a human being at the same time. Those ladies who failed to calculatingly play "the game" found themselves unwitting members of a decadent menagerie-- a collection of butterflies pinned to the walls of Hollywood's sexual catacombs. Yes, 'sex is power,' but it is a heavy burden to carry. Like the bully on the playground robbed of his big stick, a sex object without her sexuality feels even more naked than she does in the buff. Colleen Moore, like Clara Bow, was a flapper, but her persona in Flaming Youth was more that of a quirky girl gone innocently haywire than that of a tramp on the loose. She possessed the spirit of the "flapper" generation, but was not one of its sexual prey. She had enough of a mogul mentality to make it in the business on her own terms. Louise Brooks, in her own retaliation, merely defected. She refused to trade her brains to make a buck, became disgusted with Hollywood, and simply left. Clara, in comparison, is thus a victim as much as she is her own villain, in that she let Hollywood do with her as it may with no resistance. Buried with her is a graveyard of women who listened in their youth when they were told to believe that they were no more than a pretty face: Rita Hayworth, Carole Landis, Barbara Payton, Linda Darnell, Hedy Lamarr, Jayne Mansfield...
The "sexification" of daily life has only intensified. More and more it seems that Hollywood is selling nothing else, (yet they refuse to notice that we are buying fewer tickets). The audition process for females continues to escalate into total dehumanization and objectification. Women are measurements on a resume, they are types, they are placed into a category and when one doesn't fit, she is not allowed entre. Then there are the Frances Farmer's who try to make it on their own terms, refusing to just sit there and be pretty. Her sanity paid the forfeit. Those who obey the stereotypes and try to make it, often quickly fade into obscurity or are remembered as some bit of pop cultural trivia (Raquel Welch). The women that amazingly last are those in the Lillian Gish category, whose beauty never eclipsed her soul. Her talent was applicable at any age. Her longevity may be echoed by Nicole Kidman or Cate Blanchett or Reese Witherspoon, for their beauty and sensuality is secondary to their character. In whatever fashion, some manage to escape the sex label. Those ladies who do not, who compromise or are compromised, are never able to undo the stigma. It is their identification as beautiful, empty vessels by the public-- which demands such sexual props as constant visual stimuli-- that eradicates their chances at publicly recognized evolution. It would be too baffling to eliminate these erotic templates from society-- you can't stop the natural human reaction nor the mental signals that fire at the sight of a beautiful woman. Yet, is her victimization as an indicated "object" an unavoidable conclusion to this pulse of uncontrollable adrenaline? What is it in our natures that continually chooses to hate what we simultaneously love? Are we not responsible for the road of abandoned, once beautiful bodies?