There was a woman in my town who was a neighbor of a friend and the aunt of a classmate. She was extremely beautiful, with platinum blonde hair and always elegantly turned out. To people’s surprise, she would be reading the Wall Street Journal at the library. Well, it turned out that this small town “blondie” ended up becoming a millionaire and they moved to a house that actually had a tennis court. This is how I remember it; perhaps some of the details have faded over time and my child’s mind may have processed the story incorrectly. I thought of this woman today while I was watching an interview and a documentary on the legendary Mae West and it made me think about contemporary notions of feminism (that really derive from the 70s). In some ways, my generation has been inculcated with ideas that feminism is incompatibility with femininity, sensuality, and knowing one’s appeal as a woman.
I have mixed feelings about the Bechdel test, which measures how many times women are speaking about something other than men in a movie. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see women talk about mathematics (“Hidden Figures”), the church (“Doubt”), or career (“Legally Blonde”) in a film. Women have minds as fantastic as men’s. On the other hand, what is wrong about talking about men and showing women talking about men, as long as people don’t think women are incapable of talking about anything else? I believe that feminism needs to be couched in an understanding of how men and women interact with each other; all men need to know how to interact with women, just as all women need to know how to interact with men, regardless of sexual orientation. The dismissal of this in the 70s has led to a lot of trouble. Could the answer lie in film stars and performers of earlier generations?
Mae West was not only an accomplished actress, but also singer, performer, and writer. She loved men; she exuded a confidence and sex appeal that was uniquely her own. Good-humored, comfortable in herself, her on-screen and offscreen persona showed that she could get any man she wanted, say whatever she liked, and speak her mind. Of course she paid a price, getting arrested for her play “Sex” before she became a Hollywood star, but she was unapologetically who she was. She never let men get the upper hand of her and yet she always enjoyed men. Gay men loved her and she loved them; they were her allies. Mae was also a champion of black people at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched and rampant.
Zsa Zsa Gabor is another example of the “bimbo feminist,” a Hollywood star who was more famous for being famous and who married nine times (!) and her numerous quips like, “I’m a good housekeeper. When I leave a man, I keep his house.” A Hungarian immigrant who acted, sang, and wrote, she was dripping in diamonds and glamour while always staying true to herself and never giving in. Wealthy and well aware of her feminine wiles, Gabor was always clever and outspoken–one only need to see her interview on Phil Donahue where she berates an audience member to know that she could be absolutely vicious. The public got a glimpse of her vicious side when she was arrested for slapping a cop, an act that eventually got her sent to jail for three days! Granted, she was in some ways a gold digger and social climber and quite different from Mae West, who seems to have been more about being herself and enjoying herself without making a scene. But we cannot help but admire Zsa Zsa Gabor’s drive, uncompromising femininity, and stop-at-nothing attitude.
Dolly Parton is a living example of “bimbo feminism.” She has long played to the crowd with her ultra-blonde wigs and enhanced bosom and spangled clothes and makeup. But underneath all that, she’s a supremely talented artist who is also very shrewd. She would not have lasted as long in the business if she were not incredibly talented and savvy about her audiences, marketing, and staying out of politics. And yet, Parton unites the gay and straight, Southern and Northern, young and old. She has acted, sung, and composed music. All of this by a hardscrabble girl from a one-room cabin in Tennessee with 11 siblings! She overtly acknowledges her femininity, her plastic surgery, her body. But Parton is laughing all the way to the bank, being one of the most successful country singers of all time with countless honors like the Kennedy Center Awards. Dolly understands the importance of image and how to use it; her homespun, aw-shucks persona can mask the fact that she is worth over half $1 billion, and that she contributed $1 million to Vanderbilt toward Covid vaccine research, creating a video just this week of herself getting vaccinated while singing a parody of “Jolene” called “Vaccine.” With a wink and a smile and her southern accent, Dolly Parton gets the work done and does she ever know what she’s doing!
None of this devalues the work of women who are not so interested in appearances or their image and who focus more on their work and their substance. That is equally important too. But I think it is worthwhile to look at women who are very feminine and enjoy using their femininity to get ahead; that part of the narrative is often left out in discussions of feminism, where the notion of femininity is eradicated. Perhaps this stems from decades of women having to act like a man, having to prove themselves in a man’s world. Enjoying being a woman should not be incompatible with achievement, talent, or intellect. And maybe it’s men who really need to get used to that idea.