This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Author(s): Linda Williams Source: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 118-121 Published by: University of Nebraska Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346422 Accessed: 21/11/2010 07:40
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=unp. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
University of Nebraska Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.
WHATDOES MAE WEST HAVE THAT ALL THE MEN WANT? Linda Williams
Recent articles about the films of Mae West have placed her in Joan Mellen, and the vanguard of feminist heroes. Molly Haskell, and bravado of Rosen have all noted the sexual freedom Marjorie the West persona which ironically men into soft, transforms quivhas been valuable Much of this new appreciation ering sex objects. in that it has gone beyond a low-level of West's understanding bawdiness of how she uses sexual to a deeper understanding relato assert her independence. Yet it is a mistake to construe tions the West persona to be a champion of women's liberation as we now To do so is to miss the broader import of her it. understand of the world's assessment and to find fault with cynical vanity the very things that she does best. Joan Mellen, of the For example: perhaps the most militant new feminist film critics, takes the West persona to task for its of sex roles failure to project to a more beyond the mere reversal liberation.' hollowness to Yet there is a rhetorical enlightened for it is obvious Mellen's that if Mae West had procriticism, the wonderful such an enlightened liberation, jected irony of her character would be replaced by a much less interesting, though in any form, could only destroy the exemplary, piety. Piety, humor that constitutes and tongue-in-cheek the worldly cynicism of the West character. essence is Parker Tyler,2 At the other extreme of Mae West criticism one of the first critics to appreciate West's camp value. Tyler feminine identity. goes so far as to deny her a fundamentally in her sexual His fascination with the West phenomenon lies ambiva woman than a caricature the fact that she seems less of alence, a woman, "the white Goddess in metaphysically transsexual drag who is, after a female impersonator a woman."3 all, S.. with Tyler's Though it is hard to agree entirely specifically he should be credited homosexual for noting a very interpretation, element in the West character that more recent commenimportant element of parody. Mae West is tators have tended to ignore--the
in Comparative Linda Williams is a graduate student Literature She is currently of Colorado. film at the University studying des Hautes Etudes in on a Fulbright at the Ecole Pratique theory Paris.
Williams nor a a particularly not, by anybody's beautiful, standards, desirable woman. Yet the men in her films are crazy about sexually With her ripe, her. her gleaming, over-corseted slightcorpulence; shoulders her swaggering ly bucked teeth; walk, the hefty rhythmishe is a to shift of mammary flesh, vast expanses cally hunching stereotypical grotesque parody of an already entity--the strange "ideal" to such an abwoman. about her is exaggerated Everything surd degree that it is worth asking why the men in her movies fall audifor her at all. For it is clear that what we (today's in Mae West--her wisecracks ence) appreciate (which the men never seem to hear), her ironic triumph over their blind stupidity--is not what they appreciate. about is neither What the men in Mae West's movies get excited idea of both abstract but a rather beauty nor sexual desirability, these things which they think they should share with her other admirers. In She Done Him Wrong (1933) the best of her pre-Production West plays Code films based on her own Broadway play, Diamond Lil, a Gay Nineties saloon entertainer named Lady Lou. Early in the there is a revealing film, Lady Lou's current exchange of lines. to have Lou in his Gus, is asked how it feels lover-protector, "It's He answers with surprising kinda nice candor, possession. a gal all the fellows havin' want, makes a guy feel important." Lou, on the other hand, when asked how she likes having her nude with portrait replies hung over the bar as a token of Gus's esteem, similar candor that she likes "But I wish he hadn't hung it fine, it over the free lunch." Both replies, Gus's naive one, and Lou's one, comment on the nature of West's desirability. cynical They
her beauty nor her personality
of that beauty and personassessment but the conventional coveted, as determined on the open market. ality in all Mae West's These comments reveal distinction a crucial which are never about love and always about this films--films Gus determines form of desire. socialized Lou's specifically of the jealousy aroused in the other value on the simple basis rivals.4 whom he correctly as his potential "fellows," regards he is weak, incapable of Like all the men in Mae West's films, of his own impulses. for her her on the strength Lou, desiring the process by part, simply makes sure that we all understand when she objects that her portrait which her value is determined with the free lunch--a at has been associated commodity assessed so low a value that it is given away. of evidence In She Done Him Wrong, diamonds are the tangible She never misses an opportunity to the value men place on Lou. shine a few in their them, in good-humored faces, fashion, taunting In similar all Mae West's with their blind stupidity. fashion, of men who can be conned into defilms are about the stupidity In this magnificent woman. undesirable an "objectively" siring not only does she get the con game, she is doubly triumphant: in the sexual pleasure that the but also she delights diamonds, fascination with what the men, so wrapped up in their jealous
Williams This pleasure is what the other men are thinking, cannot enjoy. "I Likes a Guy What Takes His Time" is a songs are all about. bold and good-humored assertion of her sexual enjoyment, which is the real source of West's superiority over men. It is also the only way she is able to project a faint glimmer of the "enlightened feminist critics liberation" demand. But this that her latter-day is severely liberation circumscribed by the world she is given, a of mutual respect are world in which truly equal relationships simply out of the question. Again and again, West's films demonstrate that the only possible relationship between the sexes is that of triumph or defeat,
dominance or submission. In She Done Him Wrong, there is the wonof down the corridor scene in which Lou struts derfully incongruous the local row of admiring prisonrow after penitentiary by greeted The implication ers. that they have landed behind bars in the efIt is a fort to win her more diamonds is appropriately symbolic. in of weak, pathetic whose real imprisonment lies lovers spectacle fascination own. their with each other's desires rather than their of her peers Lou, on the other hand, has no need for the approval to determine the kind of man she desires. She will never be imas they are. Even the humble Salvation prisoned Army man, Cary Grant in disguise, her. intrigues her off in a cab At the end of the film, when Grant hustles than a paddy wagon, claiming that from now on he will be her rather "I always knew you could in marriage, Lou shrewdly replies, jailer in fact, he has been had. be had," and Lou beats the rap and gets the man she has coveted all along; it is clear that marriage will She already has said that Grant was the kind not cramp her style. His modest conof guy a woman would have to marry to get rid of. of diamonds is but one more token of her to her store tribution triumph. it is because, unlike the But if Mae West manages to triumph, she doesn't fool herself about the loyalty men in her films, or of the world she inhabits. It is a tough world, devoid of justice her ironical all warmth--only good humor gives it luster. In her attempts heroic to cast West in the feminist mold, Joan Mellen has argued that West is often the champion of the just of the innocent and helpless.5 the defender cause, Though this Code films, may be the case in some of her weaker, post-Production films of her early, it is not true in the better uncensored period. not the case in She Done Him Wrong--the one And it is certainly and the film which film over which West had the most control, In She Done Him to come. the censorship helped to precipitate innocent of the white slave trade Wrong, Lou is only technically on by her associates. the advice she gives carried Appropriately, leads down the primrose path-the young girl whom she unwittingly "When women go wrong men go right after them"--is the kind of hardnosed advice the girl really It is not surprising, can use. then, an eye when she does learn of the girl's that Lou hardly blinks hard fate.
Williams Thus, it would seem that the best feminist reading of the West persona is a reading that emphasizes her acute awareness of the function of vanity. Unlike the men in her films, West satisfies of her own vanity without becoming its slave. Within the limits this vain world, she is a tremendous success. But she does not use her shrewd understanding as the worldly champion of innocent womanhood. Innocence is really beyond the power of her understanding. To construe Mae West as a crusading precursor of the women's liberation movement is to obscure her real contribution to the liberation of women: her ability feeblethe pathetic to expose and ridicule ness of a masculine desire which cannot choose its object without first what the "other fellows" will think. considering
NOTES Joan Mellen, "The Mae West Nobody Knows," in Women and their in the New Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1973). Sexuality 2parker Tyler, Movies (New York: 3 3Lbid., p. the Sexes: Screening Anchor Books, 1973). 15. and the bourgeois Novel, novel. the French structuralist Homosexuality in the 1
2, p. Desire in the
41n Deceit, desire
Rene Girard has noted the predominance
reveal the inner mechanism of a desire period, Girard asserts, an impulse towards whose impulse towards the object is ultimately a mediator (a potential rival) whose desire the original subject
imitates. and feeble Girard's point form of desire is that mediated desire compared to the direct is a debasing desire for an
Mellen, 5Mellen, pp. 234-238. pp. 234-238.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.