“When she spies a handsome man, Clara pleads, “Sweet Santa Clause, please bring me him””. The Flappers sexiness was up front and down to earth, braking all the taboos on screen and inspiring real women to do the same – live life to the full! These brazen women prevailed into the 30s, with icons like Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow. They were sexy, cold, deadly and queen like, a figure to be worshipped, even feared. Mae West was one of the biggest icons of the 30s with her overtly sexy, frank and funny view on sex. She was seductive, confident, very bossy, dominant and quite manly in her ways.
She knew what she wanted and how to get it. “Babyface”(1933) was a prime example of this as the lead lady uses her sexual attractiveness to seduce her up her career ladder. The mid 30s saw the introduction of the Hays code, regulating sex and other “bad” elements in films. This along with the depression bought back innocence to film. A new love goddess hit the screens “the girl next door”. Icons include Shirley Temple, Lana Turner and Betty Gable. These were normal well-rounded girls, in image as well as character. As women could no longer do what the women of the 30s did their seductiveness was expressed through their enhanced looks.
These love goddesses prevailed into the 50s with the popularity of the glamorous Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn was like the peoples queen. She posed nude in the late 40s, something that had not been done for decades and it was accepted, as she was such a loved icon. Another category of female lead during this post-war time was that of film noir, the femme fatale. “These were thrillers made in the 40s and 50s, usually shot in dramatic black and white, with sensual stars who would use their attractiveness to manipulate luckless men” (Root).
Film noir was considered to be a natural outgrowth of Hollywood’s post-war troubles, however the roots of film noir are in the 20s. Also influenced by the hard-boiled crime and detective novels of the 20s and 30s and German horror movies of the same time, they survived due to the production code administrations becoming more lenient during the war. In these film women are portrayed in a very specific way. Strong, sexy and powerful, she entraps the male protagonist, usually a dumb and gullible man. The femme fatale is described as an “irresistibly attractive women, especially one that leads men into danger or disaster” (Micheal Mills).
Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) is first represented by her lipstick as it rolls across the floor in the opening shot and also when she later dies. The lipstick symbolises her glamour. The opening shot then spans her ankles up her stunning legs to reveal her wearing a skimpy white outfit. Clara (Lana) wears white in all but two scenes, giving her virginal qualities and a sense of vulnerability. Although sexual attraction is the most obvious motivation for these bozo men falling into the femme fatale’s trap it is not the only one.
Fred Mc Murray in “Double Indemnity” goes along with Phylis’ phoney insurance scam as he too is caught up in the power of affecting the perfect crime. “It is beating the house” he exclaims. These femme fatales are thought to be a reaction to an increase in liberation of women from war-time workforce and the post-war reconditioning of women back into the housewife role, however they hold their roots in the liberated Flapper of the 20s. In almost all of the classic film noir the femme fatale tragically gets her comeuppance in the end, perhaps as a warning to women not to stray into unaccepted behaviour.
“The women usually dies too, however, punished for their relentless attempt to satisfy their own desires and the threat that they represent to the stable world of marriage, family and female submissiveness. ” (Root) By the late 50s and into the 60s, strong independent women were being replaced by leading ladies, who although portrayed as capable and self-reliant, moved well into the background. An example being Dorris Day in “Pillow Talk”. Women were represented as “breast and buttocks; again idealising women who were pretty, amusing and childish” (Butler).
The 60s and 70s waif was a severe contrast to the 50s and although much thinner bared a resemblance to the boyish shape of the 20s. Sex attitudes relaxed and also did a full circle to those of the 20s with more and more nudes scenes in films. The super waif model “Twiggy” and sexy actress Bridget Bardot were typical icons of the time. By the 80s women “wanted it all”, careers and glamour. Although women remained very thin, a renewed interest in health and fitness meant the ideal body was toned and athletic. This physical strength linked to the strength of women in society during this time.
A new wave of feminist films hit the screnes beginning with “Thelma and Louise”. Film noir also made a return in the form of a new modern version coined “Neo Noir”. Prime examples of these are “Basic Instinct” and “The Last Seduction” both made during the 90s. In these films the femme fatale no longer needs the approval of the male, nor does she secretly yearn for the happy home, she deliberately and ruthlessly manipulates the male protagonist, who is led by his stupidity and his sexual desire. In “The Last Seduction” the femme fatale is sexy, seductive, intelligent, devious, ruthless and has no morals.
Her own description of herself in the film says it all “I’m a total fucking bitch”. In the classic film noir, the femme fatale nearly always dies to conform to social acceptance, however in the 90s this type of behaviour is more acceptable and there fore she can get away with it, as she does in “The Last Seduction”. This has leads us to a current ideal of femininity which is strong, independent but also very sexy. This is symbolised by Pamela Anderson in Baywatch, who remains the most searched person on the internet worldwide today.
In conclusion my finding show that ideals femininity are widely varied across different cultures and through history, confirming that preferences are due to social and cultural influences. With the current increase in media, and the deliberately constructed images of women, ideals are becoming more and more rigid. Women painstakingly strive to reach this ideal that realistically only a very small amount of real women can physically achieve.
Bibliography MacDonald, M – Representing Women, Edward Arnold, 1995 Betterton, R – Looking On, Pandora, 1987 Rouse, E – Understanding Fashion, Blackwell Sciences Ltd, 1989Shipman, D – Cinema, The Fist Hundred Years, Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1993 Mulvey, K – Decades of Beauty, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 1998. Tickner, L – Fashionable Bondage, Spare Rib issue no 13.
Place, J – Women in Film Noir (an article) Other Sources Films and TV: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” “Double Indemnity” “The Last Seduction” “Basic Instinct” “Thelma and Louise” “Sex in the City” “The Love Goddesses” Periodicals / Editorials: Vogue Marie Claire New Women Company Glamour Mizz GQ Internet: ihrinfo. ac. uk bbc. co. uk thesite. org beautyworlds. com moderntimes. com crimetime. co. uk Author: Nicola Grimshaw.