Volume XI, Number 1, Spring 2015

"Mae West. The Dirty Snow White" by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth received her PhD in British and American literature and culture from the University of Szeged and is currently a junior assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her general research interests are film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary theory, English and American literature, American cinema. Her main research field is concerned with the representation of female aggression and violence in American literature and film. Her current research topic is the issue of women’s humor, and especially Mae West. Her first book, which was based on her PhD dissertation, entitled Merry Murderers: The Farcical (Re)Figuration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (UK) in 2011. In 2012, she co-edited two other works with Zoltán Vajda: American Studies and Visuality – on the horizon of information society, Special Issue, AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, and Amerikanisztika és vizualitás. Metszéspontok az információs társadalom horizontján, AMERICANA eBooks. Email: tothzsofianna@gmail.com

The title of the paper reflects an inversion of one of Mae West’s witty remarks: “I used to be Snow White but I drifted” (West qtd. in Barreca 1996, 595). Obviously, West never shied away from getting dirty – in every sense of the word – and while she immensely enjoyed it, capitalized on it while never regretting anything. Even more, she used the power of humor to enhance the effect of everything she did or said and she used humor as well to get away with many troubles. One of West’s famous trademark sentences, which emphasizes her unique style in expressing the way she never regretted anything she said or did is the following: “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it” (West qtd. in Austerlitz 77-78). West was, and still is, one of the greatest comedians and humorists of all time, and everything she achieved professionally was greatly indebted to her fantastic sense of humor. According to many of her critics, she could not sing or dance or act well; moreover, she was not even especially beautiful or photogenic, yet, she was able to make her audiences believe she was the best in doing all these things. Her overwhelmingly amazing personality and star persona as well as her entertaining skills and humor made those who heard or saw her believe anything she wanted them to believe. She was a prime entertainer and a great humorist ―and this is where her greatness lies.

This is the root of another contradictory aspect of West’s art involving her star persona: while she is generally considered to be a very feminine woman, a sex goddess with an ample appetite for men, she is also considered to be a ‘bad woman’ and a prostitute although her intellectual abilities combined with her heightened sense of humor makes her seem ‘masculinized’ and this questions her other feminine allures and thus her sex appeal also. In general, all humor critics agree that the production and use of humor is a male privilege and if a woman ventures into this field, she loses her femininity and by all means, her (possible) status as a woman proper. What is interesting in connection with West is that she somehow is not remembered as a masculine figure in spite of being one of the greatest American female humorists and comedians. Although, she falls far from being a true ‘lady’ in any of her roles, acts, performances, etc. and she almost always targets the problem of ‘ladyhood.’ In this paper, my aim is to discuss what Mae West, as a humorist and a comedian, achieved in American cinema and culture as a woman and how all this affected her gender construction because, in spite of all appearances, she was not a sexy, feminine woman but a strong, phallic presence, who had, in many aspects androgynous features.

In the range of topics she covered in her writing and her performances there is again a surprise: her stories were usually simplistic, focusing on how Mae West as a woman of questionable morals and great sexual allure performs actually herself (that is, the cultural icon), with the background story being always about finding love. However, as a writer, as an auteur, as an actress, performer and public persona, she challenged the questions and boundaries of gender, race and class; through her wit and comic acts she transgressed those boundaries while, in fact, she hardly ever did or said anything with which she actually committed those transgressions, while she always appeared to do so.

West indulged in talking about delicate issues (sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, interracial sexual relations, prostitution, criminals, the underworld, drug use) and that is why she often had problems with censors, but in spite of the controversial themes of her works, she never went beyond a certain point of decency. This is especially true about her films although she was much more daring in her plays and in her performances on stage or in her novels where West treated issues challenging people’s notions about personal freedom and equality. Whenever she targeted a controversial topic she meant to ameliorate the situation of those involved, especially women but also homosexuals or people of color. She always tried to be realistic and lifelike emphasizing the importance of these concepts. She always conveyed liberal and egalitarian ideas either as a privileged person in a power position – this was usually the case in her films – or as an underprivileged person – much rather true about her plays and novels. In the latter ones, she usually created characters that struggle and suffer as underprivileged people, while in her films she usually rises from such a position quite at the beginning helping those who are not as lucky as she is. Throughout her life West promoted social and cultural equality of disadvantaged groups and minorities by using humor, especially gendered humor within cultural interactions, helping the social and cultural recognition and acceptance of issues related to class, race and gender, especially advocating the problems of feminism and homosexuality.

My first focus will be on how she tried to ameliorate the situation of women through her transgressive acts and performances that challenged the set ideals of womanhood and femininity of the times by using the trope of the witty, humorous prostitute. For instance, in her play Sex, which was one of her greatest successes and scandals at the same time, the protagonist is precisely a prostitute and, as Lillian Schlissel claims: “the success of Sex was astonishing. In writing of a hooker and a happy ending, Mae West challenged Broadway rules” (6). West always worked with and around the figure of the fallen woman, the prostitute, the woman of the street presenting the ways in which a woman was considered one of these people or why and how she became one of them. West always treated these controversial issues with humor and her comic acts greatly helped her get away with serious transgressions. It is significant to note that while she was primarily a performer, she also wrote stories, creating both her own persona and her fictional characters, as well, and this made a difference in how she succeeded on page, on stage and on the silver screen. As an author, she managed to convey her transgressive ideas tailored to her fictional characters that she then played. She wrote her own roles and performed them as she wanted to. She was as much an author-writer (behind the scenes) as a performer-actress in the forefront. In this context, Schlissel said that West “was a writer as much as a performer, and the likelihood is that if she had not written her own material, there would have been no stellar career” (1).

In her works and performances, she was seemingly on the side of men; thus she could not escape being considered in many instances as a mindless, man-pleasing, dumb blonde but here it was definitely not the case. Once West said that “[i]t was a good time to play dumb and I did. There were going to be more surprises than a blowtorch” (West 1970, 37). Betsy Prioleau is also of the opinion that one of the great myths concerning seductresses, alluring as well as sexually-successful women is their visible “stupidity,” as they were/are usually considered “airheads,” women who “play dumb, and keep their mouths shut,” while, in reality these great seductresses have always been far from what they depicted; “[i]n fact most seductresses talked brilliantly and knew what they were talking about” (6). Prioleau adds another mistaken notion to the list of stereotypes regarding seductresses, fallen women leading to the “mindless sex bomb fallacy;” she says that they were seen as “servile man pleasers” (ibid), while in fact, “were mistresses of misrule, carnival queens who cast off repressive shackles” (17). Prioleau also points out that seductresses are usually dismissed by feminists, while in fact, these women are “the liberated woman incarnate” and the “futuristic models of female entitlement: independent operators, pleasure claimers, terroristas of traditional femininity, and big, classy divas” (1-2). This description unquestionably applies to West. With the help of humor and comic performances, West was an independent operator.

As a comic, so-called fallen woman, she challenged and subverted most notions of ideal femininity, and at the end of her stories, she/the female protagonist seemingly always gives in to the traditional ideas of womanhood as a saved, converted strayed sheep but she always makes it clear with a final shot of a cunning smile or a witty remark that this is not the case. Schlissel mentions several critics, who suggest that West’s trademarks, her “smart-mouthed quips” and her “flamboyant sexuality” were only a disguise (2). Schissel also adds that although West always played the “tough girl,” her sexual adventures and allusions were questionable in strict heterosexual terms by emphasizing the role of comedy in all this: “unlike other ‘fallen women’ of the day, the sexuality she displayed was closer to comedy than to passion” (2). Yet, I do not agree with her (and the unnamed critics’) suggestion that “[n]o real woman could be so brazen, so self-contained, or so funny” (2). A woman can be all of these and West was; however, her sexual identity was often questioned throughout her career. For example, George Davis wrote about West in Vanity Fair in 1934 by saying that

I can pay you no greater tribute, dear lady, than to say that [my love for you] has healed the wound in my heart caused by the death of the one and only Bert Savoy. I love you, Miss West, because YOU are the greatest female impersonator of all time. (qtd. in Hamilton 1996, 136)

Marybeth Hamilton, in another work, even calls her “the queen of the bitches” (1995, 136) which―while obviously relevant to her eternal sexual enactment in performance of the gold-hearted prostitute―it also has allusions to her queer identity and West’s strong relationship with and support of homosexual people and their rights in her contemporary American society.

West, contrary to the general belief, was a champion of egalitarian ideas and a defender of women’s rights. She stated that “I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society” (West 1970, 91). Far from being an outright feminist activist, she still contributed immensely to the amelioration of women’s situation in her times. Through her creative output either as a writer or as a performer, West challenged and unhallowed social conventions and remained an emotionally, psychologically, socially as well as financially independent, strong, influential, free and empowering person. West clearly points out these things by saying: “I like movies about strong women. I was the first liberated woman, y’ know. No guy was gonna get the best of me, that’s what I wrote all my scripts about” (qtd. in Barreca 1996, 595). Moreover, in her autobiography, West expressed similar ideas:

[t]hey [men] soon discovered I would not conform to the old-fashioned limits they had set on a woman’s freedom of action. Or the myth of a woman’s need of male wisdom and protection. […] once they knew they could not change my philosophy or dominate me, none of them left me; my problem was actually how to get rid of them. (West 1970, 56)

As an artist, she questioned and re-created traditional ideas of womanhood and gender stereotypes mainly through her comic discourse; in fact, it was exactly this mode that enabled her to achieve her goals while also facilitating the public acceptance of her unconventional acts/actions. The use of humor was seen as traditionally only men’s privilege and being a comedienne generally was not considered to be a high artistic achievement in the case of women, yet, West managed to remain an accomplished artist and a successful performer mostly because of her wit and social critique she produced concerning various fields.

An interesting feature of comedy is that “[i]t is revolutionary and conservative” at the same time (Sypher 242) as it questions and subverts morals, ideals, values, principles, and rules while, at the same time, also (re)inscribes all of them. Comic art provides catharsis through laughter thus freeing us from our problems, and at its best, while mastering disillusionment it also manages to leave our ideals intact: “[a]t its most triumphant moments comic art frees us from peril without destroying our ideals and without mustering the heavy artillery of the puritan” (Sypher 245). Elisabeth Bronfen states in relation to “parodic strategy” that while it facilitates “a rereading against the grain, [it] may be complicitous with the values it inscribes even as it subverts them, the subversion does remain” (406). Hence, parodic strategies always involve a “double encoding” to create the simultaneous processes of contestation and complicity within the dominant culture (406). Bronfen, additionally, argues that in spite of the complicity and the (re)inscription of the values that are subverted within comedy the subversion itself will remain as a ‘signpost’ (406). She also points out that (post-)modern women writers often deal with the common heritage of “cultural image repertoire” in order “to repeat, invert, and re-invent” those images through the duplicitous processes of “miming and disclosing, […] complying and resisting” (Bronfen 407). Therefore, such women writers, artists and performers carry conventions to their limits, or even to excess with the help of comedy, and they often even “transform them into the macabre or the grotesque” (407). However, the tautology reveals that the excess and the hyperbolic overturning of a trope still makes the clichés true, and thus, unbearable through their obviousness, irrevocability and unavoidability (407). This all is again true about West’s comic performances, roles and use of humor since these challenge and subvert traditional notions of femininity, yet, she still (re)inscribes the feminine ideals, although her exaggerated mode of doing this evidently enhances the signpost of subversion.

Additionally, Haskell highlights a significant aspect of the woman humorist and that is if a woman becomes the practitioner of the art of humor she will culturally desexualize and de-feminize herself by becoming more masculine thus losing her (possible) status as a proper and ideal woman: “[a] woman can display humor in the diluted forms of sarcasm or ‘personality,’ but if she indulges in either the athletics of the clown or the epigrams of the wit, she risks losing the all-important status of ‘lady’” (61-62). It is also added that “[w]hile a male comedian can have sex appeal […] a female comedian […] automatically disqualifies herself as an object of desire,” and while the comic man “often becomes a romantic figure in his quixotic destiny,” a comic woman “is regarded more as a desecration to her sex than a holy fool” (62).

However, Mae West – as a filmic and cultural icon, actress, stage performer, writer, author, and most of all, humorist – is still a unique combination of wit (humor), intellect and sexuality. West was a perfect example for the powerful phallic woman whose humor was applauded while being considered, at the same time, “the queen of the bitches” (Hamilton 1995, 136). She always appeared to be an ambiguous figure, who somehow managed to masterfully balance on the rope of (the appearance of) virtue, and at least on screen, she never fell down into the depths of sin (visually); in addition, her sexual promiscuity was not clearly proven either, although, always alluded to and talked about. Probably because this was part of her performed persona: it was an aspect of her stardom. Her life was a great performance and a masquerade of the fallen woman, while she always remained a true woman. Haskell also suggests that “[a] wholesome, daytime version of vampirism with both humor and honor, Mae West turned male lechery on its ear” (116), while proving that “‘male’ aggressiveness and ‘female’ romanticism and monogamy – can coexist” too (117).

Joan Mellen writes that although West’s image in the media was that of the “sex queen and manipulator of weak, drooling men”, in Hollywood she actually projected “a uniquely free image of woman,” who was “seeking mastery over her life” (229-230). What is even more interesting concerning West’s star persona and performance(s) is that she was not embarrassed by being considered “the prostitute or the burlesque queen” (230) while being financially independent. In addition, her unashamed, frank and humorous treatment of economic and gender these issues posed a challenge to the society of her time in the manner of the comic Vice. Here is again a unique masculine aspect of hers acting as a comic Vice in her stories, a character traditionally performed by men exclusively. But West can be seen a Vice figure herself without doubt. As Mellen writes “[o]ften her license, bawdy humor, sexual explicitness and bravado are invested with a challenge to those who disapprove” (230). What is more, she even “turns the tables” and becomes the “superior” person in her relationships with men and she is the one who takes command, who is in charge while she “never surrenders freedom or control” (230). Her comic sexuality and campy vamp performance becomes a source of power, independence, agency and autonomy: “[…] West also transforms sexual allure on the part of women into an item of pride, power and autonomy” (230). West’s excessive sexuality is only a performance and a comic play with her enhanced sexual moves and gestures – she is actually mocking the rituals of mating – and her appearance of an easy woman is only a mask since she ironically plays the bad woman to cover her kindness.

She treats her adventures with bountiful humor and her exaggerated ‘sexy’ walk is at once a sexist ploy and a mockery of the sexual signals assumed to bind men to women. She is also ironic when men assume that her sexuality is an invitation to easy usage,

Mellen writes (239). West’s walk is really quite specific, but probably it is also a comic trademark as it is very typical of famous humorists and comic artists to have a special, usually, rather odd, kind of walk. With this ‘silly walk,’ she also makes fun of women’s learnt and expected modes of behavior.

Again, it is only part of her performance where she appears to be a ‘Black Widow’ (or a potential praying mantis), who might devour the male after mating. In I’m No Angel (1933) in the scene when her character first meets her love she is wearing a black dress that has a silvery, rhinestone pattern of a big sparkling cobweb with a glittering spider brooch climbing up her body (Ruggles 1933), while the male victim (played by Cary Grant) abandons himself willingly to her offering his body to be consumed. Earlier, she even sings “I have the face of a saint […] but look at my eyes, I’m the Devil in disguise” (Ruggles 1933) and suggestively dances leaving the stage and asking ravished men “[a]m I making myself clear, boys?” then adds hardly audibly: “[s]uckers” (Ruggles 1933). All this also connects West to the figure of the comic Vice. Mellen also concludes that “West was the auteur of films redolent with wit in which the punchline always went to the woman” (243).

Before continuing the examination of West’s masculine position as a humorist, I would like to discuss briefly some examples from her works concerning the transgressive issues she treats. In Sex, as it has already been referred to, the heroine is a prostitute (presented and discussed in its raw forms), who has a heart of gold – as all of her prostitute/fallen woman characters do –combined with a leveled head. In this plot line, there is also drug abuse where Margy, the heroine, saves Clara from an overdose. In The Drag, the topic is homosexuality, presented with life-like homosexual men. This project was a daring adventure on West’s part during that time in America. In The Pleasure Man, there is an unscrupulous and charming man destroying girls and women, who is then murdered in the end – with his actions and seductions presented in detail. There is also a smart utterance concerning female solidarity said ironically by a female impersonator, a “sister in distress” (185). What is also an additional feature of all of West’s stories is that she is absolutely authentic in her language use: she is life-like with her slang and colloquial words and phrases with which she presents a particular group or class of marginalized people. In Diamond Lil, the heroine is again an ex-prostitute, who is also a saloon singer. In this story, there is also a young girl considering prostitution as a way out of her misery (there is also white slavery within the story) along the workings of the criminal underworld; in The Constant Sinner, the workings of the underworld (criminals, gangs, bootlegging, drug dealing and drug use to prostitution) predominate with the heroine being a prostitute, whom West calls “a femme amoureuse” (5). According to West, this type of woman is to be found not only “among women of the streets, but in every stratum of society” (5). Babe, the heroine, is of the opinion that “if a man can have as many women as he wants, there is no reason why a woman should not do the same things,” and it is written about her that she “was non-moral” who “enjoyed selling herself and her personality” (5-6).

In the film I’m No Angel, Tara is a circus performer who becomes a lion tamer and then rises into high society. Her ascent is a little bumpy with the issue of class discussed here in detail together with the question of race. West and her heroines always behave/s in an egalitarian way. There is also a court case where the heroine defends herself making fun of the whole court procedure. Here, one of her most famous witticisms are uttered after her won trial: “Why did you admit knowing so many men in your life? / Well, it is not the men in your life that counts but the life in your men” (Ruggles 1933). She Done Him Wrong (1933) is the filmic version of Diamond Lil. At the end of this film, marriage is parodied in the part in which the police captain says jokingly to the heroine, Lady Lou: “I got you. You are my prisoner and I am gonna be your jailer for a long, long time,” while he is pulling a ring on her finger (Sherman 1933). West’s heroines do not really want to get married and even when they do, it is obvious that they are still uncertain about marital bonds. For example, in Goin’ to Town (1935), the female protagonist is again a prostitute taking part in the following conversation: “What excuses you to run around single? I was born that way” (Hall 1935). Despite this, the character agrees to marry a man (although they decided it with dice and she lost the game), who dies before the wedding day and so she is considered to be his widow (since they signed a contract) inheriting all of his money by the first 12 minutes into the film, becoming rich and a successful business woman. Here again, the class and the social hierarchy are central issues, but also the issue of race is highlighted through a Native American employee, who is treated in an equal way with the whites.

As I have already mentioned before, there is a hint of the devil in West’s performances, her stories and characters connecting her to the figure of the comic Vice. There is a longstanding tradition behind the relation between Vice and the comic stance in the allegorical manifestation of Sin and Evil; the Vice figure of morality plays was supposed to be performed “in a fashion both sinister and comic” while he (because this character was always a he) was occasionally even considered “as a precursor both of the cynical, ironic villain and of some of the comic figures in Elizabethan drama […]” in literary discourse (Abrams 166). Mikhail Bakhtin is also of the opinion that there is a close tie between the comic and the devil since in several medieval literary forms a jolly devil figure was frequently present, whose function was to represent “the unofficial point of view” (41). Moreover, Jean Paul also adds that “the greatest humorist of all would be the devil” (qtd. in Bakhtin 42). In this regard, Wylie Sypher argues that the fool, the jester and the devil are all closely related, and the “tempter” figure often “disguises himself as clown or devil” (236).

According to Ágnes Matuska, the Vice – despite its roots in the morality plays and its function as the allegory of Sin – was a clownish, jocular, zany and ludicrous character, who served as an interlocutor and mediator between the performers and the audience during the Tudor period, and whose task was to make people get involved into the events of the carnival or the story/performance of a drama/play by being intelligent, artful, shrewd and witty (2007). West, in spite of being a woman writer as well as performer, acted in the same way while also being very sexual and erotic. Tempe E. Allison also calls attention to the issue of seduction since the ‘duty’ of the Vice as “the emissary or agent of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Devil” was “to seduce mankind” (104). West undoubtedly does that in all her works. However, it is also to be noted that the Vice of sixteenth century English Drama was “a unique and problematic character,” who was not exclusively evil; this character was “a tempter, a mischievous, humorous villain” and “a real crux” (Matuska 2005, 1). What is more, as Robert Withington suggests, “[u]ndoubtedly the type persists in life, not only through the Middle Ages, but to more modern days […]” (124), which is again relevant in connection with Mae West. By asserting time continuity, Matuska alleges that “[n]o matter whether we take the perspective of 16th century audiences or 20th century critics, a basic problem with the Vice has always been the sense of comedy that makes him, although evil, appealing” (2005, 2).

Mae West is always appealing and attractive in all her acts and performances and her audiences were easily seduced by all her doings. The power of West greatly lies in her duality and complexity as a comic, fallen, devious and, at the same time, appealing person, performer and creator. Matuska emphasizes that the comic and the evil in the figure of the Vice should not be separated because this duality is exactly that endows it/him with a unique power: “[i]nstead of separating the comic and destructive elements in the Vice, we should rather see them inseparable: a unique merger that is intrinsic to the character, and that gives him the unfathomable energy and power he possesses” (2005, 19). Another significant aspect of West and her protagonists she performs is that, similarly to the character of the Vice, “has no prejudice, no attachment to anything” (Matuska 2005, 4). West is almost always nonchalant, and although she can be closely connected with several people, even intimately, especially with men, she is never attached to anyone. Although, she is caring and sympathetic, she never gives herself entirely in any of her relationships. As the complexity of the Vice character gets even more complicated, “he pretends not to care for them [the other characters],” and is “indifferent” to “their various wishes;” yet, he eventually “does not betray” them – as Matuska argues in connection with Merry Report (2005, 5). West, as I have already mentioned, is the same since she seems disinterested and indifferent, but eventually, she always helps those in trouble and never lets down those in need. However, after helping them she moves on immediately. It is typical of West and of Vice characters in general that they treat everybody in “the same mockingly disrespectful manner” (Matuska 2005, 6). Although, West and her protagonists can behave properly, they can become disrespectful and even rude within seconds towards anybody if they are not treated adequately. Without delving deeper into the discussion of the character of the Vice, I would like to conclude this part by stating that there are clear parallels between Mae West and the Vice. West, despite bein an attractive and excessively feminine woman, is also masculine in her endeavors as a Vice figure.

West’s masculinity, which is covered up by her excessive feminine allure and masquerade, is also due to her cultural stance and presence as a comedian and a humorist. As Regina Barreca argues, women traditionally, were expected not to produce humor, and not even to enjoy it while they were expected to recognize and acknowledge it with a smile only. Barreca alleges that a proper girl or woman was expected not to laugh (out loud), only to smile or perhaps giggle at most and this all in the service of acknowledging the humorous man’s intellect. She writes that

We always knew that we had to smile at his stories, giggle at his jokes. Nobody said we should giggle at his jokes only if we found them funny; we had to giggle at his jokes even when we thought they were dull, insulting, or dumb. [emphases mine] (1992, 5)

As Barreca suggests, laughing and humor function the same way as the sexual dilemma since a girl or a woman is expected to be receptive of (and even be grateful for) almost any man’s humor; she is supposed to signal her cognizance as well as acceptance by smiling. Yet, she is not allowed to laugh because, then, she is too active, dangerous, uncontrolled, available and “cheap;” not to mention the possible connotations of producing humor … (1992, 7). Humor produced by a woman artist generally conveys her criticism towards the system and its ideologies that entrap her into her gender role. For example, relevant to Mae West is also what Jillian Heydt-Stevenson states about Jane Austen’s use of humor. She writes that Austen’s witty and bawdy humor is “tendentious,” which is “(Freud’s term for humor’s aggressive purposiveness),” in a way that it provides an outlet for her hostility toward ideologies that dominate women (337). Barreca also opines that women’s use of humor is a mode of protest against the injustices of society: “[w]omen’s humor emerges as a tool for survival in the social and professional jungles, and as a weapon against the absurdities of injustice” (1996, 2). In Eileen Gillooly’s view, humor can be both aggressive and defensive in the case of both genders, although, those in the “culturally feminine position” are always more vulnerable as it “comprises, for both genders, a complex set of defensive and aggressive strategies, [however] its defensive function is peculiarly acute for those occupying a culturally feminine position” (22). She also adds that in spite of being mostly defensive, aggression is not excluded even from this type or strategy of humor (Gillooly 23).

In my opinion, West is again much more masculine in this respect because her use of humor is never defensive. John Parkin, while reflecting on Hélène Cixous’ views concerning humor, highlights the subversive force of women’s humor when he says that “the importance of laughter’s subversive force has led some women to turn the male prejudice on its head” (230). He also claims that feminist theorists have pointed out that the main theorists of humor were usually men who concentrated on men’s humor and excluded “the female voice in all its rich abundance and its potential for subversion” (Parkin 230). In terms of comic women in films, Molly Haskell ascertains that during the 1920s and 1930s (West’s filmic period) there were two basic types of comic females: “good girls” (pretty but not so beautiful as the romantic heroine) and “gargoyles” (physically disadvantaged or even appalling figures) (62). West was the romantic heroine/good girl and also the excessive gargoyle; her humor was applauded, while she was considered attractive as a woman; she was able to exceed all categories, and conquer all.

However, Barreca’s claims where she states that “all the best female humorists” are troublemakers with their “devastating wit” (1996, 3), precisely applies to West. Yet, I think that this is true about humorists in general, not just about women. Yet, Barreca emphasizes the sexual aspect of women’s understanding and use of humor again by stating that “[t]he girl couldn’t laugh, because Good Girls just didn’t ‘get it’ […] [b]ad girls bounced” (1992, 3). She also reveals a quite striking association between humor, laughter and sexuality by stating

[f]aking a laugh is like faking an orgasm: we’ve been taught to believe it’s preferable to pretend pleasure than to say ‘That one didn’t do it for me.’ And we have certainly been taught not to say the most dangerous of lines: ‘That one didn’t do it for me, but let me suggest something that might.’ (1996, 9)

Additionally, what is relevant to West is that “a Bad Girl […] not only gets it but […] gives it and, maybe worst of all, isn’t going to take it from anybody” (1992, 8). And eventually, Barreca declares that, in fact, all women can be funny and humorous despite the cultural myths “[l]ike the myth that women have no sense of humor, the idea that we can’t be sweet and wicked at the same time just isn’t true. Good Girls can and do laugh with their mouths open” (1992, 8).

Obviously, the closed mouth and the subsequent silence is one of the greatest virtues of a woman ― another significant aspect of our patriarchal culture. Bram Dijkstra elaborates on the idea that for an ideal woman as a “paragon of virtue and self-negation” silence was of utmost importance, and if she could not keep her mouth shut that “was enough to send Lohengrin packing in disgust” (21). Sarah Ellis’ famously quoted words (which are also reflected in Vicinus’ title) also highlight the importance of silence if somebody aspires to the title of a proper lady, since a woman’s “highest duty is so often to suffer, and be still” (73). Even if a woman could not entirely embrace it, at least, she had to project “the house-wifely calm of Penelope” while being “lamblike and silent” (Vicinus 133).

The open or closed female mouth is again of central importance within our culture since it has further connotations regarding female sexuality and reproduction. The sole reason behind all cultural restrictions on the opening of the female mouth leads to the ‘regulation’ of female genitals. An ideal woman can control her mouth (against laughing) and her genitals (against promiscuity): does not eat (or hardly anything), does not speak (stays silent), and most of all, does not produce humor; all this in service of securing her expected purity. Mae West was obviously not concerned about closing her mouth or any other body part of hers. In her stories, she speaks her mind, talks excessively, eats abundantly and drinks publicly. As Kathleen Rowe argues

[t]hat the unruly woman eats too much and speaks too much is no coincidence; both involve failure to control the mouth. Nor are such connotations of excess innocent when they are attached to the female mouth. They suggest that the voracious and shrewish female mouth, the mouth that both consumes (food) and produces (speech) to excess, is a more generalized version of that other, more ambivalently conceived female orifice, the vagina. Together, they imply an intrinsic relation among female fatness, female garrulousness, and female sexuality. (37)

West’s eating habits coincide with her comic habits. Humor has been mostly related to the masculine, and humor theorists in general agree on the following sentences: “[T]HE CREATION and enjoyment of humor have traditionally been considered masculine privileges […]” (Barreca 1996, 1); humor is “[h]istorically considered a masculine enterprise” (Gillooly 15); “both Hazlitt and Simpson […] gender humor as masculine” (Gillooly 39); “[t]he comic spirit […] of silent comedy […] is basically masculine in gender and often antifeminine in intention” (Haskell 61). Even Rod A. Martin, who discusses humor from the point of view of psychology, states that “[t]here has also long been a sexist aspect to the concept, which was viewed as an essentially masculine characteristic. Until quite recently, it was commonly assumed by many writers that women generally lacked a sense of humor (Wickberg, 1998)” (25). Moreover, Joanne R. Gilbert declares that “many scholars maintain that historically, comedy has been defined and dominated by men and is, therefore, a ‘male’ or ‘masculine’ genre (Auslander 1993; Barreca 1988; Horowitz 1997)” (41). Similar to Haskell’s earlier statement about female humorists’ losing their femininity and lady status, Barreca claims that “[i]t’s a risk for women to use humor (even good humor) because their ‘femininity’ might be (read: inevitably be) called into question” (1996, 2). Additionally, Barreca argues that humor requires “intelligence, courage, insight, and a sense of irreverence” (1996, 3) – all traditionally and culturally conceived as masculine qualities. Eileen Gillooly adds a striking, although, very precise observation that can also be well applied to Mae West: “[e]ven Becky Sharp, perhaps the most famous comic heroine of the nineteenth century, is, despite her sex, a decidedly masculine humorist” (18).

Kristen Anderson Wagner also argues in a similar manner, when discussing early film history; she says that “[w]hile male comedians have been celebrated, analyzed, and fondly remembered through each passing generation, female comedians have largely been forgotten, by audiences and academics alike […]” (39). In her study, Anderson Wagner focuses on female comedians of the silent era as well as during the introduction of sound, for example, Mae West. She also asserts that there “is the longstanding and deep-rooted cultural bias against women performing comedy. The idea that femininity is incompatible with humor dates back to before the nineteenth century and lingers to the present day.” (40) I agree with her statement that these biases are still holding strong even today despite all advances in the direction of change. However, what is even more important is why those women who dare to venture into the realm of comedy and humor are still seen dangerous and are prone to constitute a threat: “[w]omen who engage in comic performances have the potential to subvert the social structures that keep them oppressed; by poking fun at those in power, especially men, women have the ability to expose their weaknesses and challenge their authority” (40). This resonates with what Joanne R. Gilbert also argues, namely that women humorists subvert the status quo, are able to initiate transformation, and are dangerous exactly because they show resistance and are able to critique the dominant culture because of their marginalized and distanced position (3-5). Anderson Wagner also adds that

[t]hese women were doing more than just making people laugh; they were challenging conventional notions of femininity. Their presence and power both on and off screen meant a great deal of visibility as they broke boundaries and redefined what it meant to be a woman. (41)

A female humorist or comedian, as I have already pointed out, occupies a masculine position and challenging femininity, both hers as well as its abstract notions. That is why the presence of such women is so crucial for all women; “regardless of what type of comedy they performed, when comediennes appeared on stage or on screen they were visibly refuting the idea that femininity was incompatible with a sense of humor and proving that women could be aggressive, assertive, bawdy, and, most importantly, funny” (Anderson Wagner 42) just as Mae West did. Nevertheless, her excessive femininity is something to be remembered and also to be discussed briefly since it was such a striking aspect of her persona that it cannot be left unnoticed. My view is that she did all this on purpose and exactly to cover up her masculinity. Similar to femmes fatales, who are also phallic women Mae West is also threatening with her non-femininity. Haskell addresses this issue by writing that West:

[i]n her size, her voice, her boisterous one-liners, and her swagger, there was something decidedly, if parodistically, masculine. But she was a woman, and she thus stretched the definition of her sex (116).

Joan Mellen argues likewise and states that West, with her exaggerated femininity, is much more a “transvestite” than a real woman, and she suggests that this is “a mockery of female sexuality by flaunting what are no more than ordinary female attributes” (243). Stella Bruzzi adds that “[t]he transvestite image” actually “is a fault line, a crack between sex and gender, a site of ambiguity and change” (157). West’s several campy drag performances as a result put “femininity into quotations marks” (Bruzzi 165). While examining the issue of “femininity as construction” in the figures of femmes fatales Bruzzi unites Riviere’s masquerade and Butler’s idea of performativity concerning “the dynamics of the body/social performance relationship” as well as Beauvoir’s famous sentence that “[o]ne is not born a woman, rather becomes one” (166). According to Butler, the corporeal performance provides a surface sign and that “incorporation” is only the effect of “corporeal signification” (Bruzzi 166), thus the corporeal performative enactments are only constructions:

[s]uch acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. (Butler qtd. in Bruzzi 166-167)

The “body/appearance dynamic” is manipulated by clothing, and the fluidity of identities is highlighted through their construction – hence their ontology is connected to this enactment – only “at the moment of performance” (Bruzzi 167). The importance of clothes in the performative enactment of the body is also emphasized here: “[c]lothes are always performative in that they function as signs or enactments on the body to give that body the illusion of integrity and substance” (167). In this context, West’s excessive feminine performativity and masquerade all serve the creation of the illusion of a (desirable) woman to hide her masculinity.

Elaine Showalter, in accordance with Judith Butler, points out that the “womanly woman” is only a construction and a performance since “[f]emininity is a construct; growing up female means learning to play a role” (xi-xii). The prescribed gender roles are all to be enacted since “[g]ender is an ‘act’ which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ itself carries the double-meaning of ‘dramatic’ and ‘non-referential’” (Butler 1997, 404). Joan Riviere also declares that womanliness is itself both masquerade and role-playing (38-39). And what is even more significant in relation to West is that “homosexual men exaggerate their heterosexuality as a ‘defence’” while “women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men” (Riviere 35). These women who dare to intellectually challenge the men (such as the femme fatale or the female comedian) directly or indirectly seeks the sexual attentions of those men in a more or less veiled manner (Riviere 36) in order to cover her intellect and ambition with her sexuality. Public display of womanhood, excessive femininity and sexual allure all are meant to avert the attention from intellectual proficiency and the possession of the phallus (Riviere 37). As Riviere claims, “[w]omanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it […]” (38). That is why, West probably carries her excessive feminine masquearade to such extremes that she is often conceived even a transvestite (Mellen 243). As Joan Mellen also remarks about West’s ‘covers’:

[w]hat has been cited as her narcissism was hardly a liberated response;
but West’s endless filing of her fingernails, bored by all, or examining herself in multiple mirrors, are also deceives she employs as foils for shrewd observations into a petty, ambitious and hypocritical society where women have always had to conceal their intelligence and remain on guard. When West masks her intellectuality, it is of course a measure of continued enslavement. (232)

West was committed to hard work, yet, she was never committed to any man. In She Done Him Wrong (1933) Captain Cummings asks from Lady Lou: “Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy? / Sure, lots of times” – replies West/Lady Lou with a cunning and knowing smile (Sherman 1933). West, as well as her protagonists, would “neither acknowledge nor accede to the superior wisdom of any man” (Mellen 233). She was an independent woman, who had power over males; she was no trembling Hollywood ingénue but had boldness and self-possession; she rejected passivity and refused to wait for events to turn her direction (Mellen 235). Saul Austerlitz is also of the opinion that “West was a lone woman struggling to make her way in hostile territory, but was decidedly not a victim herself” (80).

Mick Lasalle emphasizes, similarly to Mellen, West’s “singular artistry” while claiming that she was mostly misunderstood and remembered incorrectly (152). It is noteworthy that Lasalle calls her “an amazing self-creation” whose presence, acts, moves and talk resemble and induce “an ongoing state of mild and vaguely uncomfortable arousal” (153). He also calls her “a great comedian” who was actually “a friend to men and women too” (ibid). Additionally, “[s]he wasn’t exactly sexy – that was just part of her act. But she was sexual, and she played it right down the middle: Everything was a joke, but not quite” (163). Saul Austerlitz is also of the opinion that although “Mae West drips sex [… she] is hardly an erotic figure. With her oversized parasol and peaked feathered cap, she is already comically exaggerated – less a sex object than an overripe parody of one” (80). Lasalle even goes so far as to state, again very aptly that “West was in fact a female female impersonator, playing an exaggeration of a woman” (154). Haskell also claimed that West was a unique merger of “brains”, “wit” and “sensuality” in such a way that was often considered incompatible in later periods of film history (95). She says that West was “self-created” both involving anima and animus in her uniqueness (107) and notes that West owned such a unique complexity that her androgyny was almost perfect: “[i]ndeed, so complete was West’s androgyny that one hardly knows into which sex she belongs, and by any sexual-ideological standards of film criticism, she is an anomaly – too masculine to be a female impersonator, too gay in her tastes to be a woman” (115). However, West was not a mere sexual object but “woman as sex object turned subject” and a “composite of sexual types” (115).

One thing is certain, as Saul Austerlitz asserts, when in Night After Night (1932) West utters her iconic sentence as a reply to “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, Dearie” (Mayo 1932), with “a lascivious smile stealing across her face, […] the movie – and the history of American comedy – would never be quite the same again” (75-76). As legend has it, George Raft said about this performance of West’s: “Mae West stole everything but the cameras,” and Austerlitz adds that “the audience wanted more, and so did Mae West” (76). It is again a significant aspect of West’s star persona and performances that she is so powerful that everyone else fades in comparison: “West is so much larger than life, so thoroughly demanding of our attention, that her supporting cast […] are wooden dummies, coached to walk and talk in the precise manner designed to best display the star” (Austerlitz 76). It is the same with her stories that are rather simplistic since “[t]he plot is helpful for West’s purposes, but is ultimately irrelevant; for all they matter, the sets and backdrops might as well be made of painted cardboard. They exist only to provide an excuse for West’s string of inverted aphorisms (Austerlitz 80), bon mots, witticisms and wisecracks as “she is a wisecracking philosopher, imparting her hard-fought wisdom with devilish panache (80). For example, about I’m No Angel (1933), which is one of West’s greatest successes, Austerlitz, actually rightly remarks: “[n]o one went to a Mae West comedy for its plot, as she well knew, and her script for I’m No Angel is little more than a thin filament linking unrelated wisecracks” as “West’s philosophy of life emerges, one carefully packaged and delivered bon mot at a time” (81).

Mae West was one of the greatest comedians in American culture. She was larger than life, a myth, who managed to be so controversial that both critics and audiences can hardly agree on what and who she was exactly. Everybody can only be certain that she was an iconic figure who made a difference.


Works Cited

  • Abrams, M. H. 1999. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, Thomson Learning Inc..
  • Allison, Tempe E. “The ‘Vice’ in Early Spanish Drama.” Speculum Volume 12, Number 1 (January 1937.): 104-109.
  • Austerlitz, Saul. 2010. Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.
  • Barreca, Regina ed. 1996. The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Barreca, Regina. 1992. They Used to Call Me Snow White … But I Drifted. Women’s Strategic Use of Humor. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. 1992. Over Her Dead Body. Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Bruzzi, Stella. 1997. Undressing Cinema. Clothing and Identity in the Movies. New York: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” In Katie Conboy et al. eds. Writing on the Body. New York: Columbia University Press, 401-417.
  • ——. 1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Dijkstra, Bram. 1988. Idols of Perversity. Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ellis, Sarah. 1843. The Daughters of England, Their Position in Society, Character ad Responsibility. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
  • Gilbert, Joanne R. 2004. Performing Marginality. Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Gillooly, Eileen. 1999. Smile of Discontent. Humor, Gender, and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Hall, Alexander, dir. 1935. Goin’ to Town. Written by Marion Morgan, George B. Dowel and Mae West. Emanuel Cohen Productions and Paramount Pictures.
  • Hamilton, Marybeth. 1996. The Queen of Camp. Mae West, Sex and Popular culture. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
  • ——. 1995. When I’m Bad, I’m Better. Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Haskell, Molly. 1975. From Reverence to Rape, The Treatment of Women in the Movies. London: New English Library.
  • Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. ““Slipping into the Ha-Ha”: Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 55.3 (2000): 309-339.
  • Lasalle, Mick. 2000. Complicated Women. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Martin, Rod A. 2007. The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.
  • Matuska, Ágnes. “A shakespeare-i közönségbevonás filmes vetületei.” Apertúra. Film-Vizualitás-Elmélet Nyár. II. évfolyam. 4. szám. (2007). Accessed June 5, 2010. http://apertura.hu/2007/nyar/matuska.
  • ——. “Haphazardly Ambidextrous: Interpretations of the Vice of 16th-Century English Drama.” The AnaChronisT 11 (2005): 1-22.
  • Mayo, Archie, dir. 1932. Night After Night. Written by Vincent Lawrence et al. Paramount Pictures.
  • Mellen, Joan. 1973. Women and their Sexuality in the New Film. New York: Horizon Press.
  • Parkin, John. 1997. Humour Theorists of the Twentieth Century. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.
  • Prioleau, Betsy. 2003. Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. New York: Penguin Group: Viking.
  • Riviere, Joan. 1989. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” In Victor Burgin et al. eds. Formations of Fantasy. London: Routledge, 35-44.
  • Rowe, Kathleen. 1995. The Unruly Woman. Gender and the Genres of Laughter. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Ruggles, Wesley, dir. 1933. I’m No Angel. Written by Mae West. Paramount Pictures.
  • Schlissel, Lillian ed. 1997. Three Plays by Mae West. Sex. Drag. The Pleasure Man. London: Nick Hern Books Limited.
  • Sherman, Lowell, dir. 1933. She Done Him Wrong. Written by Mae West, Harvey F. Thew and John Bright. Paramount Pictures.
  • Showalter, Elaine. 1993. “Introduction.” In George Gissing. The Odd Women. London: Penguin Books, vii-xxvi.
  • Sypher, Wylie. 1956. “The Meanings of Comedy.” In n.e. Comedy. Anchor Books edition. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 193-255.
  • Vicinus, Martha, ed. 1973. Suffer and Be Still. Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Wagner, Kristen Anderson. 2013. “Pie Queens and Virtuous Vamps: The Funny Women of the Silent Screen.” In Andrew Horton and Joanna E. Rapf, Eds. A Companion to Film Comedy. Malden: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 39-60.
  • West, Mae. 1995. The Constant Sinner. London: Virago Press Limited.
  • ——. Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. 1970. New York: Macfadden-Bartell Corporation.
  • ——. Diamond Lil. [1932] 1949. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.,.
  • Withington, Robert. “Braggart, Devil, and ‘Vice.’” Speculum Volume 11, Number 1 (January 1936): 124-129.