Scott Winfield Sublett

On the set of Some Like it Hot (1959)

Something happened the other day that made me realize yet again how quickly and completely cinema’s idea of the erotic has changed. A 30-ish science fiction writer of my acquaintance had just watched, on my recommendation because I felt he needed cheering up, Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn Monroe sings Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. He was enchanted by the way her character, Lorelei Lee, as innocent as Tweety Bird and every bit as wised-up, used what once were termed ‘feminine wiles’ to get her way. “I mean,” he asked, “why should women have to kick ass to be sexy?”
Has it come to where it’s surprising that a woman who isn’t a kung fu master can be an object of desire? It has apparently come to that, and come to think of it, why does that surprise me? In my film classes, I started about five years ago noticing a trend among the male students: college men had begun thinking that the sexiest thing going was a girl who could beat you up. How this preference actually came about is anybody’s guess, but I suspect it’s because video game manufacturers figured out that if the protagonist doling out the punishment is a shapely girl, the typically straight, male player could experience two kinds of amatory excitement at once: sex and violence. Voila! The babe who kicks ass.
The shock is how fast this change has come this far. For those of you who are too young to remember, rest assured things were not always thus. My own mother, who was considered something of a beauty, once argued with dad about buying a new car. He was thrifty and wasn’t going to be suckered into buying ‘optional extras’ like power steering. “But darling,” Mother whined, “I’ll get muscles!” I remember that so well because it struck me as so odd. I had no idea what she meant. Being five years old, I’d never had to parallel-park a car that lacked power steering. The point is that, once upon a time, muscles were exactly what men did not want on their women. There’s a delicious line in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, where the hardboiled private dick played by Ralph Meeker (an actor who could out-Bogart Bogart), grasps his secretary Velma’s upper arms and murmurs, “You know, just to hold the soft part of your arm is a meal.” These were meat-and-potatoes men and they liked their women well marbled. In 1959’s Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon watches Marilyn Monroe’s jiggly walk and observes approvingly, “Just like Jell-O on springs!”
Of course, the conflation of sex and violence on screen is almost as old as cinema itself, as in, for example, the silent film convention of tying women to railroad tracks, a quite dastardly activity that, happily, seldom if ever happened in real life. For most of film history, violence involving women was about males attacking helpless females, a phenomenon that reached its climax in 1960 when, in Psycho, Janet Leigh took that nice refreshing shower. Nowadays, Hitchcock’s horror classic would have been finished at the 45-minute mark: Miss Leigh would have fought back and won.

Michelle Pfeiffer Fabulous Baker Boys 1980

Cut to today, and the blonde of the hour is Charlize Theron. She’s a serious actress, as willing as Bette Davis to set aside personal vanity in service of a performance, such as the slovenly serial killer in Monster. That was back in 2003. She still chooses smart, risky material, but the Charlize Theron pictures that take off at the box office are, like her recent hit The Old Guard, the ones where she’s deadly. And it isn’t just horny fanboys who swoon over them. A critic at no less than The New York Times, in an essay entitled The Pleasure of Watching Charlize Theron Throw a Punch, opines that her fight scenes are “as close as we’re going to get to the endorphin rush of watching Gene Kelly dance, or Judy Garland sing, or Charlie Chaplin pantomime,” adding that “the ur-text of Charlize Theron fighting is 2017’s Atomic Blonde.” So that’s the ur-text. I was wondering. In that ur-text, Miss Theron is a CIA/MI6 agent who clearly has a license to kill and does it a lot. The Times writer catalogues her admirable resourcefulness in killing people with handy, everyday objects such as “a stiletto heel, a corkscrew, a ladder, a shelving unit, a handful of keys, a gun that’s run out of bullets, a strategically unhooked seatbelt, a water hose, a kitchen pot and a refrigerator door.” If she comes to my office, I’m hiding the pens. I think it’s safe to say that these Charlize Theron action vehicles are not very plausible, and how smart they are is open to debate, but hey, pass the popcorn. As Hitchcock said to one of his favorite actors, “It’s only a movie, Ingrid.”

Charlize Theron in The Old Guard 2017.

The cultural shift from Marilyn Monroe singing about acquiring diamonds by shaking her ass to Charlize Theron getting her way by kicking the asses of everyone in sight seems, on its face, to be progress, but there might be trouble ahead. The young male action fans will be disappointed to learn that most women do not combine heroic bosoms, chiseled abs, and sick martial arts skills, and if they did, what would they want with you, a pathetic video game addict? Indeed, in Atomic Blonde, Miss Theron’s love interest is a beautiful girl. We live in a world where, increasingly, women less and less want or need men. I want to say to the fanboys, “OK, women have good jobs and sperm banks – once they’re physically stronger and can put up drywall, what earthly use are you?” Husbands seem to be going out of fashion (except among gays) and, alarmingly, as if males were starting to understand on a cellular level their superfluity, men’s sperm counts are plummeting throughout the so-called Western Democracies (Google “male fertility crisis” and see if I’m kidding). As for the women, isn’t this just a new impossible standard to meet? Once again, Hollywood is having its cake and keeping its figure. Under the virtuous banner of ‘empowering women,’ they’ve added another box to the long list of boxes modern gals are expected to check: bring home the bacon, check, fry it up in a pan, check, and look as hot as Charlize Theron as you repel home-invasion robbers – check and check. Life was, perhaps, easier back when all a girl had to do to look sexy was not grow muscles.

Volume 35 no 2 November / December 2020

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