It is impossible, or, at the very least, irresponsible to look at a creative output or filmography and not look at the time in which it was created. This is true of anyone’s work, but it is especially true in regards to sex symbols. Through their work they tell us about social mores, the boundaries of propriety, and what femininity is composed of in a particular era. Personally, when I see the performances of women who are considered sex symbols, I am filled with a subtle but distinct thrill, a feeling of joy in response to what I see as the transgressive nature of their work. These are women who delight in overstepping the boundaries that society has built, whose very personas and existences are built to shock. These are women who refuse the mid-century notion that womanhood is domesticity and matronly care. That is, I believe, the essence of their longevity; this ability to harness symbols and mores of femininity and twist them into something so extravagant and irrational that they become a kind of retaliation against the status quo. Thus, their images still seem fresh and exciting even today. These women, Jayne Mansfield included, use depictions of femininity that are reductive or based on the tropes of mid-century womanhood and in taking them to an illogical extreme, are able to turn the image against their audience, the very men who desire them. It is in this that I see a very meticulously cultivated and potentially transgressive image.
In her work, Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties, Martha Saxton offers us a different interpretation of the role of the sex symbol in American society. Saxton chronicles the life and rise of Mansfield as a cultural juggernaut whose image was integral to a post-war sense of fecundity and wealth. She assesses, with precise detail, the notions of femininity, womanhood, and sex that were so pervasive in this era as to give rise to Mansfield and many other bombshells. It was, after all, the era of the bombshell. Saxton is adept at describing American society in the 1950s, with all its double standards based in purity and conformity. She relates this to Mansfield and her persona, exposing her as an outgrowth specific to that era and its preoccupations. She works to expose the fraud of 1950s womanhood, but manages to damn Mansfield for pushing against these very strictures. I see her analysis of Mansfield’s life and work as particularly reductive. Saxton characterizes Mansfield as fickle and not particularly interested in anything or anyone unless it had monetary or concrete value in terms of her career. Where one could interpret Mansfield’s approach as an example of her business savvy, Saxton reduces Mansfield’s actions to that of an insatiable exhibitionist, whose endless exploitation of others and cold calculations are the legacy of her work. In this, Mansfield’s intelligence is undermined. The book was as exhaustive in its appraisal of societal norms and conventions as it was short sighted in its assessment of Mansfield and her ability to cultivate a persona that was a force within mid-century America.
One of second wave feminism’s blind spots in relation to femininity and its construction has to do with bombshells. As with Saxton’s work, many scholars fail to acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of the women who work within this mode. They are able to take the tropes of femininity, often degrading, and take them to their most absurd. In this, they expose the construction. They render it, and by extension society, ridiculous. These women are often underappreciated masters of comedic timing and manipulation of mores, especially the hypocritical ones, the ones that showcase a simultaneous revulsion and preoccupation with sex and its every manifestation. Rather than completely writing off these creations, can’t we also see them as potentially subversive, as images that take control of the narrative, that masterfully wrest control of the image away from the traditional image-makers, men?
Saxton’s book often refers to Mansfield’s shameless need to promote herself. Mansfield was known for constantly using gimmicks to get the media’s attention. Saxton finds this disgusting, trashy, and abhorrent. But why do we never reframe this narrative? She is an actress. She is an actress whose worth is tied up in her appearance, as an actress’s worth often is. She thus has a finite amount of time in which to achieve the success she desires. She understands this. She takes action to maximize the time she has, capitalizing on her beauty and allure. Every actor does this. So why do we hate and antagonize her for it? She got the media’s attention and she did it largely on her own. By those terms, we should be praising her for her savvy handling of media and audience expectations. But we don’t. We decide to find this display, when coming from Jayne Mansfield, pathetic. It is a double standard that is stifling, one in which Mansfield could never win. Typecast as the dumb blonde, all of her actions were interpreted to uphold this narrative. The construction of her own persona and the savvy with which she handled the media is rarely mentioned in conversations about Jayne and it should be because the dominant narrative of Mansfield, the dumb blonde, and the creation and handling of her career, much of which she did herself, do not add up. But what it boils down to, in this case, and in many others like it, is that here is a woman so brazen, so unapologetic in her rush to fame, so openly desirous of success, that we, as a society, object. We don’t like to see anyone, especially women, plainly lusting after the fame and adoration of millions. We don’t like to see a woman’s longing as fully and obviously as all that. If a woman has aspirations, they should be hidden, not brazenly bandied about in a bikini. Mansfield’s goals were as obvious as anything. It is transparent in all her publicity and even by today’s standards, that transparency is shocking. It is a woman working hard and demanding the things she desires from a society that would rather not pay her desires any mind, a society that would rather restore Mansfield to the role of desired. This blatant aspiration is not particularly acceptable, there is too much obvious want there, it is too plain. Better, as a woman, to be quietly dissatisfied, than to be openly desirous of anything.
By the end of her work, Saxton has begun to acknowledge Jayne’s drive for fame and the difficulties inherent in sculpting just such a persona. Saxton is able to acknowledge Jayne’s hard work and the astuteness which contributed to her success, but it is too little too late. Saxton has spent the whole book denigrating Jayne’s contributions to film and to the public discourse on fame and sex. It is not a wholly positive contribution, but it should be acknowledged that a woman saw the mores, took them, manipulated them, twisted them to extremes, and was able to take a subjugation and turn it into a position of power. Saxton derides her for her choices, chastises her for stupidity, real and feigned. But really, if we are talking about Mansfield, we are talking about a woman who saw a system that privileges men and was able to take it and manipulate it so it worked for her. That should not go unnoticed or unrecognized. That takes intelligence. We should not conflate a persona with a person and we should not shame the person for the damnable strictures put upon them by society. That is, after all, the work of a sex symbol. Women like Mansfield and Monroe took something they recognized as artificial, namely the way that womanhood and femininity are conceived of, and exposed its artificiality by taking it to its most absurd conclusion. To not see a kind of power there is to wholly miss the point.
Saxton, Martha. Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.