More like Mae West, please!

“When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.”
-Mae West

It’s hard to watch a Mae West film and not feel short-changed by the lack of ballsy, wise-crackin’, confidence-oozing, sexually fearless females in today’s popular culture. I’m wholly thankful for a very long list of women in the spotlight who dismiss the status quo in their performances, songs, and words, but the likes of Mae West—playwright, director, actor, comedian, singer, skilled seductress, and unabashed pleasure seeker–come around far too seldomly. Lena Dunham has come close–as the writer, director, and star of her own TV show, she dares to show a side of female sexuality that rarely gets exposed in public. But most still operate within the male narrative, where the young, skinny, and not-so-brainy rule.

That Mae West managed to make her Hollywood debut at age 38, stand up to the all-powerful studios, battle it out with censors, maintain her curves, and write plays about sexually-aggressive women in the 1920s is testament to her balls, talent, late nights at the typewriter, and sheer force of will to get things done exactly as she wanted, without fear of repercussions. And there were plenty of repercussions. When her play Sex (which she wrote, directed, and produced) opened on Broadway, the theater was raided and West was sentenced to ten days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth.” Her subsequent plays, The Constant SinnerThe Drag, and The Wicked Age were no less tame and equally controversial, tackling topics such as interracial sex and homosexuality. I should point out that West may well have been ahead of her time in addressing such taboos, but her portrayals of African Americans were very much rooted in the rampant racism of the ’20s and ’30s.

At an age when Hollywood deems most women finished, 38-year-old West had been offered a movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and made a small but mesmerizing debut in Night After Night, delivering line after line of her signature wit and sexual come-ons, over cigarettes and champagne. When West is on screen, it’s impossible to care about anyone else. The diamonds definitely help (her gowns sparkled the brightest of them all), but what comes out of West’s mouth is what makes her so damn captivating. She spent thousands of hours pouring over scripts and re-working lines and meticulously constructing her character. Although she may have given the impression that her nights were spent in the company of men, she was mostly alone, writing into the early hours of the morning. Those that may not have seen her films will definitely know her lines. “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.” “I wrote the story myself. It’s all about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it.” “Good sex is like good Bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand. ” Her comedic genius knows no limits. I shudder to think of the female talent we may have missed out on thanks to the Hays Code and the moral police. West and Paramount Studios were fortunate to have finished She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, her two best and biggest selling films, on the right side of 1934. The Hays Code, a series of moral censorship guidelines for the film industry, had been in place since the ’20s, but it wasn’t until 1934–at the height of West-maniathat the new boss Joseph Breen pursued “smut” in film with a vengeance. West’s creativity was stifled by Breen’s rigidity and Puritanical rules. Titles had to be changed and her screenplays were heavily edited. It soon became clear that West’s feisty, sex-positive character was being replaced with one much sweeter, more demure, and rarely in charge. 

Put Mae West next to any of the top actresses that followed her–Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn–and she’d  eat ’em alive. There aren’t many actresses, past nor present, who can hold a candle to Mae West. Our attitudes towards sex and sin have definitely relaxed with the times, but a woman like Mae West– in charge of own her sexuality, re-writing the rules, carving out her own path–is still a struggle to find today. Directors, producers, writers, and decision makers are still predominantly men, and women just play a role in their stories. 

I had intended for this piece to read more like a Mae West biography, whilst urging you to watch her finest movies (don’t miss I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong). But re-reading her story and watching some of my favorite of her clips on youtube reminded me just how much more fulfilling (and thrilling!) our cultural landscape would be (for women AND men!) if there were more like Mae West.


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