The Origin of the Sex Goddess Image
It can primarily be traced back to the 1946 film, Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.
Gilda, has been called "superlative trash." But for all its shortcomings it is the film that made Rita Hayworth a superstar. It also provided Glen Ford with an important restart in film after his military service in World War II.
There are some initial facts that are important in understanding Gilda, the woman who has been called "the original sex goddess."
The film, which was made in 1946, takes place in Buenos Aires, a city that added the international flavor, spice, and texture to the Gilda character.
At the time Rita Hayworth was probably the most popular World War II pinup. Even a test A-Bomb was named Rita and had a picture of her painted on it.
It is not surprising that Gilda was designed and written from the beginning as a "sex goddess" exploitation film-specifically for Miss Hayworth. Shooting started on the film even before the male star had been selected.
After the war, thousands of returning servicemen took their wives and girlfriends to see the film. The success of this fantasy and the Gilda character, itself, was revealed by Miss Hayworth in probably her most famous quote: "Every man I've known has fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me."
A Character Analysis
This quote by Miss. Hayworth reveals much. Hollywood's often-fantasized version of women creates major problems. Gilda is a fantasized version of the seductive vixen-tinged character that every man supposedly dreams of.
Like the John Wayne/Charles Bronson-type stereotype that men shouldn't be compared to, the Gilda character creates a disservice to women -- one that interferes with realities of normal male-female relationships.
During the first part of the film Gilda is a seductive wench/tramp/vixen. She comes across as an immature, two-faced, irresponsible, materialistic, unfeeling manipulator of men.
She both flaunts and relies on her sexuality to get what she wants.
She is the possession/plaything of a husband, who buys this "pretty object" and substitutes her for his cane-knife. Both heighten his sense of masculinity.
The statements in the script that "women and gambling don't mix" adds to the stereotype that women spell trouble and shouldn't be part of the "serious" aspects of a man's world. "Women are funny little creatures," is another example of this reality separation.
Having been scorned by Johnny, Gilda throughout the first part of the film acts out her anger by turning into a wench-for the supposed purpose of getting even through making Johnny jealous.
At the same time, writer and producer Van Upp would have you to believe that underneath this character was a loving but desperately "hurting woman" and that this character's anger and hurt were simply being converted into Gilda's vixen-like behavior.
But, by creating this scorned woman-to-vixen stereotype, something else is being "accomplished" in the film. The seductive, impersonal personality that Gilda displays conveniently sidesteps both the issues of relating to a real person and personal involvement.
Gilda is an elusive, teasing sex object; a-pinup-come-to-life.
The regular use of a strong backlight, coupled with her long hair adds to Gilda's mysterious, alluring look. The fact that her character dances and sings (with the help of another woman's dubbed-in voice) adds to this single dimension of Gilda.
Is it any wonder that Miss Hayworth was never able to live up to Gilda in real life? Thousands of men fell in love with Gilda, but those who got to know Ms. Hayworth as a human being were apparently disappointed-at least by her own admission.
But, in order for the character of Gilda to have redeeming personal (and box office) appeal, she had to also be a vulnerable female (unlike the personality type associated with a genuine vixen).
Thus, during the second part of the film we see Gilda suddenly change into a dependent, vulnerable, human being. The shrew had to be tamed. What could not be controlled by men, now could be.
To justify this sudden change, the writer would have you believe that Johnny Farrell had some kind of beyond-death loyalty to his boss, and that along with getting even, he had an obligation to punish Gilda for her sins. Besides representing punishment for sins, this could also be considered sexual.
It is interesting-and possibly indicative of what the public would accept in their "goddess" in the 1940's-that Gilda apparently didn't have sex with the men she consorted with. To have done so meant she would have crossed the line into being an unredeemable character. Even so, Gilda was undoubtedly made into the most vixen-like character the times would allow.
The Gilda character embodies two totally unrealistic male fantasies about women: the alluring, unbridled temptress ("...bar nothing ranch") and then the repentant, loving, submissive, subservient, reformed woman.
Both-especially in the same personality-represent unrealistic extremes.
Miss Hayworth's own words and experiences reveal a psychological danger in the Gilda characterization. Just as men can't live up to the Bronson-Wayne movie model— and sensible men wouldn't try— mentally healthy women would be far removed from being a Gilda-like character.
Possibly Gilda could be considered harmless fantasy entertainment. And certainly depictions of women in film-especially in the 1940's-could seldom be confused with reality.
Probably moviegoers knew that, and simply wanted to escape from reality with the likes of this invented characterization.
Ironically, if the Gilda character had been more realistic, by now she may have been all but forgotten.
Gilda is available on DVD from Columbia Classics.
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