It’s always a pleasure to see a sassy Mae West clip, even when it’s used in a con job such as Mae West: Dirty Blonde, the new documentary feature on PBS’s American Masters series. Dirty Blonde provides the expected historical biodoc info about West’s beginning in vaudeville, the scandalous Broadway shows that landed her in jail for eight days, then her triumphant emergence in Hollywood movies. (“Millions of people will see me,” she exclaimed.) Dirty Blonde also exemplifies this bizarre moment in cultural revisionism by positioning West’s accomplishments as proto-feminist.
How ironic to see West’s proud, glamorous wit celebrated by a gaggle of unhappy women, the usual PBS roundup of academics and literary figures, plus Margaret Cho, the former comedian turned social-justice warrior. Few of them are worthy to salute West, and most prove their unworthiness by trying to squeeze West’s voluptuous, hour-glass legend into a women’s-rights cubbyhole.
Produced by Bette Midler (not a modern Mae West but a Sophie Tucker clone), as if to validate her own distorted, campy, drag-queen image, Dirty Blonde misrepresents West’s sexual humor. Her middle-aged bawdy persona, practiced in egalitarian vaudeville but mostly derived from the license of black blues singers (although Bessie Smith is never mentioned even once), radiated American melting-pot ambition — the pursuit of personal desire. As critic Gregory Solman said, “Mae West knew the score.” Dirty Blonde was made by admirers, but they only assess the West legend according to #MeToo standards of women who seem to have lost knowledge of “the score,” the means by which men and women eternally negotiate their biological drives in all social circumstances.
In her movies, Mae West was always the winner. Her terms were personal and sensual and ingeniously insouciant. She knew that satirizing the battle of the sexes was the route to victory. But Dirty Blonde’s experts prefer academic jargon.
Emily Nussbaum: “Preternatural confidence . . . a powerful image for women.” Jill Watts: “She’s making class commentary, but she’s also making commentary on gender.” The words “class” and “gender” would never pass West’s bee-stung lips, but that trite, pseudointellectual mumbo-jumbo has overtaken PBS language. One speaker describes West’s Sex, a 1926 stage drama on prostitution, as being about “sex workers.” Another says that West was “a parody of male sexuality” who was “standing sexism on its head.”
It’s clear that in the prevailing ideology at PBS, all women and ethnic groups are viewed as oppressed, needing liberation by way of protest. That media’s purpose is — in the odious clichés of the moment — to give “voice” to the voiceless and let marginalized people be “seen.” These are Communist precepts that have nothing to do with why West’s Hollywood movies are such delightful examples of a singular personality. West’s characters always opposed real obstacles, not egocentric disgruntlement. She was Scarlett O’Hara as a stand-up comic — even sharing confidences with her black maids, who were always presented as fully human, fully sexual figures, Bessie Smith’s sistahs.
In this cancel-culture era, it’s dishonest to protect Mae West by falsifying her art. (West’s humor was sophisticated; Amy Schumer’s is gross.) Claudia Roth Pierrepont comments: “She’s got a message for you. I think it was very revolutionary and it still is.” No, West performed in a civilization that understood and believed in male-female exchange, that thing known as heterosexuality and traditional culture.
Now West’s witticisms get misinterpreted as “she gave women permission to be bold and be strong.” These middlebrow chickadees (biographer Marybeth Hamilton and Margo Jefferson describing West’s below-the-belt saunter and prizefighter stance are the most sensible of them) mostly ignore preexistent 20th-century female strength and the sustenance of the blues, an expressive art created by women and men. This “permission” nonsense is just girlish whining to appease Millennials who don’t know cultural history. The ultimate failing of Dirty Blonde comes when one of the PBS talking heads castigates Hollywood’s heavy-handed 1934 Production Code as the scheme of industry executive Joseph Breen (demeaned as both a bigot and a Catholic).
How odd that the shrewdest commentary comes from men. Rick Des Roschers, on the play Sex: “[It’s] about lust. Men were actually given credit for being lusty.” Or, George Chauncey on West’s gay programs: “I don’t think she was a sweet social reformer trying to improve the position of gay people. She was using them to get ahead and make a name for herself.”
PBS doc makers Julia Marchesi and Sally Rosenthal play the usual progressive games. They refuse to admit it was Hollywood, not the government or the scapegoated Breen, that initiated its own censorship. This self-justifying delusion fails to recognize that West’s success was due to pre-Code Hollywood’s rubber-stamping of what vaudeville audiences already knew and enjoyed about American sexual freedom. After becoming Hollywood’s highest-paid female and a shrewd California real-estate investor, West went on to outlive her peak. It was during the second wave of feminism that she made appearances as a grotesque caricature of her former audacious self. Yet she was always beyond mere feminism.
My favorite Mae West tribute came from David Gedge, the boyish romantic of England’s rock band the Wedding Present, whose 2005 album, a foray into Americana, was Take Fountain. It was Gedge’s acknowledgement of West’s real-estate acumen and sexual good sense. Legend has it that when asked to advise aspiring Hollywood starlets, West updated the old “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” joke (“Practice, practice”) by saying “Take Fountain,” a sarcastic Los Angeles traffic direction. She eschewed personal responsibility for how people misread her art, leaving it up to women (and men) to enjoy her example but not necessarily follow it, to use their own best instincts and common sense. That’s why Mae West was great.