If you are faced with the question of naming the sexiest women in cinema living or dead, the first few would be obvious…Monroe, Garbo, West, Turner etc…Barbara Stanwyck probably wouldn’t even make the initial list poor thing. This is rather ironic considering the number of times the girl has played a seductress. Manipulating the likes of Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and Fred MacMurray, Stanwyck was someone who could drive anyone’s husband to infidelity and murder. But in my opinion, her most poignant role as seductress was in the screwball “Ball of Fire” directed by Howard Hawks, where Babs gets to show that her sexuality is more than just her lady parts. In the 1940’s, this character of Sugarpuss O’Shea (probably the most ridiculously hinting name ever) was definitely considered a big step for womankind, whether it was backward or forward is a valid argument, and if you’ll humor me, I of course want to take a minute to argue the latter. Babs was one hell of a fish out of water in the 1940’s. While everyone else was playing the war wife, she was still in sequins and boa’s with a perverted joke or two that we only pick up on after a few views.
According to Molly Haskell, the women in the films of the 1940’s were always seen as secondary to the roles of the men. It was not their intentions or desires that came to light, and they seemed to always be objectified through the male gaze of the actor playing opposite them, the director, and subsequently the viewer. It would appear that women’s roles in films of the 1940’s were leverage and/or motivation for the male protagonist, with whom the plot moved. It seems as though women were always secondary to the plot itself, and were sometimes only an afterthought. The most prominent role for a woman in a film from the 1940’s was that of the femme fatale; a heartless, cunning seductress who manipulates the protagonist into doing what she wants, and then in the end is forced to pay for leading the man astray. There was always a very distinct difference between the role of the man and the role of the woman in terms of morality, goals, and intentions. Haskell argues that Hawks not only acknowledged this gap, but mended the tension between gender roles, and subsequently gave women a more prominent position in the narrative.
Concerning gender roles, it is important to look at Hawksian women through different lenses including psychoanalytical. We must consider the role of the woman in film of the time, and thereby consider Hawks as a masculine director of women. His portrayal of women was unique in that it gave them power as the controller of the look, and the subject of the male gaze. He gave created women through objectification, but simultaneously awarded them a uniqueness and strength that would even the imbalance of gender roles in Hollywood.
Hawksian women are varied in the roles they play in society, but seem to have certain similarities between them whether they be journalists, spoiled poor-little-rich-girls, or nightclub singers. There seems to be a cohesive thread that connects them through personality, desire, and motivation. They are allowed to be both the pursuer and the object of desire simultaneously, and are constructed not just to perpetuate the plot but are given an arc of their own with which they can establish themselves as just important elements to the narrative as the male protagonists. This does not go to say that all Hawksian women are feminist archetypes, nor does that mean that they have lost feminine qualities because of the strength and independence they are given. Hawksian women reach a kind of synthesis between traditional masculine and feminine qualities. They are seductive yet independent, witty but firm in their convictions, unpredictable yet consistent. The Hawksian woman is in effect a new bread of character that can be explored with one significant examplel Barbara Stanwyck’s character Sugarpuss O’Shea in “Ball of Fire”.
If we examine each character in Haskell’s terms, we can deduce that Stawyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea is the perfect model of the “superfemale”. She is as Haskell describes “a woman who, while exceedingly “feminine” and flirtatious, is too ambitious and intelligent for the docile role society has decreed she play”. She has her own intentions from the very beginning of the film and refuses to be affected by opposition. She arrives at the house of the scholars on a rouse so that she can hide from the police. It may appear at first that she is without conscience, and is purely motivated by selfish concerns. She is witty and intelligent enough to get her own way using tactics available to her as a seductress. She remains dominant in her role as the female until the very end at which point she succumbs to her feelings for Gary Cooper's character (Potts), proving herself to be in her own unique way both feminist and feminine. More importantly, it is her character that carries the narrative, and everything that happens in the film is an effect of her actions. Sugarpuss O’Shea has no trouble mastering herself in a man’s world, and not only functioning in it, but dominating it. Not only does she hold dominion over the shy and awkward Potts, but she also stands up firmly to the mob boss that she has been romantically tied with (Dana Andrews). It is interesting to watch how Stanwyck’s character is able to outwit a group of intellectuals and scholars, not maliciously, but for her own amusement. Her ability to hold her own against not only intellectuals, but mobster, proves her as not only the wittier, but the stronger character. She thus becomes the protagonist and thereby is able to make the film move according to her actions, not the actions of the Gary Cooper character.
We must also consider Stanwyck’s power as a seductress, which is also attributable to her label as a “superfemale”. Potts is a typical Hawks protagonist in the way that he has been “avoiding women…he doth protest too much”. Sugarpuss is not only able to veer him away from his studies but consequentially make him fall in love with her. Her role as a seductress is not a negative one, as it usually is in films of the 1940’s with a femme fatale character. Her intentions are selfish at first, but become secondary to her ability to transform Potts into a better man.
Then there is the all to familiar Mulvey thesis regarding the woman as threat of castration. Sugarpuss O’Shea can be observed as such a threat, but uniquely transforms herself as one who elevates the male protagonist rather than emasculates him. She teaches him how to be a ‘real man’. An example of this is when en route to rescue her from the shogun wedding, he is reviewing a book on boxing. He is forced to prove himself to her as a man so that he can fix the imbalance she has created with her presence in terms of masculine vs. feminine. Babs gives this role a whole different spin. Unlike her predecessors including Mae West or Theda Bera, Stanwyck seems almost androgynous with her small frame and strict haircut. And yet, she seems far too experienced for anyone in the house, and completely and totally seductive. Sugarpuss exudes her sexual energy verbally rather than physically, keeping the boys in check with her wit as well as her legs.