There was an actress in the 1930s, Tallullah Bankhead, who was considered promiscuous and scandalising by other promiscuous (although I think of it as “˜sexually honest’), scandalising sex symbols of the 20s and 30s such as Mae West and Marlena Dietrich. This was what inspired me to read up on her life, and I found someone I would very much have liked to know.
Basically, Bankhead slept with whomever she saw fit, including many of the era’s greatest sex symbols – male and female. She was quoted as saying “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.” She had a sharp sense of wit and never failed to use it, especially when attacked by male reporters who resented a woman was so unapologetically free with her sexuality. (Have you ever been mistaken for a man? one effeminate reporter is alleged to have asked her. No, came her cool reply, have you?) She was overt and honest with her sexuality, and didn’t give a damn what the Will Hayes’s of the day thought of her – she had her legions of fans and millions of dollars to keep her company, the opinion of a hypocritical, corrupt chauvinist and his band of doppelgangers was not her primary concern. She died quite young from lung cancer but had probably packed more enjoyment out of life than most men – let alone women – twice her age, because she never let society’s expectations stand in the way of her having a good time – especially when the only people who got hurt in her sense of fun were the men – and women – who were outraged that a woman dare be so honest and open about her sexuality. In otherwise, pander to her sexuality like a man.
Of course, Bankhead was a wealthy woman, and an actress in the twenties and thirties, and those two things extended her an amount of liberalism. But she respected those who had conservative values, even if they didn’t respect her. She had intense loyalty to her friends and was a shrewd businesswomen, calling of relationships and engagements when she realised she was being used. Maybe that’s why Hayes and Co didn’t like her; it was one thing, like Scarlett O’Hara, to be making money of your own, that was bad enough; it was another not to turn it over to your man; and another again to realise when you were being played and kick the offending man to the curb. Bankhead was actually considered to play O’Hara, but David Selznick didn’t want someone so controversial in his film.
She accumulated legions of fans from women who admired her unapologetic pursuit of fun and honesty about her life and remains to this day an icon of free sexuality, a woman who acted like a man.
The thing is, I can’t see someone like Bankhead enjoying the success she enjoyed today. That says something to me about how much more conservative we’ve become in the last seventy years. I would say the most controversial, ground-breaking mainstream artists we have today is Madonna, and from what I’ve read of both of them, Madonna wouldn’t hold a candle to Bankhead. Bankhead’s career actually trailed off because of the conservative movement of the thirties and I think we’re yet to return to a time and place where her antics would be acceptable – on the shocking fringe of acceptable, but acceptable nonetheless.
What fascinates me most about her was her insights on sexuality. She once said something along the lines that promiscuity was having sex with someone you weren’t attracted to, and I think she was right on the money there. By Bankhead’s standards, a woman who has a high libido and sleeps with a different man every few days, all of whom she’s very attracted to, is not promiscuous, but the woman who sleeps with a different man every few days because she thinks it’s cool, or she wants to be loved, or any such reason is promiscuous, and, for that matter, so is any man who sleeps with a different woman every few days for those reasons. Hell, by extension, the woman who has duty sex with a husband she’s not the least bit attracted to is promiscuous, and so is the woman – or man – who is in a monogamous relationship for financial security.
I love this definition of promiscuity, I think it’s so much healthier than the current double-standard one we have. Basically, everyone should be allowed to sleep with whomever they choose and not be considered slutty or immoral because of it – or, on the flip side, under par, if you’re a man with limited experience – if you’re having sex because you enjoy it and you’re attracted to the people you’re having sex with. Based on the people I’ve known in my life, the stereotype of oversexed men and chaste woman is far from true; the most honest of my friends have gone so far as to say “˜this is how many people I’ve slept with and I enjoyed it and if you disapprove, that’s your problem’. The legacy of Tallulah Bankhead lives on, weather people realise it or not.
Unfortunately we live in a time and place which means there won’t be another Tallulah Bankhead in the foreseeable future, which is a great shame. If the world had a couple more Bankheads and a couple less Bushes, I think we’d all be much more honest – and happy.