“Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy Lemarr
What at first might come across as a bit harsh, judgemental even and sure to tick off more than just a few glamorous women is, upon further examination perfectly reasonable and understandable given the history and life experiences of the speaker. Now I have spoken about Lemarr in a previous post so I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will do a quick recap. Born in Austria she gained fame and some notoriety with her performance in the 1933 German film Ecstasy. The film not only included nudity, hers, and controversial sex scenes, it was also the first film, that wasn’t a porno, that depicted a woman climaxing. Her hubbie wasn’t very pleased; perhaps he was unfamiliar with that look on his wife’s face, and she fled in the dark of night, or something like that. On route to America she met Louis B Mayer who declared her “the world’s most beautiful woman” and soon she had a film contract and he had an exotic beauty, a fiery foreign temptress to slap the faces of his leading men – Gable, Stewart and the like. The rest should have been history except it didn’t quite play out as happy ever after and Lemarr never really achieved the stardom, or the fame, that she sought or deserved.
The problem was Lemarr quickly became bored with acting probably thanks to the rather inane and far from challenging roles she was given. Not surprisingly her main function in almost all her films was to excite, to delight or to titillate. Some actors read to alleviate the boredom, some knit, some pump iron. Lemarr turned to science, to invention in general, and to electrical engineering in particular. The hubbie back in Austria had introduced her to the field of applied science when he had guests like Mussolini and Hitler to dinner (some friends, and how ironic given they were both Jews) but oh well, at the time it was all about military applications of scientific principles rather than the blueprint for a grand master race. World War 2 gave her a focus and she and a friend invented the technology for spread spectrum and frequency hopping communications with the aim of selling it to the US military to be used to control torpedoes. They liked the idea but they had a better idea. Lemarr could tour the country and boost bond sales, could perhaps throw in the odd kiss to the highest bidder, that kind of stuff. She obliged but what a let down. Her ideas were taken on board and in fact are used today by almost every one of us in the form of Bluetooth and WiFi. She finally got recognition for her work in the late 90s with various science awards, but it was too late. Lemarr died in relative obscurity, a recluse who had destroyed herself in the end seeking to preserve the very looks that had caused her so much heartache.
Why is that we perceive good looks to equate with no smarts? Do we therefore assign smarts to those not considered fortunate in the looks department? Not usually, although thanks to the likes of Apple and The Big Bang Theory there is a trend to associate nerdiness, those folks with the goofy glasses who are a tad socially awkward , with brain power. I’d hoped the notion of a beauty with brains was slightly less unusual now than it was in Lemarr’s day, however the hullabaloo over Amal Clooney would suggest otherwise. We as a society must still find these attributes mutually exclusive. And although women are by far the most affected by such prejudices , men are not entirely exempt. I think we probably judge good looking men the same way we judge good looking women. Zoolander Ben Stiller’s 2001 comedy takes a lot of shots at male model stereotypes, some of which are very funny and not too removed from some of my own, misguided and prejudiced, preconceptions.
Lemarr must have so resented that her ideas and her inventions were not taken seriously simply because she just looked so damned gorgeous. And I think it led to a warped sense of who she was, a crisis that resulted in her arrest on a number of occasions for shoplifting, and for her personal life being so fraught with conflict. However an ever worrying trend for women in the public eye is an ever increasing trend towards woman still standing there looking stupid but no longer are they even looking glamorous. I wonder what Lemarr would make of their exhibitionism. Would she think that showing up at a public event in little more than a handkerchief makes it even harder for women to be taken seriously, to be seen as anything other than a sex object whose sole purpose is to titillate and tease? Not that I’m encouraging or supporting the whole cover yourself up, be the non-sexual ideal that some advocate. Just that Lemarr lamented the lack of smarts in glamour, but at least there was glamour. We now just have women standing there looking stupid and about as far from glamorous as you can get.