The confront to the feminine ideal in Hollywood

Anna Magnani (Image: Reproduction)

In order to penetrate popular imaginary, Hollywood has been engaged in the construction of myths. Since the first decades of the world’s most powerful film industry, men have been recognized by their heroism. Women, however, have lived — and live — under the stigma of beauty, and few were the actresses, through history, who confronted the sexism present in the industry.

The vamp was the first Hollywood’s feminine ideal, and had in Theda Bara its major symbol: by the time of the release of A Fool There Was, in 1915 (a time when orientalism and occultist doctrines were in vogue in the US), Hollywood promoted Bara under the title of “Serpent of Nile”, and involved the actress in an aura of mystical sensuality. The industry reinvented Theda’s story: she would have been born in Egypt, to an Italian sculptor and a French actress, and would have grown up in the desert of Saara. Her name Theda Bara would be an anagram of “Arab Death”.

Theda Bara in 1915 (Image: Reproduction)

The myth became stronger when the actress played the role of Cleopatra in the 1917 adaptation by J. Gordon Edwards (movie which is, nowadays, lost). Cleopatra caused scandal and consolidated Bara as the first cinema’s female sex symbol. Her exotic costumes, marked by risqué (improper or shocking) clothes in rich handmade details, became fashionable, and are considered, even today, outrageous.

Theda Bara’s mystic and outrgeous in “Cleopatra”, 1917 (Image: Reproduction)

Just later the myth of Theda Bara was deconstructed, and it was discovered that she, actually, was American, and that her artistic name were nothing less than a childhood’s nickname for her first name, Theodosia, and a shorter form of her last name, Baranger. The actress acted in 39 films, of which only six survived intact until the current days. Yet, the vamp ideal remained, and was personified by actresses like Pola Negri and Nita Naldi and, later, reinvented by the femme fatales of noir cinema.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra, 1917 (Image: Reproduction)

Holder of beauty, sensuality and cunning, vamp seduces men, leaving them blind of passion and taking them to the absolute ruin. It’s interesting to observe that the vamp isn’t, properly, a being of intelligence and her domain over man is purely fleshly. Her predatory aspect refers to the ancestor myth of the Eternal Feminine and the nefarious lover who precludes man to free the god inside of him. “The woman who freely exercises her charms — adventuress, vamp, femme fatale — remains a disquieting type”, wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. “In Hollywood films the Circe image survives as the bad woman. Women were burned as witches simply because they were beautiful. And in the prudish intimidation of provincial virtues, the old specter of dissolute women is perpetuated.” (1)

Theda Bara in a publicity still for A Fool There Was, 1912 (Image: Reproduction)


Hollywood supported stereotypes and determined standards for the construction of its characters. Actresses such as Rita Hayworth were recreated in the image and likeness of the industry: daughter of Spanish dancers, Margarita Cansino had to meet the requirements of the ideal appearance. The Latin peasant did skin whitening and plastic surgeries, and became Rita Hayworth, the most beautiful ginger ever produced by cinema.

Before and after of Margarita Cansino, aka Rita Hayworth (Image: Reproduction)

Star of American musicals, Judy Garland had her life marked by tragedies and personal struggles: small and with a non-luxuriant beauty, Garland suffered from strong insecurity related to appearance. The executives used to consider her ugly and fat to Hollywood standards, and used to make her consume pills and remedies to control weight and sleep. “When you have lived the life I’ve lived” — the actress wrote in her memoirs — “when you’ve loved and suffered, and been madly happy and desperately sad — well, that’s when you realize you’ll never be able to set it all down.”

Judy Garland: a life marked by tragedies and struggles with appearance (Image: Reproduction)

In an industry that values, firstly, appearance to detriment of talent, Marilyn Monroe found difficulties to get out of the stigma of “dumb blonde” and affirm herself as a respected actress. The industry insisted to see her as an object of pleasure and mocked of her wish to be instructed. “Perhaps it was the uncertainty in the eyes of this big, blonde child-woman; the terrible desire for approval that made her different from Jane Russell”, wrote the journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem. “How dare she expose the neediness that so many women feel, but try so hard to hide? How dare she, a movie star, be just as unconfident as I was?” (2)

MM tried, without success, to get out of the stigma of object of pleasure (Image: Reproduction)

Before “americanize” themselves, Sophia Loren and Silvana Mangano used to show — freely and full of charm — her unshaved underarms on big screens.

Sophia Loren wasn’t used to shave her underarms until she went to Hollywood (Image: Reproduction)


While Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich retired from show business fearing to age in front of the public, Anna Magnani fought by the right of women to age: the Italian actress oriented her makeup artists to never retouch her wrinkles. “It took a life for me to earn them”, she said.

Anna Magnani: “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took a life for me to earn them” (Image: Reproduction)

Katharine Hepburn became symbol of women emancipation and remained in the stardom for over 60 years, personifying the feminine transformations. Versatile, revolutionary and holder of an unruly temperament (which she inherited from her mother, a successful suffragette), Kate used to combine strength and fragility, and her style was marked by a purposely androgyny. For the film critic Thiago Stivaletti, Kate Hepburn was an actress “who probably wouldn’t find place in today’s cinema.” (3)

Katharine Hepburn: versatility, elegance, androgeny and longevity (Image: Reproduction)

Irrefutable star, Bette Davis confronted the sexism and fought by the equality of salaries in the film industry. She has never been the most beautiful, but it didn’t matter. “I fought battles for little people who weren’t in a position to stand up for themselves,” she told journalist Whitney Stine, in 1978. “I got a reputation for being difficult — a reputation that still plagues me today. But I wasn’t and I’m not. All I ever wanted — or want now — is professionalism.”

Bette Davis at home in 1939, reading morning newspapers (Image: Alfred Eisentaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Davis was the first actress (between men and women) to receive 10 Oscar nominations. In 1941, she became the first female president of the Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences. Her permanence in the presidency, however, was short: she left the place eight years later, citing that the council of the Academy wanted her to be just a “representative figure”. “Because I was a woman, I had to be controlled.”

Davis used to confront all the rules, and because she was famous for being a hard woman (Image: Reprocuction)

In a TCM tribute, Jane Fonda said: “I think it’s why women loved her, because they knew that she was willing to go way out on a ledge, in terms of how she looked. She never played it safe. Just watching Bette Davis on the screen was empowering to women. It was like, this is what’s possible, this is the range and depth that is possible for a woman. Enough already with these one-dimensional women. She expanded our range of possibilities.”

Davis in All About Eve, 1950 (Image: Reproduction)

Since the beginning of films, makeup is an essential element in the construction of the feminine myth: makeup artists such as Max Factor launched special cosmetics to be worn by actors and actresses in scene. The cosmetics accentuated face traces and hid imperfections like freckles, wrinkles and expression lines. Thus, the act of don’t wear makeup was — and still is –, in itself, revolutionary. Libertarian attitudes like Ingrid Bergman’s helped to redefine the beauty concept in the 1940’s Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman (Image: Reproduction)

When Ingrid Bergman immigrated from Sweden to US, she didn’t take a makeup case with her — and, actually, she didn’t even know what it was. “It’s true!”, she told in interview to Virgin Island Daily News, in 1965. “I was met by the producer’s wife, Mrs. David Selznick, at the airport. I had one suitcase beside me, and she asked for the ticket to get my other luggage. ‘What luggage?’, I asked. ‘Oh’, she replied, ‘is it coming later?’ And I answered: ‘No, this is all I have!’ She asked me where my makeup was and I asked what was it. Today, I have one, but only for my work in films.”

Bergman in Notorious, 1946 (Image: Reproduction)

Bergman refused to change her name to follow the career of actress and didn’t wear makeup on screen — or didn’t wear more than the necessary. She went even far admitting that she had no beauty secrets and did whatever she wanted to. “To be born with good bones, good skin and healthy disposition. I do everything they say you shouldn’t. I eat and drink what I like. I stay up late.”

Freshness was Swedish actress’ mark (Image: Reproduction)

Ava Gardner lavishes beauty and sensuality in On The Beach (1959). Closer to her 40s, the muse doesn’t hide the low-degree cellulite.

Ava Gardner, near 40s, reveals cellulite in the movie On the Beach, 1959 (Image: Reproduction)

The exotism and, at the same time, the delicacy of Barbra Streisand drew attention since her first appearance on screen. Her mark is the big nose that constitutes her profile of singular beauty. Streisand says that, in her first years, she was pressed to submit to a rhinoplasty.

The iconic Barbra Streisand’s profile, marked by her big nose (Image: Reproduction)

In an interview to Playboy, in 1977, when asked about what makes her voice so especial, Streisand replies: “My deviated septum. If I ever had my nose fixed, it would ruin my career”. And adds: “I do have a strange face. It changes so much from angle to angle. Sometimes I think I really did look quite beautiful, and a lot of times I thought I looked really bad. It’s a shame. But on the other hand, I’m not going to cry over it. I’m trying to be in the moment, and I’m enjoying my life.”

Streisand refused to make rhynosplasty fearing that it could damage her voice (Image: Reproduction)

Fashion and beauty concepts change through history: from the plump forms of Theda Bara, we’ve passed through the voluptuous curves of Marilyn Monroe, until we get to the thin shapes of current days. The feminine ideals have in common the perpetuation of slavery, the insecurity and the self-sacrifice daily practiced by those who search to fit to standards and be desirable. With the example of the actresses, we ask: would they be less beautiful if they dare to expose themselves naturally, with their failures and imperfections? And, after all, who defines what’s beautiful?


(1) BEAUVOIR, Simone de. O Segundo Sexo — Vol. 1: Fatos e Mitos. Tradução de Sérgio Milliet. Difusão Européia do Livro — São Paulo, 1970;

(2) STEINEM, Gloria. Memórias da Transgressão: momentos da história da mulher no século XX (Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions), p. 299. Editora Rosa dos Tempos — Rio de Janeiro, 1995. Tradução de Claudia Costa Guimarães;

(3) Coleção Folha Grandes Astros do Cinema — Vol. 4 — Humphrey Bogart: Uma Aventura na África (1951). Folha de S. Paulo — São Paulo, 2014.

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