Did the sassy, hip-wiggling Hollywood goddess of the double-entendre base her image, her career, and her comedy on African-American culture?
Since her death in 1981 at 87, Mae West’s reputation has been rising. Once viewed as a tawdry, camp caricature who ceaselessly exploited her bad-girl burlesque, she’s more recently been hailed as a proto-feminist who wrote her own plays, directed herself, and refused to be manipulated by the Hollywood studios. Watts (History/California State; God, Harlem, U.S.A, 1992) adds another twist by portraying West as an archetypal African-American trickster heroine who may have had a black ancestor (on her father’s side) and who certainly found her initial theatrical inspiration in the songs and comedy of Bert Williams and the earthy blues of Bessie Smith. (West always credited these artists, as well as drag queens, as key influences.) “The African-American practice of signifying, a subversive rhetorical device that uses multiple and conflicting messages to obscure rebellious meanings” was the primary element West adapted to her performing style, states Watts. The author goes on to speculate that because West’s parents encouraged her to perform as a sexually precocious preteen, she must have been sexually abused; furthermore, Watts argues, West identified with the blacks and homosexuals as exploited individuals who had to resort to subterfuge to express themselves artistically. The author’s urge to tie West to African-American culture becomes shrill when she consistently characterizes She Done Him Wrong, My Little Chickadee, and West’s other movie comedies as calculated triumphs of cultural subversion aimed at the white establishment. It’s possible that they were funny, too.
She done her wrong.