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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

111

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Most Wicked Face of Theda Bara

Theodosia Goodman grew up in Cincinnati, the child of middle-class Jewish immigrants. Her father was a tailor; her mother kept house. She went to high school, she went to two years of college. She was a middling actress with middling looks, age 30, stuck in the Yiddish theater circuit, with a bit role in the occasional film. She was wholly unremarkable — one of hundreds of women working toward the same end.

And then, in 1915, totally out of nowhere, she became THE BIGGEST SEX SYMBOL IN THE WORLD. As the star of A Fool There Was, she embodied the cinematic “vamp” — the evil, predatory woman who seduces men with her dark ways, sucks him dry, and leaves him for ruin. Her name was no longer Theodosia Goodman, but Theda Bara — an anagram, naturally, for “ARAB DEATH.” Her mother was a French actress, her father was an Italian sculptor, yet she had been born “in the shadow of the Sphinx.” She dabbled in the Occult; she communed with dark spirits. She had been reincarnated several times and lunched on lettuce and raw beef. Girl even became her own verb: to pull a “ThedaBara” was to “seduce and destroy.” Offscreen, Bara was her cinematic character made flesh: an alluring, vampish creature, occupying the liminal space between this world and the next. Put differently, Bara was the most blatantly absurd and exquisite of the silent0-era studios' creations.

Bara’s extravagant image was the source of her fame, but it likewise shackled her to a very specific set of behaviors — and ways of appearing in public and on the screen. And like all star images, its potency, and its particular social resonance, faded with time. By 1920, Bara’s career was effectively over, and today, only one of her major films remains intact. But for a brief moment in cinematic history, her image functioned as a volatile conduit for displaced female desire. Bara’s image was the immaculate conflation of sex and evil, and in an era still governed by rigid codes of moral, spiritual, and social behavior, it was absolutely irresistible. 

But let’s be clear: This image was unlike any publicity concoction we’ve ever seen. Sure, Hollywood regularly erased stars’ histories, but rarely as boldly, and with such little concern for credibility, as it did with Bara’s. Fox didn’t just give Bara a new name or a new ethnicity, it made her a creature of the underworld. Sure, part of this was just good, old-fashioned publicity playfulness, with the majority of the American public in on the joke. But part of it — namely, the conflation of ethnicity with sexuality and “otherness” — was a manifestation of the Western obsession with “Orientalism,” sometimes known as “white people fetishizing Eastern cultures to reaffirm their own whiteness.” Her success, in other words, was part of a large-scale desire to look at otherness while simultaneously disavowing it in oneself — a complicated psychic process not unlike that of watching most reality television.

Today, Bara’s image seems crazy-weird. But she was just one in a long line of othered sexual figures — a line that extends, albeit in slightly different manifestations, to the present day. And while Bara was neither the first nor the last of her type, I can guarantee she’s all you’ll think of the next time you see nipple tassels.

The details of Bara’s “discovery” are murky. What’s clear is that she was working as an actress in New York for some time, and at 30 years old, was considered washed-up — which, of course, was probably part of the reason that she and others shaved five years off her age. As Fox prepared to cast A Fool There Was, director Frank Powell suggested Bara, who was then going by the stage name “Theodosia De Coppet” to elide her Jewish surname. Whether Powell “discovered” her during a casting a call or simply noticed her turn as an extra in The Stain (1914) has been the matter of intense fan debate but ultimately matters little. There she was, there he was; henceforth, there Theda Bara was.

Of course, Powell and Fox had a financial impetus for casting an unknown: Over the course of the ‘10s, the “players” of the screen had become bonafide stars and, as such, could and did demand higher and higher salaries. Fox was cash-strapped — in fact, it wasn’t (yet) even a real studio. By casting an unknown, it made a wager: Maybe the name behind the film was nothing, but then again, maybe the role of the man-eating vamp would make anyone who played that role a star. It’s like Twilight, minus the chastity and bourgeois values.

Like Twilight, A Fool There Was was pure derivative. It was based on the play of the same name by Porter Emerson Browne, which was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire" ...

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair—
(Even as you or I!)

... which was in turn inspired by Philip Burne-Jones’ painting of a vampire:

I think you can guess the general curves of the plot, but here goes:

1. Married man is married.

2. Unmarried woman is sexual. Also wears too much velvet, fur, and satin — the 1910s version of dressing slutty.

3. Unmarried woman beguiles married man using her dark, sexual ways; takes all he has; leaves him in ruin.

4. And A Fool That Married Man Was Indeed.

Those are the explicit plot points, but the implicit suggestions are even more scandalous, namely: 1) Men secretly like domination — even seek it out! 2) Women are capable of this type of sexual and psychological domination; 3) Women pleasure in this type of domination.

Imagine the disgust when people realized that male AND female audiences were flocking to this film — think of the incensed Huffington Post editorials and explanatory Slate pieces manically proliferating in its wake!

Bara is commonly cited as the first sex symbol and the first vamp. In truth, her image was just the first to combine and codify “vampish” sexuality on the big screen, and she had clearly been modeled after Sarah Bernhardt, who’d been beguiling Western audiences for decades.

Bernhardt was French, the child of an illegitimate union, and “othered” via her Jewishness — all characteristics that Fox’s publicists attempted to recreate in Bara’s image. Bernhardt's greatest roles — as Cleopatra, as Phèdre, as Theodora the Empress of Byzantium — invoked and sparked public fascination with the Orient. Her most famous role was, in fact, one she never played: The lead in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, seducing the crap out of John the Baptist, was so scandalous that even Bernhardt turned it down (Bara did not). But Salome and what she represented would nevertheless remain yoked to Bernhardt, fundamental to the wanton, Orientalized, overarchingly sinful sexuality she represented.

Off-stage, Bernhardt acted the part. She wore “Oriental” clothing (read: Chinese-inspired robes and hats) in public and lived in what sounds a lot like the place where Jasmine hung out in the first third of Aladdin. If that sounds offensive, that’s partly the point — these weren’t real approximations of Eastern culture, but Western appropriations of it. Bernhardt was also a bit of a man-eater: She married only once, but spent much of her time in liaisons with powerful, beautiful, and artistic men and, according to rumor, several women.

Yet Bernhardt was always a white woman playing the exoticized other. Granted, her Jewish heritage was well-known, but she was nevertheless marked as European rather than an actual product of the Orient. This distinction was crucial: It was one thing to play-act and quite another to embody, a point driven home by the continued success of men and women who “play” at fatness, unruliness, generalized abjection, queerness, and ethnicity ... and the enduring barriers for those who live those identities.

Bernhardt was “The Divine Sarah”; Bara became “The Divine Theda.” In interviews, Bara claimed that she, too, was a veteran of the French stage, and had even been “trained” by Bernhardt when she was in Paris, where Isadora Duncan also taught her how to walk in the “serpentine fashion.” In reality, Bara had never been to France, let alone met Bernhardt — but the association was complete. As film scholar Gaylyn Studlar points out, “Bernhardt’s performances, like Bara’s, violated the dearly held Victorian belief that women were primarily spiritual rather than sexual or physical beings.” In other words, TOO BAD, STUFFY VICTORIANS: VAGINAS > SPIRITS.

Both stars had exotic sexuality at the heart of their images — and while Bernhardt had managed to deftly wield that exoticism over the course of a decades-long stage and screen career, Bara’s image was less elegant, in part because studio press agents have never been particularly adept at subtlety.

Case in point: When Fox released A Fool There Was, press agents hosted an event in Chicago to “introduce” Bara to stardom. They explained her name, her heritage, her dabblings in the Occult, her history in France, the “birth in the shadow of the Sphnix,” etc. etc. A press conference! It’s like LeBron’s “The Decision”: both forsook the state of Ohio in favor of bombast.

And just as LeBron has gone on to weirdly endearing Samsung commercials and National Championships, A Fool There Was became a huge, mind-blowing success. Some historians argue that its success allowed Fox to become a full-fledged studio — which, nearly a century later, now fuels Rupert Murdoch, News Corp., and Fox News, all of whom obviously love the Orient. Point is, Fox wasn’t selling subtlety. They were selling sex. And as a Columbia instructor who was obviously my spiritual academic grandmother once told Motion Picture Magazine, “most girls are good, but good girls do not want to see other good girls on the screen ... through the medium of Theda Bara they can do her deeds and live her life.”

And for about three years, they did. Between 1915 and 1918, she appeared in thirty-three films. The Galley Slave, Sin, Destruction, The Serpent, The Tiger Woman, The Rose of Blood, The Forbidden Path, When a Woman Sins – you get the jist. The fan magazines called her “The Arch-Torpedo of Domesticity,” “The Queen of Vampires,” “The Wickedest Woman in the World,” “Pugatory’s Ivory Angel,” “The Devil’s Handmaiden,” “The Priestess of Sin,” and — my personal favorite — “The Ishmaeline of Domesticity.” Fox paid a famous illustrator to offer “expert” analysis, claiming “in her dark eyes lurks the lure of the Vamp; in her every sinuous movement there is a pantherish suggestion that is wonderfully evil.” The lunch of raw beef and lettuce, the dabblings in the occult, the faux-French-accent — it was all the product of the press agents, the gossip press, and Bara herself. So, too, were the pictures like the one below — one of at least three existing photos of Bara just hanging out with skeletons.

And then there was the amazing stuff attributed to Bara:

You say I have the most wicked face of any woman. You say my hair is like the serpent locks of Medusa, that my eyes have the cruel cunning of Borgia, that my mouth is the mouth of the sinister scheming Delilah, that my hands are like the talons of a Circe or the blood-bathing Elizabeth Bathory. And then you ask me of my soul — you wish to know if it is reflected in my face.

I mean, that is some great copy. And it arrived at a crucial point in Hollywood history, during the transition from “picture personalities” — whose off-screen images were exact mirrors of their on-screen images — and “stars,” whose off-screen images complemented and extended, but did not necessarily replicate the images onscreen. It was a weird, transitional time, kind of like the beginning of Twitter: Stars and their people didn’t quite know how to wield it, and next thing you know there’s a picture of Demi Moore’s ass in white cotton panties for all to see.

When Bara first became a public figure, her image had to reflect, even exaggerate, her onscreen character. But as time passed, it became less necessary for Bara to be, well, an actual vampire and more important that she resemble a creature of consumption, an object of potential romance: less supernatural, more department store. In other words, the sort of figure the fan magazines craved.

Thus, in the midst of the vamping and skeleton-posing, the publicity department started to mobilize a second, competing valence of Bara’s star image. A 1917 article in Motion Picture Magazine reaffirmed her as “The Divine Theda,” claiming that ancient Egyptian inscriptions prophesized her arrival as a woman “who shall seem a snake to most men.” Yet this woman “shall be good and virtuous.” I call bullshit! That’s some tacked on nonsense right there! Still, in “Theda, Misunderstood Vampire,” the authors claimed that Bara’s greatest wish was to “play the part of a sweet, essentially feminine woman,” while a “Peek Into Their Boudoirs” showed Bara living in what amounted to an old grandma house filled with antiques — certainly no den of iniquity.

In essence, Fox wanted fans to undergo their own weird process of belief and denial: they should watch Bara onscreen and subsume themselves in the belief that she was, in fact, her character ... but simultaneously understand that she was not, in fact, a blood-sucking, man-eating, whore-monster. The obvious conflict between these images, however, bordered on the ridiculous, even at the time. The Los Angeles Times took up this ridiculousness, satirizing how she and her sister, also an actress, simply spent their days at home, reading Little Women and feeding the chicks in their backyard.

Pausing between chapters of Little Women.

So Bara was a good girl? Maybe? But what about her past? How could you reconcile the Sphnix/Raw Beef with this new narrative without admitting to publicity manipulation? I mean, you just couldn’t. Photoplay had been in on the joke from the very beginning — in 1915, just after Bara’s rise to fame, a tongue-in-cheek columnist proclaimed “I wish to believe, I am going to believe, I do believe that Allah is Allah, and that Bara is Bara; that the ivory angel of purgatory is an Eastern star, born under the shadow of the sphinx,” dismissing “those stupid people who insist that Theda Bara’s right name is Theodosia Goodman and that she is, by, of, and from Cincinnati.” The New York Times reported that Bara’s family had filed to legally change their last name to “Bara.” And in 1918, Photoplay made its doubts official, asking “Does Theda Bara Believe Her Own Press Agent?”

In other words, people got it. And not just people within the movie business: For every story of a woman not allowing her children to go near Bara on the street lest they succumb to her ways, there’s evidence, like the story above, that shows fans were in the joke. It’s like Michael Jackson’s children or Jennifer Aniston’s past “relationships” with her current co-stars: the blatant evidence of manipulation was there, you just had to be willing to see it.

And still, Bara’s popularity endured. She helped write The Soul of Buddha and did her own take on Salome. But she was sick of playing the vamp, and Fox was tiring of paying her ever-growing salary, and at the end of 1919, she allowed her contract with the studio to expire. The next year, she married director Charles Brabin and neither sucked his blood nor left him in ruin. In fact, according to gossip, Brabin thought that women shouldn’t work out of the home — quite the non-vampy reversal.

An attempt to satirize her vamp image in 1925 backfired, and Bara retreated from public life, reemerging, like so many of her silent compatriots, to offer nostalgic takes on the silent era and the unique skill of pantomime. You can hear her below on the Lux Radio Theater in the early ‘30s, talking about the silent era and sounding particularly un-French. Without the scowl and the nakedness, she could be Mary Pickford in curls.

The video also includes clips of Cleopatra — the only remaining fragments and, along with A Fool There Was, the only real clues to Bara’s actual effect. Because we can talk about her crazy publicity story all we want, but that’s only part of what made her a star. There had to have been something about the way way she moved onscreen, the way her eyes tracked, the way she approached and touched a man.

It was something embodied, something made flesh — something more than a crazy backstory — that made people flock to see her. Sure, it was cultural resonance, too. The Victorian standards of behavior were about to become passe, outmoded by the New Woman and her flapper sister. America was on the cusp of something resembling sexual change, but it wasn't quite there. It needed a half-naked vampire with kohl-caked eyes to push them towards desire.

Bara was abjection manifest: that which we desire but must disavow, lest we find ourselves unable to function in the world. Dirty, sexual, blood-lusting, Eastern — she sullied all that was virginal and pure. That is some transgressive shit, even today, and she did it for years. Onscreen! Half-naked! While all the other female stars were wearing doll outfits and essentially acting like pre-pubescent girls! To be clear: THAT IS CRAZY.

In the end, all the Bara backstory is good fun, but not really the point. People did or did not believe it. What matters more is how that backstory supported the roles she played onscreen — and how enduringly popular they were. This wasn’t a one-time performance, or some weird midnight movie. This is underground stuff made mainstream, and why the comparison to Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that far off: both made desire visible in a way that made many people, especially many men, uncomfortable.

Now, the crucial difference is that in Grey, the woman is submissive. [Insert caveat here about how S&M can be empowering, etc. etc.] But Bara’s image was all dominance, all the time. All usurping patriarchy — and the capitalist structures that kept women submissive — all the time. She was the first in a long line of what came to be known as femme fatales — dangerous, devouring women who pop up in various genres at cultural moments when anxiety over the woman’s place in society is at its highest. Bara anticipated The New Woman just as the femme fatales of film noir anticipated Women’s Lib. In noir, the femme fatale always had to be punished for her sins, dying any number of ignoble deaths. But Bara, she fucking lived.

Bara supposedly once said that she had “the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.” That sounds too perfect to be true, but sometimes we put ideas into the mouths of those who seemed to embody them. Theda Bara was a publicity concoction, a mix of smoke and mirrors and boobs and bones and macabre fairy tale. But her image also gave shape to suppressed female desire, and that, more than the sleeping with skeletons or sucking of blood, was what truly terrified men and women alike. Female desire is no longer framed as wicked, but it’s certainly still Othered — something to ridicule in Magic Mike or juvenilize in Twilight fandom. Until I wrote this piece, I always just thought of Bara as weird — the crazed, wild-eyed girl from publicity stills. Now I just think of her as awesome. I hope she realized as much about herself, at some point, some day — and understood that her image, however professionally constraining, set so much free.

Previously: Ronald Reagan Plays the President.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.



111 Comments / Post A Comment

Theda Baranowski

Oh my god. Theda Bara. THEDA BARA. I was weirdly obsessed with her when I was ten.

...

Carry on.

1930601119@twitter

http://thehairpin.com/2012/07/ask-a-clean-person-here-we-go-again-with-the-roaches/#comments

Reginal T. Squirge

Chloe?

Maryse42

@Reginal T. Squirge OMG, I'm not the only one who thought that. Especially the second last picture, that could be Sevigny with a dye job and heavy makeup. Wow.

momnivore

@Maryse42 I can see the Chloe, but I was really think Zooey. Anyone else see that?

Sella Turcica

@momnivore I'm sorry I got to this a month late, but I totally see Zooey as well.
Back to your lives.

Lili B.

well there goes my afternoon. one click on the "scandals of classic hollywood" and I'll be in this chair for six hours minimum.

Trinette Magoon

A couple of those images, with some minor makeup and hair alterations, would be right at home in an Anthropologie catalogue??

Also, AHP, WHEN can I buy your book and consume it like so much lettuce and raw beef?

TARDIStime

@Trinette Magoon Woman Vamping Alone With Salad

Apocalypstick

Omg yay scandals of classic hollywood! Omg yay Theda Bara and her somehow endearingly nuts career! Ok going to read now

Kickass snake get-up. Sarah Bernhardt is amazing. Really good point about the unacceptability of female desire -we laugh at the Victorians, but even today a woman having sexual agency and men being objects of desire are either frowned upon or seen as laughable. The fresher narrative of "a woman fancies someone and that's ok" is still remarkably rare.

SarahP

I'd never heard of Theda Bara before, but she's so awesome!

I love the pictures of her with the skeleton (why didn't you show us all threeeeee?!) and playing solitaire.

PatatasBravas

@SarahP I loved the Gosling tattoo comment, too!

purefog

@SarahP Uh: voila. http://www.google.com/search?num=10&hl=en&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1143&bih=686&q=%22theda+bara%22+skeleton&oq=%22theda+bara%22+skeleton&gs_l=img.3..0i24.1129.7502.0.7871.21.21.0.0.0.0.125.1514.19j2.21.0.epsugrpq2high..0.0...1.1.HPdF4x-V5Do

SarahP

@purefog She is so amazing!

KevinQ

"Her mother was a French actress, her father was an Italian sculptor, yet she had been born 'in the shadow of the Sphinx.'"

Every time I read another SoCH, I understand another joke in Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures.

K

OhMarie

@KevinQ Oh no, I literally started Moving Pictures last night. Do I need to reread all of the SoCH?

A. Louise

I loved the way this was written - some concise, entertaining, intelligent editorial and then BAM a couple hairpin punchlines, like this gem: "In other words, TOO BAD, STUFFY VICTORIANS: VAGINAS > SPIRITS."

This made me giggle through lunch. Thanks!

Maryaed

@A. Louise ALTHOUGH, the Victorians were very into vaginas, if you read the porn.

dale

"think of the incensed Huffington Post editorials and explanatory Slate pieces manically proliferating in its wake!"

This was an excellent piece, AHP! I just had to quote this one part because it honestly made me laugh out loud.

SarahP

@dale I loved that, too! It rang so true...

PatatasBravas

I would totally wear the snakey boob decor.

TARDIStime

@PatatasBravas haha, me too!
I read this at work and really had to utilise my finest fast-scrolling skillz due to the extreme sexy (awesome).

Sarahphina

I love your stuff. Maybe a full piece on Sarah Bernhardt? Fun fact--when I was a kid I told all my friends I was named after Sarah Bernhardt. No one got it. I was kind of a weird kid.

MoxyCrimeFighter

@Sarahphina When I was a kid and being overly dramatic, my parents would say stuff like, "Get a load of Sarah Heartburn over here."

wee_ramekin

@MoxyCrimeFighter My mom would say "Oh come on, Sarah Bernhardt!". Except that I was young, so I would confuse the name 'Sarah' with 'Sandra', and the only "famous" Sandra I knew at that time was Sandra Boynton, and so I was really confused about why my mom thought I was acting like an illustrator of rotund cats.

(FYI, this is a typical Sandra Boynton illustration:)

Snood Mood

@wee_ramekin Oh god, I loved Sandra Boynton. I had a t-shirt with one of her cats on it that I would pay HUGE money to have today.

stonefruit

@MoxyCrimeFighter Whoa! We used to call my baby sister Little Sarah Heartburn when she got going.

gidgetjones

@Sarahphina My parents called me Sarah Bernhardt Jr. when I was at my most drama queen-y. When I was 5 or so. Weird kids rule!

LlamaLlama

This is great. Theda Bara is great.
------------
Now I am going to talk about something that annoys me:
I feel like there is a thing where, in late adolescence, a certain kind of person (females, but not always just) goes through a sexy orientalist phase. It usually comes right after a Holly Golightly phase. Often it's people who make art that involves taking their own picture or performing some how. I know they probably think of Egypt as "ancient" and therefore not subject to the same cultural politics, or maybe they think they are appropriating an appropriation (dressing *as* Bara or more likely Bernhardt dresses as Eastern Princesses) but I guess I just think that dressing up as Cleopatra for Halloween or Facebook or (worst of all) performance art is, kinda, well, racist. there. I said it.

Story #2

@LlamaLlama Once at a Halloween part I saw a girl who was wearing a kimono and hijab, and carrying finger cymbals in one hand and a fan in the other. Someone asked her, and she said she was dressed as Orientalism.

Trinette Magoon

@LlamaLlama I'm pretty sure that at this point, when you dress up like Cleopatra you're really are putting on a costume of a costume, i.e. The West's conception of Cleopatra as created by Hollywood. The real Cleopatra was Greek and much more of a politician than a seductress. People who dress up like Cleopatra are actually dressing up like Liz Taylor.

Megasus

@LlamaLlama Cleopatra was white (Greek), and appropriated the Egyptian costume and rituals (well, her whole family did really) to help solidify her position as an outsider ruler of Egypt.

roadtrips

@LlamaLlama Yes, for sure. It always gets me when people think there's some sort of free pass to dress up as a historical figure (Pocahontas is the most aggravating example of this) and it lets them off the cultural appropriation hook. Also, I think that the film Cleopatra is an excellent example of Hollywood's orientalizing both an actress and an historical figure in order to up the exotic allure of both. So, when people dress up as Liz Taylor's Cleopatra, it's much more problematic than dressing up as a historically accurate version of Cleopatra. The image of Cleopatra in our current cultural imagination is informed by representations of her as an exotic seductress much more than as a politician.

Story #2

@LlamaLlama I wonder, though, if all the good white girls putting on black wigs are feeling like they want to express something that their culture doesn't give them a model to express? Like, I'm not saying it's not racist and lazy, but if you feel like your culture's telling you that white girls are good girls and good girls don't have sensual experiences outside of pink bubble bath (or that white boys are manly men and manly men don't like incense and pretty things), there might be white girls and boys who would decide that the way out is to stop being white. Which is attacking the premises in the wrong way, but you can understand where the impulse to attack it comes from. (Sexism, racism, heteronormativity... when their powers combine, they become Captain Oppression.)

SuperGogo

@LlamaLlama Appropriating an appropriation--see also Mata Hari aka Margaretha Geertruida Zelle of Leeuwarden, Netherlands.

The Attic Wife

@LlamaLlama I absolutely dressed in Cleopatra drag for Halloween in 7th grade. Middle school was the time I became so obsessed with learning about Ancient Egypt that I think I could have mummified my own cadaver given a sharp knife and plenty of salt.

Ahem. Anyway, I agree with Story #2 when it comes to (most) examples of cultural appropriation, especially among the teen/tweenage set. I think the appeal is largely an aesthetic attraction, at first, and probably neatly fits into the mold of teenage rebellion by adopting styles of those deemed 'other.' Not that I think white girls with henna tattoos are thinking in those terms, they probably just think it looks cool. I'm going to assume that most people, like me, eventually realize, "Hey, I can appreciate this culture, learn about it and admire certain aspects of it, but maybe I should retire the ankh necklace."

harebell

@roadtrips
I kinda agree with you, but maybe not 100%. Is dressing up like an historical figure from another culture/ethnicity always racist appropriation? If we always have to costume parties dressed as people from our own ethnic group, that also seems a little weird and racist-of-the-culture to me.
A better criterion may be *how* you're doing the dressing-up, and not whether or not you do it at all.

roadtrips

@harebell I agree with you that it's not always racist, for sure. I mean, first rule of thumb is to use your best judgement and educate yourself. I do think that in the case of a white person dressing up as a Native American, even a specific person in history (like, for example, Pocahontas), is a no-go. In that case specifically because even an historically accurate costume is still going to read as blanket "white girl dressing up as an Indian princess," which, I'm sorry. I just don't give a pass to that. I really don't think it's necessary. That said, I want to be clear that I'm not saying that anything is "allowed" or "not allowed." People can dress up however they want, but that also means that you should be open to and respectful of criticism. I'd also say that being critical of cultural appropriation doesn't mean that I'm hating on teenage girls who don't think about it in critical terms. But I do think it's really important to be critical and examine why dressing up as an "exotic" "other" culture is shorthand for exploring your identity as a teenager. The reason teenagers are drawn to, say, henna tattoos is because it's explicitly othered and presented as weird and different, and that's something to explore.

OuiCherie

@The Attic Wife Woah. You just described my 6th and 7th grade years perfectly.

Minx

@LlamaLlama Yeahhh. But...I don't know. I mean, one Halloween back in high school I went as a geisha. It only occurs to me now that I'm older that perhaps this was a culturally insensitive thing to do and maybe my Japanese friends who happen to see pictures of it now think I looked silly? (Although, my one-time Japanese host mom liked the photo on facebook. *shrug*) But at the time, I had just been to Japan recently and thought it was cool and wanted an excuse to wear my yukata, of which I was quite proud. Sometimes it just takes people a long time to realize that something may not be culturally sensitive, and even then I'm not sure any of us entirely figure out where the lines are between appropriation and admiration via imitation.

Story #2

Not to head in a pedantic direction, but I got into reading about who is counted as white when and why (I was mostly reading about Latinos in the Southwest, but I got carried away)and actually the place of Jews with regard to whiteness is really strange -- the Confederacy was mostly fine with calling them white, but some statistics group them in with Chinese immigrants as "orientals," Jim Crow lawmakers were torn, and a lot of cultural materials regarded them as Asians -- Ivanhoe, for example, and a ton of French pornography, and Lawrence Durrell later on. I remember seeing a photo of the cover of a magazine for Jewish women where they explicitly identified themselves as "daughters of an Oriental race." People spent a lot of time measuring people's skulls to figure out whether they were or they weren't. Obviously that went to an especially bad place in Europe in the 30s.

yrouttasight

@Story #2 That is a really interesting tidbit.

"People spent a lot of time measuring people's skulls to figure out whether they were or they weren't. Obviously that went to an especially bad place in Europe in the 30s." - YIKES.

Story #2

@yrouttasight "Think of it, the sons of the Nile and Bosphorus worshipping on Lake Michigan: the disciples of the oldest religion of the world worshipping in the land of the youngest nation of the world, in the same unadulterated Oriental style and language as their forefathers did thousands of years ago! Though clad in the richest of Oriental garments, I recognized in the earnestly praying men the picturesque Turks which usually thronged the Midway." Sonneschein, Rosa. Yom Kippur in the Midway. The American Jewess, Volume 2, Issue: 12, September, 1896, pp. 619-620.

I would rather cite the French pornography, but I'm at work.

RubeksCube

@Story #2 I would love to know more about what you've been reading re: Latinos in the Southwest. I'm from that region, and that stuff is *fascinating* to me.

Story #2

@RubeksCube I think there is material about the whiteness/non-whiteness of Latinos in The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction; I know there's more than one essay about it in Medicine Stories. There was also a piece about it in, I think, the L.A. Times, though I'm afraid I don't remember what it was called. (Sorry!) Also there is *something* which is *somewhere* I should know about how Spanish colonial racial categories meshed and didn't with American ones. I am not as helpful as I should be.

siniichulok

@Story #2 Thank you for pointing that out! I'm of nonwhite Jewish ancestry (as in, if my ancestors were non-Jews from their ancestral nations they would be most definitely considered Of Color in the US, and they're considered Of Color in Israel), so I'm sort of sensitive to this issue. I don't know well enough to say either way, but I'd be curious to know whether Jewish people in the U.S. in Theda Bara's time, or Jewish people in France in Sarah Bernhardt's time, were considered white enough then to be called unequivocally "white" now, given that the social and political context was different. I mean, sure, according to current American racial politics Jews are "white" and "European" (sadly, non-European Jews get erased from public discourse), but it seems to have been different in the past.

RubeksCube

@Story #2 Thank you! That's helpful anyway!

Story #2

@RubeksCube You're very welcome! Glad to be helpful!

Story #2

@siniichulok Yeah -- Mizrahi/Maghrebi and even Sephardic Jews tend to get erased from Western ideas of Jewishness, and Ethiopian, Indian, and Chinese Jews are pretty much invisible. I had an actress in a play of mine who was Jewish and of North African ancestry and there was some debate about whether she "counted" as a person of color. I just got a book about the Dreyfus Affair that might cast some light on where the French placed Jews in their particular racial scheme at the turn of the century. (I do remember reading about a French PM in the 80s who said of a synagogue bombing that it had killed Jews and also innocent French people.)

Homestar Runner

@Story #2 There's a book called "How Jews Became White Folks" that covers this topic pretty thoroughly, if you're interested.

siniichulok

@Story #2 Jews AND also innocent French people? Wow! What's the name of your book about the Dreyfus Affair? Also, Homestar Runner--that sounds really interesting!

Summer Somewhere

@Homestar Runner @Story #2 Also, this article: http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~jdowd/brodkin-jews.pdf

Story #2

@siniichulok It's called Proust Among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East – so I guess I should have said, it's about the Dreyfus Affair and other things. But Jacqueline Rose wrote a thing about honor killings for the LRB that I thought was incredible, and I've been a fan ever since.

@Summer Somewhere @Homestar Runner Thank you!

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

It struck me when you wrote, "Over the course of the ‘10s," that we're in the 10s again, and we're still in the throes of this type of sexual progression/realization in America. 50 Shades of Grey = "Oh honey, look, I can be let out my sex cage, rawr!" and the uptights are freaked out about it.

History repeated, though over different media. Interesting thought material, AHP. Delightful.

itiresias

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose I totally agree, but GOD i hate fifty shades SO MUCH and will never be okay with it being a comparison to anything except how BAD OUR MODERN AUDIENCE IS AT USING LANGUAGE. ugh, end outburst.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@itiresias Trust me, I hate the actual book based on the excerpts I've read and will only compare it to Twilight as far as the material is concerned, but it has started a conversation about ladies allowing themselves to enjoy softcore porn and have some sexual agency outside of bearing children.

itiresias

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose Totally agreed, and that part is all great and super interesting. I just..I read the book and hated the character's voice that all these women (ones I personally know, am related to) were apparently identifying with, it being so stupid and naive and then shrew-y.. It worried me, honestly.

Also, this. Via FilmDrunk:
"It doesn’t get repeated often enough, but Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight S & M fan fiction written under the name “Snowqueens Icedragon.” (It’s unclear whether there was an apostrophe). Then, like an existentialist’s most masochistic boner fantasy about the animal nature of mankind, it spread through society like a venereal disease, eventually coming to encompass the top four books on the national bestseller list."

rallisaurus

So much love!

The timing of this is perfect, because I just finished reading Swanson on Swanson and now I want to read everything I can about early Hollywood! I mean, Gloria Swanson cures her infected vagina abscess with sunlight and saltwater? She actually writes about spreading her legs and just sitting in the sun all day. I LOVE HER!

Anne Helen Petersen

@rallisaurus LA SWANSON!

Lili B.

@rallisaurus "infected vagina abscess" omg

BS
BS

@rallisaurus YES. Also the description where she 'sits like a scissors' all day. Followed by many triumphant scenes at the doctors throughout her entire life. LOVE LOVE la Swanson.

rallisaurus

@BS Yeah, if she'd been alive today she'd be insufferable, but in the 20s-80s it's just cute! And maybe a bit crazy...

martinipie

I was JUST WONDERING where SoCH went! THANK GOD IT IS COME BACK TO US. okay now imma go read it!

laurel

"Bara was abjection manifest: that which we desire but must disavow, lest we find ourselves unable to function in the world." Dirty, sexual, blood-lusting, Eastern — she sullied all that was virginal and pure. That is some transgressive shit, even today, and she did it for years. Onscreen! Half-naked! While all the other female stars were wearing doll outfits and essentially acting like pre-pubescent girls! To be clear: THAT IS CRAZY."

This was great.

Ophelia

Sooo...who's taking "Ishmaeline of Domesticity" as their screen name?

Ishmaeline of Domesticity

@Ophelia That would be me.

siniichulok

That one with the skeleton reminds me oddly of Zooey Deschanel.

lasso tabasco

@siniichulok I thought that too! I really think they look similiar.

Blondsak

@siniichulok Agreed. Also possibly a third member of The White Stripes. Or Jack and Meg's lost lovechild?

Inconceivable!

I think this is my favorite SoCH yet. AHP! You are a delight--comparing Theda Bara (or her career anyway) to 50 Shades of Grey, LeBron James, Jennifer Anniston, that pic of Demi Moore on Twitter! What a terrific read.

Also, I've never seen a photo of Sarah Bernhardt before, what a knockout.

Furthermore, that photo of Bara with the skeleton is the best thing.

meetapossum

I'm going to go out on a (very short) limb and hypothesize that the Philip Burne-Jones painting was inspired by Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare.

HoliandIvy

@meetapossum
This is a good place to reference Ken Russell's "Gothic", right?

aproprose

AHHH one of Theda Bara's old houses was on my college campus (Xavier University). It was reserved for Honor's students and basically the coolest place to have class ever. (couches! porch!) Also there were University-sponsored wine and cheese nights!

After I graduated they TORE IT DOWN. WHAT WHAT WHAT.

http://cincinnati.com/blogs/tv/2011/07/07/goodbye-theda-bara-house/

:(

annev6

@aproprose rest assured whoever made that decision is now cursed.

thatslikeyouropinionman

AHP these are consistently great and ALWAYS make me want to read up even more and see more classic films. I love your writing style here and am always stoked to see a new piece. Thanks so much for your hard work and passion!

lasso tabasco

This is my favorite series on the entire internet! I thought I was the only person in the world obsessed with classic Hollywood BUT I AM NOT ALONE!

annev6

@lasso tabasco No, these are great. I set time out of my workday for these!

annev6

So did she die penniless and alone or not?! I feel like that's how all of these end!!!!

Theda Baranowski

@annev6 Theda Bara died of stomach cancer at the age of 69 in 1955 and was survived by her husband - who she married in 1921, so I think that makes her the awesome, awesome exception that proves the rule.

annev6

@Theda Baranowski Hurrah!!

Ophelia

@Theda Baranowski I like that the bad-girl vampire is the one who probably had the longest-lasting marriage.

ARAB DEATH

Hi AHP! I've been reading these since the beginning, but I registered just today to recommend Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/741931.Vamp

for those who want to know a little more. It's short, well worth a hour or two of your time one afternoon. The anagram "Arab Death" was just a bonus--Theodosia got her screen name from her nickname, Theda, and Bara was a shortened version of her mother's maiden name. The studio ran with the lucky Orientalist coincedence!

ARAB DEATH

Er, I mean her grandmother's name!

frigwiggin

THAT PICTURE. WITH THE HAIR. For the first time, I regret having short-as-shit hair so I can't take a picture of myself doing that.

frigwiggin

@miss buenos aires That's true! Why do I forget about wigs?

Speaking of wigs, are you happy with your wig selection, or would you be interested in adding more? I know that accepting other people's wigs can feel sketchy, but I've got a bunch that haven't been worn since I stopped cosplaying, and I don't know what to do with them!

miss buenos aires

@frigwiggin

WAIT. Are you saying what I think you are saying?! Are you saying... FREE WIGS? I have no problem with that. (starts drooling)

frigwiggin

@miss buenos aires I am! I'm glad you're interested! I will haul them out of the basement this weekend and take pictures to email you so you can take your pick. (Unless you just want a grab-bag box of what I've got.)

miss buenos aires

@frigwiggin Picking from photos might be better for me. Thanks!!!

vanessacp

YAY HELEN IS BACK!!! OMGosh I couldn't.wait. till the next "Scandals" article after reading Gloria Swanson's...

valentin

@vanessacp I kinda agree with you, but maybe not 100%. Is dressing up like an historical figure from another culture/ethnicity always racist appropriation? If we always have to costume parties dressed as people from our own ethnic group, that also seems a little weird and racist-of-the-culture to me.
A better criterion may be *how* you're doing the dressing-up, and not whether or not you do it at all. rotransportmarfa

BKtko

I had a teacher in High School, Sister Mary Kay (I kid you not), who was a big fan of classic Hollywood and taught a bunch of 16 year olds all about Theda Bara in a film appreciation class. The "Arab Death" name origin, the mocked-up background, the fetishization of her image... for a teenager already obsessed with old films, the particular lecture on Bara was mind-blowing and I loved every minute of it. Keep the SofCH coming, I am completely addicted to these posts.

Irma Vep

I HAVEN'T EVEN READ THIS YET BUT LITERALLY SHRIEKED WITH JOY WHEN I SAW THAT AHP HAD WRITTEN A PIECE ABOUT THEDA BARA OMG OMG. STAY TUNED FOR MORE SHRIEKS AS I MAKE MY WAY THROUGH THIS PIECE. THANK YOU FOR BEING YOU ANNE HELEN PETERSEN!

lora.bee

AHP! Or anyone! Can you recommend a book about the early years of movie studios?

Anne Helen Petersen

@lora.bee It's slightly academic but I love love love Richard DeCordova's PICTURE PERSONALITIES -- all about how "picture personalities" came to be stars. Still very accessible.

beeline96

This is MARVELOUS. AHP, YOU are awesome!

mrsdammit

When I was in high school, my friends and I were OBSESSED with silent movies. We all went by names of silent movie stars, and my friend named ME Theda Bara. I was, and still am, honored. Louise Brooks may be the ultimate, but Theda is a close second.

whimseywisp

Loved this, as always, but am commenting to give a special shout out for a couple of these photographs! That one of Sarah B wrapped up in a blanket and just staring... omg. Haunting. I seriously just want to keep staring back at her. And I want to own that fantastic layered outfit (those leggings! that hairscarf!) in the stock photo of Theda. Just fantastic.

vanessacp

Louise Brooks and Rudolph Valentino!!! PLEASE?!!!

Sara Parker

She embodied the cinematic “vamp” and it is, probably, one of her greatest achievements!
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Jess Rite

I think that Theodosia Goodman achieved popularity thanks for specific set of her behaviors.
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deshmukh

AHP these are consistently great and ALWAYS make me want to read up even more and see more classic films. I love your writing style here and am always stoked to see a new piece. Thanks so much for your hard work and passion! a great source for an easy recharge!

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Mellissa Wade@facebook

My grandmother was one crazy a** biosh. She had all of these old Hollywood magazines. Most were Life, but others were a little more obscure. My first crush was Theda Bara. I couldn't stand those little girls with their baby doll outfits and makeup to match. I WANTED TO BE THEDA AND DO THEDA. The end.

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Cantara Christopher@facebook

Not to get too far afield, but the title of my favorite "Mission: Impossible" 1966 episode always puzzled me--"A Spool There Was"*--until I read your essay. Thanks! *Episode was a strictly Rollin-Cinnamon caper highlighting the talents of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who were married at the time.

Alex Smith@facebook

Oh no, I literally started Moving Pictures last night. Do I need to reread all of the hotel SoCH?cazare Bucuresti

Shwan

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Diane Stech

Diane Stech favorite series on the entire All! Really thanks for this

thanks

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