Professor Melinda Barlow talks boobs in film history and Jayne Mansfield's genius IQ
Since Feminism & Co.'s inception, Melinda Barlow has a been a favored speaker at the MCA Denver's engaging spring series. An associate professor of film studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Barlow is also a well-versed film and video historian and curator who focuses on contemporary women filmmakers. And for tonight's edition, which has the theme of boobs, she'll discuss Hollywood's portrayal of breasts in film and the connections between Playboy's first issue and the release of the Kinsey Report's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, among other things.
In advance of this evening's proceedings, we talked with Barlow about Marilyn Monroe's subtly smart performances and Jayne Mansfield's voluptuous IQ.
Westword: You'll be speaking at Feminism & Co. on the role of breasts and cleavage in film. Can you tell me a little about yourself in relation to this evening's topic?
Melinda Barlow: I am one of Feminism & Co.'s biggest fans; the pre-history is that Elissa (Auther) and Gillian (Sliverman, co-curators) have invited me to be a part of the program for many years. I've spoken on the topic of women and work, I did a talk called "Bitch," I did one on witches in film, and then I did one on polyamory.
I teach women and film, and I've taught it since I've been at the University of Colorado [at Boulder] since 1996. I never taught it as a Ph.D. student, but I always wanted to teach it because I work on independent, experimental contemporary women film- and videomakers and installation artists. I've done a lot of research on Mary Lucier, who is a video pioneer; I've edited a book on her work, and my dissertation was on her. I've also done a lot of work on experimental filmmaker Janie Geiser, who is a puppeteer and works in miniature theater and teaches at CalArts. So this is an interest of mine.
There is a show I curated at CU with the just-having-departed director Lisa Becker, Primal Seen: Selections From the CU Art Museum's Collection of Photograpy From the 19th century to the Present. It's on women and photography, and it's up until June 22. This is a wide-ranging interest for me, and because I've taught the course -- which is on the core requirements for CU -- it means I have one-third film majors and a lot of people who are math and science majors who are surprised by what they learn.
So I think a lot about the representation of women in film and work by women; what happens when Hollywood represents the female body one way and what the history of that is. What happens when the director is a woman -- does that make any difference? The old feminist question: Should we even ask that question anymore? That whole kind of thing.
Sometimes it does make a difference. In, say, experimental works by women who are directly concerned with the representation of the female body or the intersexed body or the otherwise gendered body. I'm showing Paris Is Burning with some of Sadie Benning's early videos and the photographs of Cindy Sherman; I'm thinking about identity as drag and all of its aspects.
This is something I think about because, quite honestly, I have to deal with reactions to large breasts on screen all the time. How do you have a conversation when that's in the room on 35mm in the dark and larger than life? And there are young women and people of all sexual orientations who also want to engage in a conversation that is not limited to what people will, even in a classroom, shriek out about?
That's a great point: How do you get past that initial reaction of breasts on a screen and into an intelligent conversation about it?
Let me tell you -- I'm rifling through these images and thinking, how many images of big tits can I show? And what am I going to say about them? What's the point? It's an interesting question. I think I had about 200 slides on that PowerPoint, and I'm now down to fifty.
I think about my own experience being obsessed with pinups -- mostly Betty Page and, when I was younger, Vargas Girls. I think about how that is art to me, because my parents treated it as such, but that's not always the case when we're talking about exposure to women's bodies in that way.
What's really interesting about the pinup is, well, I'm thinking, how can I do justice to the '50s and Jayne Mansfield, who was called "the cleavage queen"? How do I do justice to that and what that phenomenon is? [How do I] give a little sense of history and some kinds of archetypal cases of images that were, say, censored or trimmed from Hollywood films?
But when you talk about pinups, it makes me think of [Marilyn] Monroe; this particular image I'm about to describe I took out because it's well-known. She got her start in part by being photographed by a guy who ended up putting her on a calendar that was probably in a mechanic's garage. Then, when Hefner stuck her on the cover and in the first issue as the centerfold in Playboy, what was covering her breasts on this sort of red velvet thing she was on was off, her breasts were sort of fully exposed and her knees were bent. That was 1953. It was the same year as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
But the interesting part about that is, you don't get the '60s without the '50s; Hefner -- whatever we think about Hefner and the objectification of women -- he's really an advocate of non-censorship. The Kinsey Report on female sexuality comes out at the same time in the same year as the first issue of Playboy. In its own weird way, Playboy and the exposure of the female breast was a part of the great un-repressing that occurred throughout the '50s. It was not just the decade of repression. The pinup, in its own weird way, is a part of that.
Cindy Sherman also comes to mind in that regard, because some of her original untitled film stills are horizontal in the late '70s and early '80s. They don't reveal her breasts, but they are kind of a play on the horizontality of the pinup format.
I've never found Marilyn Monroe to be very interesting -- I think it was the over-exposure of her as "the" pinup ideal that turned me off to her work.
When I do a women-and-film class, I always joke that the title should be "another one bites the dust," because the body count keeps rising. I say, okay, here's how a woman dies in this genre in this film in this country; let's move up a decade and watch it happen again. [Laughs.] That's what you keep chronicling. [I show] the Senegalese film Moolaadé -- it's called the "female circumcision musical." It's a defiant and wonderful film by the founder of Senegalese cinema, Ousmane Sembène. It was his last film. He was 84 when he made it; he died a few years ago. The women triumph in the village and prevent these young girls from being circumcised.
It's a film that shows how in that culture, women are pitted against women. It's actually an uplifting, violent film -- but [I show] so many violent films by the time we get to that. I show Some Like It Hot, and I have to say -- and I'll be showing slides about it at Feminism & Co. -- Marilyn Monroe is a revelation in that film. She's really interesting, and what's done with her breasts is quite fascinating -- and this is 1959. What it says about men and women and drag and having boobs or not having them and what it means to be a man and not have them.... I'm not going to give away the big point I will make about that film, but the ending is to die for, and no one dies.
It is really gender-bending, and I cannot believe that they got away with what they did (in Hollywood.) It's so radical and unbelievable, and she's a part of it.
Jayne Mansfield was a member of Mensa -- it wasn't only her boobs that were huge. She had, like, a 163 IQ; she spoke five languages. There are all kinds of interesting women from that decade who were reduced to their breasts and whose comedic talents, as in the case of Monroe and brilliance in the case of Mansfield.... They knew, to use contemporary language, they knew they were performing their gender.
Doors open for Feminism & Co. at 5:30 p.m. today at the MCA, 1485 Delgany Street; the program begins at 6:30. Tickets are $17, $12 for members. For more information, visit www.mcadenver.org or call 303-298-7554.