Mar 20, 2020

Mae West: Gay Diva of the 1930s

She appeared in ten movies between 1933 and 1943 -- a rather small body of work (during the same period, Mickey Rooney appeared in over fifty).  And two others during the 1970s.  Yet she is instantly recognizable today, and her lines are still being quoted:

"It's not the men in your life, it's the life in your men."

"Goodness had nothing to do with it."

"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?"

Like 1970s sitcoms, comedy movies of the 1930s were about people not having sex.  The Hays Code forbade any implication of sex, premartial, marital, or extramarital, so you could only talk about it through code, hints, and innuendos.  Mae West was an expert on innuendo -- her body language and intonation could make the most innocent line sound like it wasn't.

Maybe that's why she became an icon for gay men of the pre-Stonewall era.  Faced with police-state repression, where discovery would be catastrophic, they learned to communicate with body language, gestures, code-words.  That's the origin of the term "gay."

She was also a favorite model for drag queens of the era.  In fact, she claimed that she invented drag.

Mae West had a number of close friends who were LGBT, such as bisexual Cary Grant, and wrote the first play to openly mention gay people. It was closed down by the police during a run-through in Connecticut in 1927, but copies are available.  Her attitude was rather progressive for the era: she believed that gay men were feminine souls trapped in male bodies, and thus doomed to sad, empty lives.  But they weren't innate criminals plotting the overthrow of civilization.

Unfortunately, her attitude stayed the same as seasons changed, and by the 1970s it was old-fashioned and homophobic.

In her last film appearance, Sextet (1978), Mae West is presented as an ongoing sex symbol.  There's nothing wrong with the elderly having active libidos, but seeing the 85-year old actress surrounded by fawning musclemen and married to 34-year old Timothy Dalton is rather ludicrous.

Still, we get to see the musclemen.

See also: Madonna.


  1. I had a friends years ago that always maintained that Mae West was transexual, post op. like one of the first.

    1. The first sex-reassignment surgeries were conducted on a German transwoman named Lili Elbe, who died in 1931 due to complications from the surgeries. The first American was Christine Jorgensen in 1952. By then the process was less risky, so she lived for another 40 years.

  2. That last bit about her attitudes reminds me of John Langdon Hayden Down. He noticed that congenital idiots (the technical term of the day) sometimes had mongoloid features, and thus the races might not be as distinct as had been thought. His line of reasoning is certainly retrograde today, though he was quite progressive for the 19th century.

    The disorder he was talking about bears his name today.

  3. I remember seeing a made for tv movie about her life. In it, she developed her schtick by imitating a Vaudeville drag queen.

  4. There was a great documentary about West on American Masters on PBS. She was really ahead of her time .

  5. I remember being three or four years old the first time I saw incredible woman on television. I didn't know who she was, and I didn't know the name of the movie, but I thought she was the greatest thing since cornflakes! I'm sure anyone who was looking could see the little hearts shining in my eyes! It was some years later that I learned: the woman was Mae West and the movie in this case was "My Little Chickadee" with W. C. Fields.

  6. FYI: The earlier comment about "My Little Chickadee" was from me. I forgot to put my name on it though. Anyway, I used to work in hotel food service and sometimes I would sit up folding napkins while I watched Mae West movies on Public Television. (It kept me physically occupied so I wasn't likely to fall asleep and miss them.)


No offensive, insulting, racist, or homophobic comments are permitted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...