International Women’s Day (2019)

Parker Hellman

Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker

In the same week as International Women’s Day, a BBC headline read “Kylie Jenner becomes world’s youngest billionaire.”  Wow! What are the chances?  And the Beeb, notorious for tagging everyone as a member of some social/political group, didn’t even mention she was a woman.  Now, that, girls and boys, is gender equality.

Actually, I not the least bit shocked to discover that Kylie Jenner is rich enough to buy a small country in Africa and turn it into a tanning salon for herself and her friends.  After all, she’s been on the social media circuit since Paris Hilton was hot, and that was a number of years ago.  (Ms. Hilton’s “leaked” sex tape was 2001.)  Anyway, with more media coverage that an Ebola outbreak, it was almost impossible for Kylie not to get stinkin’ rich.  And I, for one, say, “Good on ya!”  I’ve never been opposed to people using their bodies to make a living; after all, professional athletes do it every day.  Nor am I against self-promotion, although I am wary of such people.  What I do wonder, however, especially on a day like today, is what history’s serious women would think about the antics of contemporary females like Kylie Jenner — self-proclaimed feminists who whore their privacy for trending fame and ungodly gain.  What, for example, would Lillian Hellman have to say, or Martha Gellhorn or the tongue that launched a thousand quips, Dorothy Parker?

For those of you who don’t live on this planet, Kylie Jenner is the latest member of the Kardashian celebrity factory to cash in – big time! – on P.T. Barnum’s maxim “There’s a sucker born every minute”– and Lillian, Martha and Dorothy are her cultural great-grandmothers (from the 1930s) who cut the path for her to do it.

Oddly enough, on International Women’s Day, the last thing this world needs is yet another lesson in feminism.  In fact, there is a significant portion of the population who think people like me (old, heterosexual white men) should just shut up and lay low for 24 hours.  They may have a point; after all, I am a self-confessed relic of a different age.  However, I think we need to stop the gender train for a moment, let everyone take three deep ones and get some historical perspective.

Way back in the day, the women who first strolled through the Men Only door in the media arts were just as young, just as wild and just as controversial as any trending personality we have today.  Make no mistake: Hellman, Parker, Gellhorn and the rest drank and partied to excess.  They smoked Virginia tobacco and Mexican marijuana.  They listened to cool jazz and Cab Calloway’s hot jive.  They had sex with who they wanted; when they wanted.  They married, divorced and frequently took lovers.  They broke rules.  They danced in the streets.  They were young and they acted like it.  However, they were also serious women.  They had something to say and they said it.  Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) dealt with lesbianism before most of America even knew it existed.  Meanwhile, the outspoken Parker was eventually blacklisted for her sharp and uncompromising political views.  At the same time, women like Martha Gellhorn and Margaret Bourke-White were making their bones as legitimate foreign correspondents.  Gelllhorn covered the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s and Bourke-White went to the Soviet Union for Fortune Magazine.  (She was the first Western journalist allowed in, by the way.)  Others, like photojournalist Dorothea Lange, were picturing the Great Depression and painters like Frida Kahlo were painting it.  When these women spoke, people stopped and listened.

Today, a lot of people are going to stop and listen to Kylie Jenner.  They’re going to watch her on TV and follow her on social media.  At twenty-two, her claim to fame is … uh … I don’t know what it is!  However, she and her cohorts are smart business people.  They know what sells, and they’ve packaged themselves as the product.  This is not a sin.

However, on International Women’s Day, I wonder what the women from the 30s would make of what female role models have become.

Sylvia Trench: Authentic Feminist

james_bondLast week, Sylvia Trench died.  She was 90 years old.  You’ve probably never heard of her, but she had a massive impact on popular culture that’s still ringing in our ears, today.  You see, before Honey Ryder (played by Ursula Andress) rose out of the surf like Venus in a white bikini, Sylvia Trench (played by Eunice Gayson) was the original Bond Girl in the original Bond movie, Dr. No.

Here in the ‘fraidy-cat days of contemporary feminism, there is a prevailing myth that “Bond Girl” is synonymous with bimbo.  Nope!  Guess again!  Ian Fleming didn’t write ‘em that way.  First of all, Fleming’s Bond Girls weren’t girls — they were women.  And secondly, the majority of his female characters (written between 1953 and 1965) were decidedly not typical women of that era.  Back in those days, the female ideal was June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver) Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best) and (let’s face it) the seriously ditzy Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy.)  Fleming’s women, on the other hand, were mainly independent, assertive professionals who were sexually active and made no bones about it.  (Ring any bells in 2018?)  Which brings us back to Ms. Trench.

Actually, Sylvia Trench was not in the novel Dr. No, but the movie version is the first time the world got a good look at James Bond, so she’s there to set the tone.   In fact, she appears before Bond does.  In the scene, we see a woman (not a girl) in an off-the-shoulder red dress.  She’s gambling at a high stakes Chemin de fer table.  She’s there by herself, and she’s clearly a regular player. (The house agrees to cover her marker when she loses.)  An off-camera voice says,

“I admire your courage, Miss…?”
She replies, “Trench, Sylvia Trench.  I admire your luck, Mr…?”
Cut to Sean Connery.  Cue the theme music:
“Bond, James Bond.”

And the 007 film franchise begins.

However, this isn’t where Sylvia Trench leaves her mark as the quintessential Bond Woman.  Three scenes later, Bond returns home and there’s Sylvia, out of the red dress and into one of Bond’s shirts, practicing her putt – with Bond’s golf clubs.  Bond (because he’s Bond) bursts into the room with a gun in his hand, but Sylvia doesn’t freak out, shrieking “OMG!  He’s got a gun!” — she flirts.  This is a confident woman.  This is an Ian Fleming Woman.  She’s come to Bond’s apartment (broken in, actually) to sleep with him.  She hasn’t been seduced.  She hasn’t been coerced.  She isn’t a victim of Bond’s raging sexism.  She’s a woman who makes her own decisions — and today she’s decided on James Bond.

So, as feminists from Maine to Malibu theorize and chatter about how many misogynists can dance on the head of a pin — Ms. Trench, I salute you!  You were a woman before it was fashionable and saw no reason to complain about it.

A Walk In Saudi Arabia


Just when we’re watching the Enlightenment being burned alive by a pack of snarling university sophomores. . .
Just when we’re seeing common sense being sacrificed on the altar of pseudo social justice. . .
Just when we discover that the barbarians at the gates have kicked in the door and are actually pitching their tents in the garden. . .
And just as we realize that our society isn’t going to Hell anymore because it’s already renting a house in the subterranean suburbs. . .
It is at this moment that an anonymous Saudi woman puts on a miniskirt, goes for a stroll in the historic streets of Ushayqir and challenges the darkness to a duel.

For the uninformed, Ushayqir is part of an ultra-religious conservative area of the Kingdom of Saud, a vast patch of sand that exists entirely in the 8th century.  By law, women in Saudi Arabia, must be covered — toes to tonsils — in a black bag called an abaya.  They also have to cover their hair and, if they don’t want a boatload of grief, wear a veil.  BTW, they can’t drive cars, associate with unrelated men, go anywhere alone or even leave the house without permission.  Women in Saudi Arabia aren’t actually bought-and-sold property, but if the sandal fits, you might as well slip it on.  So, a woman walking around as casually as if she were in London, Rome or Paris is cause for alarm in the land that time forgot.  She can be arrested, imprisoned and even whipped.  Why?  She’s dangerous.  She is as dangerous to the established social order as any dissident author, any fiery orator, or any armed revolutionary.  She’s dangerous because she has the audacity to exist — and somewhere, sometime, somehow, some other girl might see her.

I don’t know if this is a Rosa Parks moment or not.  Quite frankly, I’m as ignorant as most Westerners about the nuances of the Middle East.  But I do know this.  While Western feminists and intellectuals may posture and pose, debating how many misogynists can dance on the head of a pin, this woman’s simple act of defiance is a very real candle in an increasingly dark world.