Review: Bombshells – The Women Who Set the Fifties on Fire

I have eagerly been waiting to read historian and author Shar Daw’s book on fifties blondeshells since its announced release. Yesterday, I received my copy and whizzed through it in less than 24 hours – a testament to how enthralling the subject matter is. But does it pass the Classic Blondes test?

“..all five women in this book used every opportunity their appearance afforded them to advance their careers, but it was not a bottle of bleach or a man that made them cultural icons.”

Daws provides an eye-opening look at the women deemed essential to the decade that saw an emphasis on engorged breasts, wasp waists, and voluptuous hips. Her subjects covered are: Jean Harlow, Ruth Ellis, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, and Jayne Mansfield. Each actress is given a separate section composed of several chapters. Instead of a run-of-the-mill anthology composed of straight-forward biographies, Daws examines what made these women tick, major life events (Harlow’s ill-fated relationship with Paul Bern, Monroe’s flirtations with the casting couch via Johnny Hyde), and society’s views on these women due to their hair color.

Some of Daws most intricate analysis details how Ellis, Dors, and Mansfield combined motherhood with the sexuality all relied upon to further their careers in the (still somewhat existent) patriarchal society that believes motherhood, career, and sex mix as well as oil and water. Women are still advised to choose one of these roles – as seen by the near constant backlash women like Kim Kardashian receive when they pose nude. A quick glance of comments on anything posted by Kardashian that is remotely risque shows her mothering skills questioned while being called a whore who only made it by on a sex tape (an asinine claim being Kardashian has a business empire that couldn’t be run on tits alone). Daws does not shy away from showing this side of society, detailing how we really still haven’t left the view that women can only wear one hat at any time (usually in the order of sex kitten, career woman, and loving mother – but never an equal combination of the three).

She also doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade, talking about the casting couch freely and openly in regards to each woman, and admitting Monroe’s utilization of the practice with Johnny Hyde. While Monroe would claim she was never a “kept women,” Daws shows how Monroe’s relationship with Hyde was just that – and a testament to Monroe’s quest for stardom and ability to manipulate situations in her favor (reportedly, Hyde only left Monroe a set of bed sheets in his will – possibly a dig towards the basis of his relationship with the starlet). Some Monroe fans will likely unleash their false outrage on this section of Daws book, with their idolized woman-child living without sin, but Daws tackles the situation tactfully and with facts. Can one really accept Monroe as a person – and not a personified saint – if they don’t accept that she did what she believed she had to do? I would say no. Monroe was human and that deserves to be examined.

One of the most illuminating sections for me was Daws telling of Ruth Ellis’ story. For those who don’t know, Ellis was the last woman hanged in Great Britain on July 13, 1955, at 28 for killing her lover. Daws gives a glimpse into the woman behind the scandal, and details why Ellis likely would not have been executed today. Like Monroe, Daws humanizes Ellis, showing a complicated personality with dreams of stardom like every other woman featured in the book. Ellis was also a trailblazer who chose to raise her born-out-of-wedlock child, Andy, instead of adopting him out like society dictated.

The only “flaw” (and this term is used incredibly loosely) in the book is simply based on differences in opinion – particularly in regards to Mansfield’s third husband, Matt Cimber. Daws has formed her own opinions based on available information and she is entitled to those feelings.

Overall, the book most assuredly passes the Classic Blondes test. In lieu of a conclusion, I leave you with the following from the book’s conclusion:

“The victim label is possibly even more prevalent in regards to the women in this book than the automatic assumption that their blonde hair was synonymous with stupidity. By interpreting them as victims, we are robbing strong, articulate and capable women of their power, placing them on a pedestal for appearance’s sake whilst at the same time enabling us to use them as an example.”

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