Eartha Kitt, Where Have all the Sassy Women Gone?

Earthas gonna getcha!

You should know that I grew up in the South. Hold all of your preconceived notions–you can’t understand it,  you would have to be born there. The South has its problems and is lacking in a variety of areas, but what it does not lack are sassy women. I was talking to a friend from Texas about this and she said “southern women are always sassy; they just are.” I don’t know from whence the sass comes, but I do know that my mother, aunts, grandmothers, and nearly every other female person I grew up around had more gumption, spunk, and sass attack potential than anyone I’ve encountered anywhere else. Especially in California–CA doesn’t quite know what to do with Sass (that’s right, I capitalized that).

All of this is to say, that I grew up surrounded by women who both did and didn’t give a shit (much like the honey badger), with quick tongues and sharp-witted rapports softened by a “baby,” or a “honey,” or a “sugar,” or a “god bless ’em” every now and again. Both of my grandmothers taught me to be gracious, but not spineless, and for heavens sake, dress appropriately for every occasion. You shake hands firmly, look people in the eye, and keep an air of confident humor, because nothing is sacred.

Breathing in all of this sass affected what resonates as stylistic inspiration to me. I like a firm handshake and good-natured brassiness. I like someone who doesn’t flinch or waiver.  As an adult, I’ve felt more kinship with the stars and styles of  bygone eras than I have with my own. I thought that maybe this was some sort of weird nostalgia for something I’ve never known. That’s got to be a psychological disorder of some sort, right? To feel so disconnected from your own time? I look around and I don’t see many women my own age or younger that I find compelling in any way. Carrie Leilam Love dug into this a bit with her own post Let Icons be Bygones, so I’m clearly not the only one wondering about it.

Coming into my early adulthood I looked a lot at Eartha Kitt, whose confidence, intelligence, and high-minded fashion sense was endlessly interesting. In fact, I’ve taken to saying that my gender identity is “Eartha Kitt, but with fewer ball gowns.”

Eartha’s eye contact was intense. This was a self-made woman. She had a horrible childhood riddled with any number of traumas and financial struggles, but as an adult she knew I don’t know how many languages,  traveled the world, starred as the best Catwoman of all time, and made music that I, as a 21-year-old with a floppy mohawk and an affinity for the then popular genre of electroclash, could listen to endlessly. Her music and her person was filled with winking Sass.

Oh yes. That’s Eartha Kitt teaching James Dean how to dance. While wearing a button-up, belted shirt over cream leggings. Dean claims to have learned more about acting in Eartha’s dance classes than in any acting class or movie. Kitt’s fashion sense was as glamorous as it was no nonsense. She could make jammies look stunning, just by flaring her nostrils and glaring down the bridge of her uplifted nose. Eye contact, firm hand shake, gracious, but not to be crossed.

Eartha died on Christmas Day some years ago, so she obviously wasn’t a contemporary of mine. In fact, I racked my brain for this post, trying to come up with a contemporary who embodies this same sense of self-possession, confidence, and all-fired SASS. I was hard-pressed.

There are a lot of musicians that are badass, but not as classy. And of course the blasted “quirky girl” type abounds. You know the type I mean– the girl who’s so interesting and full of unique energy that she just MIGHT be able to save the sensitive guy from himself and show him what life’s all about. Or will somehow be able to ignore or adore his sulking, self-imposed depression problems. JUST GET SOME EMOTIONAL LITERACY! Read: every female lead in wanna-be “indie” movie since Amelie (who is the only charming quirky girl). Example: Zoe Deschanal’s mind-numbing, tree-climbing, Ringo Star-loving (get it, cause NO ONE likes Ringo), sensitive-guy-saving over grown child in 500 Days of Summer. “Oh wow, you like The Smiths??” Yeah. Cause they’re a rare commodity. The Smiths. Super obscure. Really shocking, there.

Anyway, digression.

Marion Cotillard could borderline be a quirky girl because her face has a touch of the “precious” to it, but she holds herself with an air of respect and intelligence, whereas the quirky girl is a basically a really tall eight-year-old.

She’s super hot, but that’s not her thing, per se. Eye contact. An air of aloofness. A sense that conversation would be a fast and challenging volley back and forth. These are things that make a person interesting to look at. This is why 15-year-old girls in magazines AREN’T actually fascinating. Even when I WAS 15, I wasn’t reading about other 15-year-olds. There’s no there, there. You need to age a little bit. Learn about yourself. Know your own awesomeness and project it into the world with your style, your bearing, your wit.

See? She looks like a sass attack.

Two other people who come to mind and who are still alive are Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve should teach a class on smoking. Christ.

… and Helen Mirren:

You may have noticed that  my examples, with the exception of Eartha, are either foreign, or older women (or both). Why is that, hm? What about really dynamic, sassy, intelligent-seeming famous women from the United States?

The New Yorker just published an article that was too long about Anna Faris, but which made some lovely points about women characters in Hollywood movies not being “worth it” unless they’re sexualized or humiliated straight away. Apparently female roles don’t create blockbusters or franchises that make billions and so there’s no need to create roles for women with depth. Lovely. United States Capitalism at it’s best, yet again.

You would think that having been the generation to be raised after feminism had such an impact, we’d be seeing any number of confident, intelligent, sass attacks in high profile entertainment roles. Instead we have people like… like who? Angelina Jolie? Natalie Portman (who I guess is America’s shining star when it comes to depth of character, which is just pathetic)? Scarlett Johansson? Nonsense. They’re like fragile little caricatures. A breeze could blow their self-assuredness away.

Where are the contemporary equivalents of Eartha? Who’s going to age into a Catherine Deneuve, or a Helen Mirren? Who will bring the confident sass?

So say what you will about the American South. The thickness in the air cradles you, the cicadas come out at dusk to chat, and the women look you in the eye so that you can see clearly the twinkle in theirs.


About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

One comment

  1. Emma

    i/r/t the zooey d magic indie girl thing have you read that article about that already? google “manic pixie dream girl”!

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