Too far West (dangerous curves ahead)

Will Visconti

Abstract


In a career that lasted over eighty years, the performances of Mae West were famous, or infamous, for their power to shock, their transgression of boundaries of class, gender, sexuality and propriety, and for the frequent opprobrium that West seemed to attract. Moreover, there was no subject matter considered “off-limits” within Mae West’s work, and her plays and films were marked by her fearless approach to topics that even today are often seen as problematic (substance abuse, abortion, rape, and the idea of the “expiry date” of the female performer and her sexuality). West also broke new ground by both bringing taboo subjects into mainstream view, and by combining a sympathetic and humorous treatment of serious topics. Despite her reputation as a screen icon with a rapier wit, her work as a writer, and indeed, the effort she put into creating and maintaining the style and content of her act is frequently overlooked. Throughout her plays, films, radio appearances and written work, she consistently pushed the envelope in terms of what was deemed acceptable, normal or humorous for her age (and her era). When castigated for going “too far”, she simply edited her material and tried again, inching forward and gradually setting a precedent for later generations of comics and comic writers, while situating herself within an extant framework of shocking and subversive performers. This paper is intended as an exploration not only of West’s much-publicised transgressive use of humour, or the subversiveness of her humour itself, but also the way in which her career trajectory embodied the notion of going “too far” with her final films, and how Mae West’s life so frequently imitated her art.

Keywords


Mae West, transgression, sexuality, film, female comedy

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7592/EJHR2014.2.4.visconti

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