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The Bombshell Trope, Explained

The Venus, the Sex Goddess, the Bombshell. She’s a knockout beauty, who leaves a trail of drooling men (and at least 5% of women) in her wake. In her purest form, like the Greek goddess Aphrodite (or Venus to the Romans), this woman embodies arguably the most important values of life: beauty and love. But she can also be a mirror of how little respect society often shows these values, or how they can become twisted by jealousy and materialism. Here’s our Take on why there’s so much more to The Bombshell than her sexuality and what she deserves to get out of life, beyond being adored.

TRANSCRIPT

The Venus, the Sex Goddess, the Bombshell. She’s a knockout beauty, who leaves a trail of drooling men (and at least 5% of women) in her wake. Here is how you know you’re dealing with a woman of divine sensuality: the bombshell is the embodiment of our society’s ideal of womanhood, emphasis on the “body.”

She is all curves, even in eras where waifish beauty is more stylish. She’s a sensualist, who cares about enjoying life and living it to the fullest. She’s also a materialist who loves anything that’s beautiful— and expensive.

Another thing she takes pleasure in is being looked at. A Venus lives by the Male Gaze, and men’s attention gives her power in a male-dominated society. The Bombshell is somehow treated as both above the rest of us, like a goddess taken human form, and below — like a wild animal or a simple child

In her purest form, like the Greek goddess Aphrodite (or Venus to the Romans), this woman embodies arguably the most important values of life: beauty and love. But she can also be a mirror of how little respect society often shows these values, or how they can become twisted by jealousy and materialism. In the Bombshell’s darkest iterations, her sexuality is a weapon which might end up destroying her.

Here’s our Take on why there’s so much more to The Bombshell than her sexuality and what she deserves to get out of life, beyond being adored.

Love Goddesses date back to prehistory, but the Bombshell was born in sound cinema as Jean Harlow. Her 1933 film Bombshell gave birth to the “bombshell” label, implicitly comparing her beauty to a weapon of mass destruction. Harlow popularized the blonde bombshell look in Platinum Blonde, and gave us a heartless vixen twist on the trope with another eye-catching hair color in Red-Headed Woman. Through the actress’ persona onscreen and off, all the qualities of a Bombshell coalesced: she’s a head-turner who disarms men with her weaponized sexuality; she enjoys pleasure and wealth, and isn’t known for her brains; her turbulent life is full of a series of men; and there’s a good chance that she’s going to die young.

The Contradictions of a Goddess

In the 50s, Marilyn Monroe represented postwar bounty, a goddess come to life somehow both embodying and satirizing her era’s materialism. In the same era, Elizabeth Taylor was the definitive Brunette Bombshell to Marilyn’s blonde, representing haughty self-possession and glamor. In A Place in the Sun, her aspirational beauty — and the American dream she embodies — are so irresistible to Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman that he ends up plotting to kill his poor, pregnant girlfriend in order to pursue a life with Liz Taylor’s Angela Vickers.

In the 60’s, Europe had their own iconic brunette and blonde bombshells: Italian Sophia Loren and French Brigitte Bardot. In this era of increasing freedom, the Bombshell became a symbol of sexual emancipation.

Bombshells on film channel the love goddesses of ancient myth, and cinema excels at making their appeal feel majestic and surreal.

Just as Aphrodite was born from sea foam, the Sex Goddess onscreen is often associated with water. This becomes a symbol of how this impossibly alluring woman can’t be possessed — and will slip through your fingers like running water if you try. As Anita Ekberg blends into the falling water of the Trevi Fountain Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni’s protagonist (like the camera) feels as though he can’t quite touch her… the onscreen Venus is ultimately just a fantastic illusion made of light — a projection of the male gaze.

Girl: “When it’s hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox.” - The Seven Year Itch

In her groundbreaking essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey argued that cinema hinges on the male gaze — the way the camera becomes a man, and looks at women as a man would. The Bombshell feels purpose-built to yield pleasure to the male eye (sometimes literally, like when teen boys create their dream woman from a computer in Weird Science).

Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt opens with a male gaze that leers at Bardot’s naked body, while she asks the protagonist if he likes every part of it. And the Bombshell often appears in slow-motion, as a purely visual delight separated from sound, because we don’t need to hear her speak to understand her character.

Often, the Bombshell takes pleasure in the male gaze, and feels empowered by the hold she has over men. She performs the Bombshell persona, knowing full well how to use her effect on people to her advantage.

Because Bombshells wield their sexuality, they represent one route to female empowerment. Mae West made her career from being a sexually empowered woman before such things were allowed. The Bombshell is also painted as animalistic in her sexuality — a literal sex kitten.

Yet other versions of the Bombshell, despite their sexual potency, often project a childlike innocence. Laurence Olivier remarked that Marilyn Monroe’s talent lay in bringing that innocence to all the innuendo in her films: “Look at that face,” he said on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. “She could be five years old.”

The goddess Aphrodite personified the appeal of beauty, but also its pitfalls. She was wildly jealous, vain, fickle, and louche. Similarly, the Bombshell embodies the contradictions of womanhood in society: she is a goddess and an animal, a seductress and a naif. She is put on a pedestal for her beauty, yet vilified for her promiscuity and materialism. For all that bombshells are revered and exalted in our culture, sooner or later, they’re also degraded and insulted.

Megan Fox was vilified in the press both for being too sexy and for trying to break out of the Bombshell box by expressing any agency or individuality. After Jennifer’s Body bombed, New York Times profiler Lynn Hirschberg put the film’s underperformance squarely on Fox’s sexy shoulders, writing “Not surprisingly, and despite the heavily publicized 64-second lesbian makeout scene, men did not buy many tickets. Neither did women, who tend to prefer movies that feature more approachable, less vixen-ish actresses, like Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston.”

The Bombshell is defined by her beauty, so her looks are her destiny. Since our culture values beauty, you’d think Bombshells onscreen would lead a blessed life. On the contrary, the stories we tell about sexually appealing women usually need to see them punished because of our society’s oddly puritanical ideas about sex.

The Curse of Beauty

Harlow’s sexually opportunistic vixen in Red-Headed Woman may get away with her antics because that movie is pre-code. But from the 30’s on, the restrictive Hays Code required that sexually liberated women had to be cautionary tales who, by the end of the movie, were either married or dead. Consequently, filmmakers would often let us enjoy watching a doomed sex goddess character, but pair her with a frumpier, often darker-haired woman, who gets to live because she’s not too sexual.

In Niagara, when frigid honeymooners Ray and Polly Cutler encounter Marilyn Monroe’s vivacious character, Rose, at Niagara Falls, Ray is bewitched by her, especially compared to his unexciting wife. Monroe captures our attention and sympathy as the sexually provocative woman trapped in a violent marriage, but she’s still dead by the end of the picture.

We can see the tragic Bombshell vs. safe frump dyad continue to play out in much later stories. Even a romcom like Love Actually pits a vivacious Venus against poor Emma Thompson and literally has the homewrecker dress up as a devil. Mia isn’t dead by the end of that movie, but her future with the company can’t be great after trying to sleep with her boss.

The way the Bombshell is punished usually depends on whether she’s an innocent or a manipulator. This is a manifestation of the Madonna/whore complex: a beautiful woman can either be in control of her sexuality (which is evil) or the passive victim of her own beauty. The evil bombshell uses her sexuality as a weapon to get what she wants.

Kathryn Merteuil: “I’ll give you something you’ve been obsessing about ever since our parents got married.” - Cruel Intentions

Superhero movies have even given us the supervillain Bombshell. This character starts the movie as an unsexy nerd, but then something happens, and she simultaneously becomes hot and evil. Thus her sexuality and her supervillainy are inextricably linked — bringing about her downfall.

The innocent sex goddess, on the other hand, often gets killed to motivate a male character, in a version of the women-in-refrigerators trope, or to illustrate the depravity of her world. Adriana on The Sopranos is a perfect example of the Bombshell-as-beautiful victim. Adriana is portrayed as a classic Venus — she draws attention for her knockout looks, enjoys the material comforts her boyfriend Christopher’s mafioso lifestyle provides, and isn’t known for her brains. Ultimately, though, she’s a Venus in the truest sense: she’s defined by her loving heart. Thus, the murder of this audience favorite after she’s manipulated by the FBI was a powerful emotional tool to make us feel just how irredeemable Tony and his circle were. Adriana’s beauty, inside and out, is destroyed, symbolizing the corrupting nature of Tony’s world. She was so beloved by viewers and creative staff alike that the writers felt actually showing her death onscreen would be too brutal even for The Sopranos.

While evil Bombshells may be punished for their seductive transgressions, onscreen beauties in general are punished not so much for what they do, but for the animal urges they bring out in men, simply by existing.

And the women who play Bombshells are subject to their own punishments as well. After Joe DiMaggio watched Marilyn Monroe film the famous subway grate scene in the Seven Year Itch, he allegedly beat her for being so sexually provocative. Tippi Hedren was bullied and isolated on set by Alfred Hitchcock because he was obsessed with her beauty. And Megan Fox felt she couldn’t fully join the Me Too Movement because she would be seen as an unsympathetic victim.

Women are still being shamed if they attempt to monetize their beauty. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a paramedic that was supplementing her income with an OnlyFans account was slutshamed and doxxed by the New York Post. To this day, we act like a woman who poses for sexy photos gives up a part of her intelligence, her agency, and her soul.

So what if Aphrodite comes down from her pedestal? Contemporary film and TV have been finding hidden depths and nuance in Bombshells.

Coming down from the pedestal

Joan on Mad Men at first intentionally lives her life as a Marilyn Monroe-esque Bombshell. But she gradually realizes that being solely what men want her to be is limiting. When Monroe dies, Joan is devastated because Joan knows the emptiness she must have felt. And after landing the husband she always wanted isn’t the fairytale she hoped it would be, she eventually finds personal satisfaction by stepping out of the Monroe archetype and asserting her brains and independence.

Poison Ivy, in most of her depictions, fits the evil seductress trope to a T. Her main superpower is the ability to control men with lust-inducing pheromones. But on the series Harley Quinn, she is more defined by her environmental activism and her anxiety about letting people in. Through her friendship and eventual coupling with Harley, we get to see an explicitly queer Ivy who — rather than exploiting the patriarchy to her advantage —actively fights against it in the male-dominated world of supervillainy.

The Joker: “Ivy, if you could just, you know, move over, so I could kill your friend.”

Poison Ivy: “Absolutely! Over my dead body.”

The Joker: “Ugh! Female friendships.”- Harley Quinn

On New Girl, Megan Fox’s character Reagan actively subverts and deconstructs the actress’ Bombshell persona. Reagan is initially presented as a sexually intimidating creature of mystery. But as the loftmates get to know her, they see that her unattainable hot girl facade is a smokescreen she puts on to keep people at a distance. When in an actual relationship, Reagan chokes.

Rather than pitting a Bombshell against a sexless woman in competition for a man, shows like Harley Quinn and New Girl let the sex goddess find friendship and love with other women. Reagan and Jess date the same man, which in previous Bombshell stories would be a huge source of conflict — the adorkable girl next door and the Vamp would be expected to fight over the mediocre male. But these two very different women get along, and Jess even helps Reagan out of her emotional isolation.

Likewise, when Jennifer Lopez’s knockout Ramona makes her big pole dancing entrance in Hustlers, we watch this less from her patrons’ eyes than from those of her female protégé-to-be, Destiny. Hustlers unpacks the Bombshell mindset as a facet of the American dream, and explores why, in a world where a woman has limited economic options, the male gaze may be her biggest asset.

This is also an example of how more nuanced Bombshells of color have emerged with the rise of sex positivity and intersectional feminism. In classic Hollywood, Bombshell status was usually kept from women of color, who were often sexualized but not deified for that sexuality.

Margarita Carmen Cansino didn’t become a star until her name was anglicized to Rita Hayworth and she had undergone painful electrolysis sessions to make her hairline look less “characteristically-Latina”. Black bombshells like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Eartha Kitt all faced serious professional hurdles that kept Marilyn Monroe levels of superstardom out of reach. And Hispanic bombshells were often characterized as “uncontrollable,” feeding into the Spicy Latina stereotype.

The Bombshell represents beauty and sexuality, two things our society connects highly with youth. For the Bombshell who doesn’t die young in the prime of her beauty, the alternative is (in viewers’ eyes) almost worse: she gets old. As Elizabeth Day writes in the Guardian, “we do not expect our sex symbols to age.”

Conclusion

A woman who’s defined only by her beauty ceases to exist when her beauty fades. Yet —in life, and in fiction—the story goes on long after youth passes. That’s why stories that expand on the Bombshell, beyond her surface pleasures, are so important.

The love goddesses of myth were complex, fallible, recognizably human characters. There’s no reason why modern storytelling should be any less nuanced than what was carved in marble thousands of years ago. We need stories where the body isn’t destiny. Where pretty people are asexual, where older women still get some, and where everyone can access their inner love goddess.