“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Oscar Wilde
This gif’s widespread use as shorthand for the concept of ~weaponized femininity~ has always bothered me, and I’ve never understood why it’s become so popular. I mean, sure, at first brush, it seems obvious: here is a studiedly beautiful woman who, with the simple gesture of placing a cigarette between her lips, has dozens of men wrapped around her finger, vying for her favor. But just take a minute here and look at her face. She’s not reveling in this, you get the feeling that she didn’t even expect it, this woman is upset and overwhelmed by the amount of male attention she’s getting.
Because this is a pivotal moment in a movie about a woman who is forced into prostitution.
Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena came out in 2000, and starred Monica Bellucci as the titular Malena, a young wife whose husband is off fighting for the Axis Powers in WWII. Beautiful and shy, Malena tries to keep to herself, but finds it increasingly difficult as word of her husband’s absence attracts not only the attention of all the men in town, but the bitter jealousy of their wives and lovers. She does nothing to encourage any of her suitors, and instead spends her days caring for her aging father. But this uneasy peace in her life is shattered when she receives word of her husband’s death, and she’s left to fend for herself in a town where half the people only care for her body, and the other half hate her for it.
In the rest of the film we see the following: Malena’s relationship with her father destroyed as a result of sexual slander, Malena taken to court by a jealous neighbor who swears the young woman was sleeping with her husband, Malena’s rape by her lawyer as “payment” for her legal fees, Malena’s entry into the world of prostitution, and Melena’s public beating, stripping, and humiliation at the hands of the town’s women when the Americans arrive at the end of the war. Her husband appears in the third act, somehow alive, and he reclaims his wife, restoring her to respectability, and the townspeople begin to accept her once more, now that she is on the arm of her husband, and has, as some of the women whisper, ‘put on a little weight”.
But in spite of all of that, the film isn’t Malena’s story. Instead, we see her life through the eyes of our narrator, a young boy who by turns worships her and is disgusted by her “fall”. This is his coming of age, his discovery of himself through Malena’s trauma and the specter of female sexual jealousy.
In short, this is not a woman’s movie. Malena’s beauty is a cage, something that draws awful, selfish responses from the men around her, responses that she is forced to endure as a result of her situation. And what’s worse, her looks isolate her from women, none of whom can see past her smoky eyes and hourglass figure to the heartbroken widow who needs a friend.
So you know. Use gifs if you like, weaponize that femininity in the most numbskulled, reductively simple way possible, because lipstick is ~how you control men~ and Sex Is About Power, like Oscar Wilde said. Just remember that in this film, and so tragically often in real life, that power doesn’t rest in women’s hands.