This week on Feminist Flashback Friday, we take you back to the birth of the femme fatale through Lauren Bacall as Slim Browning in the Howard Hawks 1944 hit, To Have and Have Not.
Who is she?
You know her. Your best friend knows her. Your partner knows her. Even if you don’t know you know her, you definitely know her. I’m talking about Marie “Slim” Browning, nimble-fingered, sass-mouthed, cool-as-fuck lady who can hold her own against those manly men, but still maintain the traditional sense of femininity. She’s been copied and used as the model for generations of future badass women and has almost become the quintessential Hawksian woman.
Our first introduction to Slim is as an unassuming nightclub singer–beautiful to look at, but not much else. As the film progresses, we see that she’s the type of woman who does whatever she can to keep herself afloat. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Slim will do anything for her own survival, but she’s got an added perk of being the sort of woman who will also do anything to get her thrills.
What makes her badass?
“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.”
We’ve heard that line uttered in various scenarios in Hollywood films for decades and we probably will continue to hear it for decades more. Slim comes out with this groundbreaking-at-the-time gem when she’s talking to her love interest, Steve (played by Humphrey Bogart, of course), who is left with his mouth hanging open in shock after Slim shoots this line and then struts out.
It’s a cleverly disguised sexual pun and it was the first time a woman was so openly sexual on screen. I’m not talking traditional sexual like Claudette Colbert or Audrey Hepburn, who played characters that were sexy with class. Slim proves herself downright crude and shockingly open about her sexuality. This one line uttered by her tells us more about her than anything she does. It tells us about the sort of life she lives: independent, sexually liberated, unafraid. It tells us she doesn’t see herself as inferior to men. It reminds us that women are as sexual as men, even if society raises them to believe that it’s considered “unladylike.”
Why does she still matter today?
In this age of feminism, where there is more emphasis on freeing men and women from sexual traditions established by the patriarchal society we’ve supported for so long, Slim Browning is a crucial representative of the fact that women have always been sexual creatures. We are only human after all, and there is little as human as sexuality (hence the tireless efforts of people worldwide to dismantle the negativity surrounding promiscuity and the old-fashioned idea that sex should be reserved for the legally wedded only). And Slim Browning showed up way back when to show us that she fucked guys when the mood struck her and she wasn’t afraid to ask for it when she wanted it.
At a time when a woman’s bedroom habits are deemed relevant in cases where she has been sexually victimized or taken as some sort of ridiculous indicator of her future, Slim Browning’s cleverly coded sexual innuendo is a bittersweet reminder to us that there’s never been a time when women weren’t expected to hide their biological carnal desires and present themselves as chaste. But the fact that Slim dared risk such a comment, and did it without an inkling of shame, is also a very invited reminder that us women are just as carnal as our male counterparts, that us women do enjoy many of the things that are considered “manly,” and that us women will not continue to remain silent about being as human as the next man.