Monday, April 4, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Bombshell

A bombshell can devastate you, literally taking away your life in the blink of a (possibly mascaraed) eye. A bombshell is manufactured, created, manmade: It cannot, by definition, be natural; it cannot exist without there being a greater purpose behind its existence. A bombshell surrounds the nucleus of a bomb, which holds the potential for the real damage. A bombshell, once the bomb has gone off, shatters easily; a bombshell becomes shrapnel, beside the point, irrelevant. A bombshell obscures what lays inside: If you peer inside the bombshell, you may see a Little Boy, or a Fat Man—or a dud entirely.

We first used "bombshell" to describe not a thing but a woman in the 1930s. Its use increased in the midst of early WWII jitters; American Thesaurus of Slang first recorded it in 1942. We wanted to maintain America's status as the premier manufacturer of the bombshell so much that we merged our two bombshells, painting the word Gilda (after Rita Hayworth's 1946 bombshell role) on the first nuclear bomb to be tested after WWII. Then, of course, came Marilyn Monroe, who holds the title of America's Preeminent Bombshell in perpetuity. 

The bombshell is most useful as a vessel for our collective anxieties, and the bigger our anxieties of literal explosions become, the emptier the lady bombshell must be. Who, after all, was taken more seriously: Jean Harlow, the original bombshell, whose 1933 Bombshell came out before the idea of the atomic bomb had even been patented—or Marilyn Monroe, whose infamous rendition of "Happy Birthday" to JFK was sung the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A bombshell encases the true threat: the bomb itself. When we label a woman a bombshell, it's unclear if we're trying to say that she might explode any minute, or if that she's merely a package for what could turn out to be a dud. Are we imbuing her with ersatz power by making her an explosive vagina dentata, or are we implying that once you take the smallest of hammers to its fragile shell, the bombshell will fall apart? "In the end, the bombshell is the one who remained the fool," writes Stephanie Smith in Household Words: Bloomers, Sucker, Bombshell, Scab, Nigger, Cyber. "The bombshell may be as volatile as 'the bouquet of a fireworks display'…but she's also just a joke. We all know that a bombshell is just a 'fat cheesy slut' [as Monica Lewinsky was described, along with bombshell] because that's just plain old common sense." And the bombshell herself may be fully aware of this perceived emptiness. Of a nightmare she had while studying with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn Monroe wrote, "Strasberg to cut me open…to bring myself back to life…and there is absolutely nothing there…the patient existing of complete emptiness." The bleached hair, the painted-on beauty mark, the rhinoplasty, the unnatural posture and voice: We all take bombshell and artifice to go hand-in-hand, but when we patent something as a prototype, as we did with Marilyn-as-bombshell, we ensure that we cannot see it as anything more complex, or more potent. When I engaged in my bombshell experiment, I wanted to believe that the bombshell was an object manufactured from an alloy of lipstick, false eyelashes, and a cascade of curls—and that beneath that shell lay something bubbling and explosive. Something nuclear. Had I thought more seriously about the term bombshell before deciding to use that as a public hook for my little experiment, I may not have used the term at all: Not only did it turn out to set readers up for an image of perfection instead of an image consisting of distinct signals, I now understand that the term is definitively no longer seen as a shell for anything explosive, but as a shell for absolutely nothing.

That is, if we even know what the term is supposed to mean anymore. Generation X- and Y-ers never seriously feared bombs. Our anxieties are more disparate: We may fear shell-less bombs, sure—dirty bombs, airplane bombs; that is, bombs without any one distinct form—but we also fear climate change, and unemployment, and overpopulation, and running out of Social Security, and Facebook, and BPAs, and fertility, and why are the bees dying? We have no one collective vessel any longer. We fear—and now, tragically, we witness—nuclear meltdowns, not nuclear bombs.

The bombshell, then, is a relic. More than ever, she is a caricature, usually hearkening back to old Hollywood—but without one collective fear-vessel, even our definition of the woman-as-bombshell morphs. She may, according to Google Images, now be rockabilly, or tattooed, or a Victoria's Secret model. She may be a bodybuilder, or a pornographic actress, or literally a cartoon. She can be anything, really, as long as it's clear that she's trying. We have lost the bomb, so we've lost the unilateral bombshell. Do we wish to resurrect her?


  1. She might be a relic, but I wish she wasn't. There was always some kind of class behind the bombshell back in the day that we just don't have anymore. I'm always trying to bring her back, channeling Marilyn and Bardot. I don't know if I succeed, but it sure is fun to try, haha.

    Also, thanks for the comment on Jazz :)


  2. I think the jazzcat and the bombshell should both be resurrected--but only on our terms! Interesting that "bombshell" really mainly applied to actresses, not jazz singers, come to think of it. I think Lady Day and the like maybe showed too much of their true selves to really be considered bombshells, even if the race divisions of the era hadn't been as strict.