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Too Much of a Good Thing

Mae West as Cultural Icon

1996
Author:

Ramona Curry

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The first examination of Mae West's meaning in American popular culture.

Before Madonna, before Marilyn, there was Mae. The impact of Mae West-through her films, attitude, and aphorisms (“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful”; “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”)-continues to reverberate through American popular culture fifteen years after her death. In Too Much of a Good Thing, Ramona Curry examines the interplay between West’s bawdy, worldly persona and twentieth-century gender and media politics.

Before Madonna, before Marilyn, there was Mae. The impact of Mae West—through her films, attitude, and aphorisms (“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful”; “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”)—continues to reverberate through American popular culture fifteen years after her death. In Too Much of a Good Thing, Ramona Curry examines the interplay between West’s bawdy, worldly persona and twentieth-century gender and media politics.

Although West has remained an important figure, her image has fulfilled varied cultural functions. In the thirties, she was a lightning rod for debates over morality and censorship. In the seventies, the complexity of her portrayal of gender made her a controversial figure for both the gay rights and feminist movements. Curry analyzes the symbolic roles West has occupied, arguing that she represents a carefully orchestrated transgression of race, class, and gender expectations, a transgression expressed through West's spectacular costumes, her distinctive performance style, and her on- and off-screen relations with African Americans and gay men. In addition, Too Much of a Good Thing takes a historical look at West’s disruptive power as a comedian, a primary source of her continuing appeal.

Moving beyond a detailed examination of Mae West’s place in American popular culture, Curry illustrates how icons of pop culture often distill contested social issues, serving diverse and even contradictory political functions. Curry then proposes a model for cultural studies that integrates history, media, and feminist theory. A pithy and innovative look at what Mae West means, Too Much of a Good Thing is must reading for fans, film buffs, and anyone interested in how popular culture evolves and circulates in the United States.

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Ramona Curry is assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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This book should still hold wide appeal to film fans and pop culture buffs.

LS Quarterly

You really don’t need a gun in your pocket to be pleased to see this kind of book. Extensively researched from primary sources, cogently and lucidly argued, Curry’s book very much gets to grips with West’s varied and tenacious legacy from her early days as a red rag to the censor to her role as a modern gay icon, with the chief focus on her role as a potent ‘sign of gender and sexual transgression’. Used together with films and other iconography, this is a book which could provide the basis for a fascinating course segment—all the more so because it was quite patently written not with that purpose in mind, but because the author had something of value to say.

Sight and Sound

What Ramona Curry has done in this theoretically sophisticated and innovative work of cultural analysis is to examine three issues of primary importance in media studies. First she analyzes how a star image emerges and spreads through a culture; second, she reexamines West’s role in the development of film censorship during the 1930’s; and third, she uses West to address existing theories about sexual representation dealing with such issues as spectacle, excess, parody, and camp) and explores who West’s transgressions of gender, class, and racial expectations have made her a popular figure for man contemporary gays and feminists.

H-Net