Feminist Warrior Fridays: Ava Gardner

OK, look, you guys. I know I was all “I’m gonna write about some women who may not seem to fit the definition of a feminist by today’s standards” and y’all were probably thinking, “Neat, it’s gonna be someone who is a little bit conservative but still clearly an advocate for women’s rights.” But when I said “not a feminist by today’s standards,” I actually meant it. And thus I give you one of my favorite women of all time, Ava Gardner.

I became fascinated with Ava when my grandfather told me about meeting her. My grandfather was a chiropractor and early on in his medical career, he worked for a casino hotel in Reno, in the early 1950’s. Frank Sinatra was staying at the hotel, and he had a headache, so they sent my grandfather up to Sinatra’s suite to give him an adjustment, and Ava Gardner was there with Sinatra. My grandfather described Ava thusly: “She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw in person, but she had a mouth on her like a sailor.”

Holy shit, you guys, she’s one of us!

Ava grew up poor in the rural south before being discovered in New York and coming to Hollywood, where she worked very hard to become a famous star. She herself would have readily acknowledged that she was no great actress–she wasn’t a Katherine Hepburn or a Bette Davis or even a Lana Turner. Instead, she was just plain sexy.

And here’s where the pearl clutchers will say “Sexy and untalented? That’s not a feminist!” And that’s where I say FUCK YOU. Ava was a woman trapped in an era where women had almost zero power, particularly in Hollywood. Her first husband, Mickey Rooney, cheated on her almost immediately after they got married, including while she was in the hospital having her appendix out, but she had to get permission from the damn studio to divorce his cheating ass, or risk ruining her career. That’s the world Ava lived in, a world where powerful men could tell her she had to stay married if she wanted to keep her job. Are we going to say “you’re not feminist enough” because she used the one tool she had to gain power–her sex appeal? Are we? Because if we are, we’re assholes.

One way we can express feminism is by crossing the boundaries of what it means to be feminine, because one of the ways patriarchy controls us is by requiring women to adhere to arbitrary, unrealistic standards of femininity. Ava was a boundary-crosser. She fucked who she felt like in an era when women weren’t allowed sexual freedom. And she swore like a sailor, which is still seen as unfeminine in many circles. On top of that, she took the patriarchy’s obsession with women as sex objects and used it for her own personal gain. That’s a pretty dangerous game to play in 1950, and pretty damn subversive.

Was she a perfect person? Hell no! I’m pretty sure if you look up “alcoholic” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Ava there. But she was a strong woman with a drive to succeed, and I really wish I could have met her. Like Julia, I think we probably would have been good friends.

As always, if there’s a feminist warrior you’d like to see me profile, leave her name in the comments!