Brainy Bombshells

Problematic Math: A Lesson From Jayne Mansfield

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Question: What does 40-21-35 + 163 IQ equal?

Answer: Jayne Mansfield, of course!

Hollywood’s “smartest dumb blonde” was famously reduced to and immortalized by her extreme hourglass figure and genius-level intelligence. In fact, so notorious were Mansfield’s dimensions that Billy Graham once remarked, “This country knows more about Jayne Mansfield’s statistics than the Second Commandment.”

Today, the notoriety of Mansfield’s figure has ostensibly been eclipsed by Kim Kardashian’s curves; however, long before backsides were breaking the internet, Mansfield was making headlines for her calculated wardrobe malfunctions—earning her the side-eye of Sophia Loren and the attention of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner.

Jayne Mansfield and Sophia Loren
Sophia Loren (left) and Jayne Mansfield (right) at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills (1957)

Referred to as “the working man’s Marilyn Monroe”, Mansfield was considered her inferior in almost every respect. A caricature. A wannabe. Where Marilyn exuded a sensual vulnerability, Mansfield brazenly paraded her sexuality. Was it garish? Cheap? Desperate, even?

I have to admit that whenever I watch Mansfield’s films or read about some of her publicity stunts, I often find myself cringing, giving Jayne a side-eye of my own. Why would a woman so intellectually gifted waste her talent like that? Instead of mimicking Marilyn, why didn’t she choose to emulate Hedy Lamar, putting her brains to better use and actually producing something of scientific value? Why did she choose to live under a microscope instead of behind it? Why did she rate her 40-21-35 dimensions over her 163 IQ?

It doesn’t add up.

At least, it doesn’t add up when I assign my personal values to the figures. And therein lies the problem: my sanctimonious math.

While some may speculate that Mansfield internalized the male gaze and thus turned herself into a vacuous sex object, I wonder instead if Jayne simply capitalized on her sexuality in order to achieve some level of transcendence. During an age where most women were regulated to the home, Jayne Mansfield escaped a sentence of imposed domesticity, presumptively giving up a part of her identity in the process.

This diminished identity is poignantly captured in the following photograph of Mansfield: her iconic measurements, rather than her name, emblazoned on the back of a director’s chair. Jayne’s daughter, Mariska Hargitay, perceptively commented, “I look at that photo, and a part of me says, ‘Mom, I gotta say, I love your sense of humor. It’s funny.’ And there’s another part of me that says, ‘No. Your name goes there. That’s not your name. And that’s not all that you are’.”

Jayne Mansfield in Director's Chair
Jayne Mansfield on the set of Illegal (1955)

No, that’s not all she was.

And it’s not all we are. Our dimensions, our BMI, our IQ, our GPA, our salary, our credit score, our zip code, our net worth: we are more than the sum of our parts.

In a society that seems to quantify everything, from personal appearance to personal levels of happiness, I think many of us wish, in the words of Thornton Wilder, for someone to look at us as though they really saw us–not just our exterior, not just our outward accomplishments–but our most authentic self. It’s a desire that Mansfield herself articulated in an early interview, stating, “I would like to be thought of as an an actress, as an actress with a soul. As an actress with a very human quality, rather than a model.”

The problem, of course, is that authenticity is not always pragmatic; existentialism is often the exclusive luxury of the rich.  For women, especially for LBTQIA+ women and women of color, sustaining an authentic identity amid a backdrop of oppressive patriarchy can be insuperable. So we compromise. We negotiate. We sell our pound of flesh for some semblance of independence. And sometimes, when we are unwilling to reduce ourselves, we accept a reduced life instead.

Jayne Mansfield and Harry Knight. Photo by Don Pinder.
Jayne Mansfield and Harry Knight. Photo by Don Pinder. (circa 1960)

Even as we wrestle with these personal challenges, we ought to fight against the societal norms and expectations which force women into prescribed roles, denying them individual expression and stymieing their attempts at authenticity.  We need to take the time to see other women, not through a side-eye, but through a lens of compassion and understanding.

For, what would happen if we really took the time to see each other? Not as competitors. Not as objects. But as intrinsically beautiful and remarkable souls. I think the results could be quite revolutionary.

I also believe that no matter the compromises, whatever our degree of authenticity, and regardless of our sphere of influence, our self-worth and our impact on society defies quantification. As George Eliot so beautifully expressed in Middlemarch when discussing the arguably diminished life of Dorthea Brooke:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (emphasis added)

Whether a celebrity sex symbol or a stay-at-home mom, we women are more than the sum of our parts, and our influence extends far beyond whatever barriers we encounter on our quest for authenticity and independence. No equation can calculate our essence, and no analysis can measure our impact.

We are unquantifiable.

What are your thoughts?


Get the Look: Jayne’s Day Dress

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Dress: Pinup Girl Clothing

Necklace: Trashy Diva

Shoes: Re-mix 

Handbag: Vintage (similar)

The quality of Pinup Girl Clothing’s products are unmatched, and the Jayne dress is no exception. The dress is fully lined, and the straps are adjustable to ensure the perfect fit. For reference, I am 5″5′, 36-25-36 and took a size small. It’s about an inch too big in the waist, but the belt helps take care of that. The Jayne dress comes in pink (Jayne’s favorite color!), blue, yellow, black, and green. Sizes range from XS-4X. The green colorway is currently on sale.

If you love PUG’s designs but can’t afford them at this time, stay tuned: in the upcoming weeks, I’ll be announcing the XS clothing giveaway, which features some gorgeous pieces from PUG.

  • Joseph Crisp

    Jayne did utilize her genius level IQ to attain the massive level of fame that she did (people forget what a BIG DEAL she really was). Her image was her own invention and she used her extreme figure as a tool to get where she did and did not use the “casting couch” as numerous other actresses did. Like Marilyn she was a victim of her time and was never allowed to be the dramatic actress she was capable of being. Cringe as you may, Jayne was her family’s breadwinner her entire adult life and she did what she had to to provide. She worked and hustled all the way up until the morning she lost her life (going immediately from a club performance to a television appearance). She should be celebrated for being a trailblazer for actresses to come and busting down so many barriers regarding what women could be and do.

    • Thank you for your comment, Joseph! I completely agree. If you’ll re-read the post, I think you’ll discover that I came to many of the same conclusions you did.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joseph! I completely agree. If you’ll re-read the post, I think you’ll discover that I came to many of the same conclusions that you did.

      • Joseph Crisp

        My pleasure. I also read it several times before deciding to comment and overall feel a majority of the article paints a very negative and degrading portrait of Jayne as a person and professional.

        • That’s unfortunate. I’m sorry you interpreted it that way.

  • Katie

    Very thought-provoking post, Annie! I think you perfectly convey the tension every woman must hold in her life when faced with 1) staying true to herself as a fully-dimensional person, but also 2) having to compromise that self in order to achieve independence and success in a male-dominated world. As you point out, it is easy for us as women to make snap judgments about famous women, especially when, for us, they are representative of our entire gender–a situation men do not face and, I think, cannot fully understand. But as you also wisely point out, it’s vital for us to step back and evaluate these judgments, taking into account that we do not know all the facts about a woman’s environment, personal life, and history. None of us are in a position to judge another woman, but we can, as you say, learn more about ourselves and our gender’s struggle by observing that woman’s life.