‘A Swirl of Red, White and Blue Flags and Chesty Swimmers with Their Chins Up’: Esther Williams, Americanness, the Aquacade and Sex
Aquacades and swimming spectaculars enjoyed huge popularity and financial success in America during the first half of the twentieth century. They capitalised upon a cultural preoccupation with physical fitness and youthfulness and the increasingly common notion of leisure time, of freedom and abundance, whilst evoking the glamorous, sexualised spectacle of beauty pageants, the chorus line and the showgirl and the then prevalent iconography of mechanisation and modernity. It is perhaps not surprising then that Hollywood, with its hunger for the modern, impressive and the titillating, its need to maintain its appeal with young audiences with leisure time and disposable income, and its subsequent need to present its stars as desirable yet respectable enough to placate censors and more conservative audiences, took this form and stars to its bosom, creating its own kaleidoscopic Berkeley-esque spectacles and swimming adventures starring pin-up and beefcake Olympian swimmers such as Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. This chapter will focus upon all-American Williams, exploring discourse around MGM’s ‘Million Dollar Mermaid,’ and the promotional materials (posters, marquee displays, photographic pin-ups etc) for her and her films. This will be supplemented with a range of other contemporaneous materials that engaged with the American cultural phenomenon of the aquacade, such as pornographic comics, known as Tijuana bibles, satirical cartoons and promotional materials upon as well as archive footage of one of the most famous aquacades; Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The chapter will examine William’s star persona and its intrinsic ‘Americanness’ and explore common American understandings of the aquacade as a liminal space, and the swimmer as a desirable but ultimately disruptive figure. It will demonstrate how the iconography of the aquacade and the spectacular body of the swimmer were appropriated by the American film industry to evoke the aquacades’ sexualised connotations whilst ostensibly appearing to cinema censors and more conservative audiences, to be good clean fun.
Citation : Wright, E. (2019) ‘A Swirl of Red, White and Blue Flags and Chesty Swimmers with Their Chins Up’: Esther Williams, Americanness, the Aquacade and Sex. In: Sport, Film and National Culture
Research Institute : Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI)
Peer Reviewed : Yes
- Leicester Media School