A personal reflection on what we can learn from the life of Hedy Lemarr
So last night I was lucky enough to be in the audience of a preview screening of the Hedy Lemarr biographic documentary Bombshell at the Courthouse Hotel in London. As a member of The Pool’s Editor Circle I not only get to read their excellent articles but get access to these sorts of events and I’m pretty darn grateful to them for opening my eyes to this untold story.
I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who’s still yet to see it so I’ll try to keep this reflection piece short.
Whilst I was aware on some level of Hedy as an actress in the “golden age” of film making in the 1940’s I was absolutely, totally unaware of her lifelong dedication to invention. This personality trait — which society tells us is at odds with her “bombshell of the screen” reputation — led to arguably her greatest success as she, alongside George Antheil, invented a method of securing radio communications that could have helped the Allies in WW2 but for various convoluted reasons, didn’t (but more on this later). The WiFi and Bluetooth technology that we take for granted nowadays is the result of Hedy’s pioneering work.
Brains versus Beauty
Hedy was a beauty. That is self-evident and widely acknowledged, no need for me to make a case for that. Sometimes her beauty worked in her favour, enabling her to escape a Europe on the brink of war to the film studios of America, and other times it hindered her, such as fighting to get recognition of her work on radio frequency hopping.
It seems that it’s the age old dichotomy of brains versus beauty at play. Obviously if you’re beautiful you can’t be brainy and that misconception was reinforced by some mumblings in the film that Hedy “stole” the idea from her first husband, or A.N.Other man because of course, how could such a pretty thing have thought up something so ingenious.
This “either/or” approach to women was perfectly crystallised for me when, part way through the film it was revealed that Hedy had been cast in what was, quite frankly an awful film because the studio boss, Louis B. Mayer liked to neatly pop women into one of two boxes: the Madonna or the whore. And once he’d put Hedy in the latter category there was no going back.
This idea of putting women in categories is an interesting one, it seems to be a handy, over simplified way in which the world likes to “understand” women. Yes I know things are changing, all thanks to movements like #TimesUp but can we just acknowledge for a moment that it’s still a deeply embedded trait that’s holding women back from being all they can be.
Indeed this “I need to assign her a label” approach continued to haunt Hedy throughout her life. The reason she never received a penny for her patent from the Navy (who did eventually use her invention) was because she was an “enemy alien”. Just pause a minute here, we’re talking about the same “enemy alien” who helped the US military to raise millions of dollars selling war bonds. The same “enemy alien” who gave them the patent in the first place. I mean the injustice of it is just so infuriating.
So many questions…
At the Q&A after the film with Bombshell director Alexandra Dean we talked about how Hedy’s experience resonates still with what modern women are experience in today’s world. We talked about the parallel between Hedy and that of the brilliant women in Silicon Valley trying to raise funds but coming up against the impenetrable “boys club”. We talked about that brains vs beauty dichotomy which seems to show no sign in abating. We talked about how we shouldn’t let past actions define us (Hedy’s famously appeared nude in the1933 film Ecstasy).
Basically we talked a lot and I feel like I’m just warming up to a topic that I could rant ahem I mean write coherently on for a long time. Instead I shall keep that rant for my nearest and dearest over a bottle or 2 of wine this weekend and instead I want to leave you with a few thoughts for International Women’s Day…
- Take 5 minutes to learn more about Hedy and her fascinating, yet complex, life. It’s a lesson in what you can achieve when you throw yourself whole-heartedly into something.
- Have the courage to challenge any box you find yourself put in. Women are complex creatures, we have the right to be, so make sure you’re known for the great things you do, and not the label that’s put on you.
- Champion the great women in your life – Together we can make a difference so be sure to get their achievements acknowledged however you can, be it in a team meeting, through encouraging them to apply for that job or simply reminding them they are capable of great things.
- Lastly remember…
And thanks to Red Sift for letting me hi-jack their blog for some personal musings!