Atom Bombs and Beauty Queens: Female Sexuality and the Iconography of Destruction

Miranda Corcoran / January 7, 2019

Allison Hayes as the radiation-enlarged Nancy Archer in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, 1958

In the mid-twentieth century, women’s bodies found themselves altered in strange ways by the ubiquity of radiation and attendant discourses about the power of the atom. In films such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) and The Wasp Woman (1959), female anatomy is altered by external contagions or pathogens and transformed in a manner that foregrounds a sexuality that was, at the time, supposed to be contained within the domestic sphere and channeled into the productive, patriotic activities of marriage and family. In these films, and dozens of other horror and science-fiction spectacles from the 1950s, female sexuality is exaggerated, unveiled, and rendered monstrous. Within such cinematic texts, it appears as though the seepage of radioactive materials, the danger posed by exposure to such nuclear contaminants, is closely aligned with the threat of female sexuality.

One of the most infamous conflations of femininity and atomic destruction appeared not in the fantastical realm of science fiction, but nestled among the ostensibly scientific discourse of medical literature. In the January 1951 issue of the Journal of Social Hygiene, Charles Walter Clarke, M.D. published an article entitled “VD Control in Atom Bombed Areas.” In this article, illustrated by a stark black and white photo of a ruined Nagasaki, Clarke warns that while an atomic blast might lay waste to the physical infrastructure of a major US city, an equally grave concern is the possibility that a nuclear explosion might also annihilate the infrastructure of the American family. Clarke argues that if families were separated from each other after an atomic attack, “supports of normal family and community life would be broken down.” As a result, the incinerated wastelands of America would invariably be transformed into a den of vice and licentiousness:

Under such conditions, it is to be expected that moral standards would relax and promiscuity would increase. With this increase, the venereal disease rates and the number of illegitimate births would mount as they did in bombed cities of Europe during the recent war.

U.S. Government-produced poster warning against venereal disease, circa 1940

Clarke’s prediction is a grim jeremiad. However, his suggestion here is not simply alarmist, but also evocative of the anxious attitude towards female sexuality at the time. Allusions to VD and illegitimate births, rather than rape or sexual assault, seem to place responsibility for such post-apocalyptic moral degradation squarely at the feet of women. After all, both illegitimacy and venereal disease were viewed as social ills propagated by women. In the same issue of the Journal of Social Hygiene, L.D. Morrison observes that that most VD outbreaks stem from “promiscuous girls,” and this narrative of venereal disease as born of female sexual transgression was a common one during (and well after) the Second World War, when female sexuality was viewed as detrimental to the war effort and a potential threat to the Allied victory.

In the mid-century American imagination, unmarried sexually active women were emblematic of contagion. They were viewed as loci of corruption, both corporeal and moral. Their sexuality was a dangerous force that, once unleashed, ate away at traditional family values, undermining the conservative domesticity that was constructed as the cultural ideal of the time. Like the newly discovered atomic bomb, femininity was figured as destructive, possessing a pestilential power to degrade and destroy. It is no wonder, then, that monstrous women—rendered gargantuan, exceptionally visible, vampiric, murderously seductive—should feature so prominently in the science-fiction cinema of the post-war period. As a force that, if contained, could be employed for the benefit of man, but left untethered could prove unimaginably destructive, female sexuality echoed the Cold War construction of the atom as simultaneously utopian and apocalyptic.

In the decades after the first deployment of atomic weaponry, as the might of the atom came be seen as reflective of America’s global ascendancy, the atom was seen as a force that possessed the power to build a new world of cheap, accessible energy, efficient nuclear-powered transportation, and advanced medical technology whose employment of radioactive isotopes would ultimately eradicate disease and extend life spans. At the same time, growing awareness of the destruction wrought on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led many to view atomic energy as destructive and poisonous. After the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949, such fears became more pervasive. Splitting the atom had split the American consciousness: a love affair with atomic technology coexisted uneasily with fears of its apocalyptic potential.

In his book The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era (2014), Craig Nelson describes how the 1949 announcement that the Atomic Energy Commission would begin to buy uranium at an inflated price triggered a massive gold-rush style panic in the Colorado Plateau across the American Southwest. Nine hundred new mines were established; Milton Bradley updated the Game of Life to include “Discover Uranium! Win $240,000.” Disneyland designed but ultimately abandoned an attraction for its Tomorrowland park where visitors could search for uranium using their very own geiger counters. Across America, businesses changed their names, and in the years following the Second World War, a host of Atomic Cafes, Atomic Drive-ins, and Atomic Laundrettes sprung up across the country. General Mills included “Atomic ‘Bomb’ Rings” as prizes in their cereal products, and one New York jewellery store began to sell atom-inspired brooches and earrings that were described as being “as daring to wear as it was to drop the first atom bomb.”

A mother and son watch an atomic bomb detonation in Las Vegas, circa 1953

America was entranced by the power of the atom. Its signature iconography, mushroom clouds and electrons dizzily orbiting the nucleus of the atom, were absorbed into the era’s aesthetic, even appearing in seemingly mundane places, such as on wallpaper patterns. A store named Atomic Liquors, in Las Vegas, was adorned with an immense neon sign shaped like a mushroom cloud. Excitement hummed about the atom, a geiger counter of exhilaration and potential.

From 1951 to 1992 the AEC detonated a total of 928 nuclear devices at the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range Proving Grounds (later Nevada Test Site or NTS). Sixty-five miles away, in the heart of the desert, lay Las Vegas. Already a beacon for pleasure-loving hedonists and committed gamblers, the city’s proximity to nuclear testing grounds created a unique tourist bomb. From the early 1950s to the Limited Test Ban Treaty that followed in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, tourists crowded the balconies of hotels like the Desert Inn or Binion’s Horseshoe in order to watch distant explosions illuminate the sky before swelling into immense, looming mushroom clouds.

Yet, for all this intense intoxication, Americans also feared the weaponized atom. John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, first published in a special 1946 edition of the New Yorker, evoked hellish images of men and women, children and the elderly, soldiers and civilians dead or dying from radiation sickness. Likewise, after the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel named the Lucky Dragon Five were contaminated with radiation released by America’s Castle Bravo thermonuclear test in 1954, the atom was increasingly viewed as a dangerous contaminant. In a stark contrast to America’s post-war romance with all things atomic, decades later one uranium mining town—Uravan, Colorado—was discovered to be so radioactive that it had to be utterly destroyed: buildings were torn down, streets and trees were buried.

The ambivalent American relationship with the atom can be clearly observed in the manner in which both fantasies and fears about its power were projected onto the female body. A few short days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, effectively ushering in what we now refer to as the Atomic Age, a troupe of “atom bomb dancers” graced the stage of the Burbank Burlesque Theatre in Los Angeles. Even in the first tentative days after the destruction of Hiroshima, the sexual power of alluring, scantily-clad dancers was framed as akin to the power of the atom bomb: spectacular and tempestuous, but ultimately disruptive and deadly. From this early expression of destructive eroticism, the conflation of female sexuality and the power of the atom bomb would become a fixed point in American popular culture. During this period, women were described as “knockouts,” “dynamite,” and “bombshells.” Although many of these terms date from the 1930s, their ubiquity during the post-war period and in the aftermath of Hiroshima certainly speaks to a conflicted understanding of women as simultaneously desirable and threatening.

Detail of the “Able” bomb, nicknamed Gilda and decorated with a photo of Rita Hayworth, used in Operation Crossroads, 1946. Photo: CONELRAD

Indeed, the sexual rhetoric of the Atomic Age appeared to both replicate and exaggerate the earlier wartime conflation of sexual allure and destructive weaponry. While images of pin-up models may have graced the noses of World War II bomber planes, creating an unsettling juxtaposition of playful sexuality and deadly violence, this merging of death and desire became increasingly more pronounced with advent of the atom bomb: the ultimate weapon. The first atomic detonation conducted during the 1946 series of atomic tests was named “Gilda,” after the character played by Rita Hayworth in the classic film noir of the same name. An image of the seductive redhead was even stencilled on the bomb itself. Notably, the character of Gilda is one that exemplifies a unique post-war character archetype: the femme fatale. Sexually provocative, perhaps even promiscuous, the femme fatale emerged as a response to cultural anxieties about changing gender roles during the Second World War. As the demands of the war effort and the dearth of male workers (most of whom were serving in military posts abroad) required women to leave the domestic sphere and enter productive work in offices, government bureaus, and factories across America, the sense that the power dynamic had shifted between men and women resulted in returning veterans feeling uncertain and even emasculated. In the popular cinema of the period, these anxieties about women liberated from the home and homemaking crystallized into the figure of the femme fatale: beautiful, sexual, and autonomous, she presented an alluring face only to ultimately entrap and destroy those men unwary enough to fall under her spell. It is only natural, then, that such fears about female sexuality would be enfolded within the conflicted rhetoric of the atom, migrating from the silver screen to the metal casing of a nuclear bomb.

The connection between femininity and nuclear destruction found perhaps it most overt expression in the form of a bathing suit. In 1946, as the American military forces responsible for overseeing Operation Crossroads were detonating an explosive weapon decorated with the seductive form of Rita Hayworth, a French designer named Louis Réard unleashed the modern bikini upon an unsuspecting public. Advertised as “smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit,” the bikini was comprised of four strategically placed triangles of fabric, held together with string. The sexual power of this new innovation in swimwear was so potent, so explosive, that Réard dubbed his creation “the bikini” as a reference to the Pacific Island atoll where the United States had detonated powerful atomic blasts a few days before. The bikini certainly capitalized on the atomic hysteria of the period, but Réard’s nomenclature also spoke to the broader cultural conception of the female body as, like the atom, a dualistic force: an object of desire that was also threatening and shrouded in fear.

Echoing the bikini’s aura of volatile sexuality, between 1951 and 1957 a bevy of beauty queens associated with the atomic bomb emerged from Las Vegas, a city that made regular use of the A-bomb in its tourist promotions. An actress and dancer named Candyce King was posed under the title “Miss Atomic Blast” in a 1952 publicity photo released by the city bureau, and the text accompanying the photo describes her as “radiating loveliness instead of atomic particles” as she dazzled “US Marines who participated in recent atomic manoeuvres at Yucca Flats.”

Five years later, in 1957, the most iconic nuclear-themed beauty queen, Lee Merlin, aka “Miss Atomic Bomb,” was celebrated as the “girl they [the newsmen] would most like to survive the A-bomb.” While the Miss Atomic Bomb honorific, like the other atomic titles of the era, was not awarded as a pageant prize but rather as a publicity stunt by local tourist bureaus, it nevertheless succeeded in capturing the public imagination. Like the bikini, these Atom Age beauty queens exemplified the dominant cultural understanding of female sexuality in the decades after World War II: the female body was the site of desire and destruction; it could give pleasure and prosperity, but unchecked, its explosive potential was deadly.

In an insightful article on the history of Miss Atomic Bomb, Masako Nakamura highlights the wider social significance of the juxtaposition of atomic imagery and female sexuality:

Once it was linked to the sexuality and the bodies of beautiful white women, the bomb and its deadly power were turned into something fascinating, desirable, potentially explosive – and yet something that could be tamed.

Both femininity and fallout were mysterious, potent forces. They aroused wonder, desire, and anxiety. The dominant narrative surrounding atomic power during the early Cold War period was that this unruly energy, if properly contained and subject to the moral authority of the US, could be made to serve man and build a stronger America. Harnessed for positive endeavors such as fuel, transport, and healthcare, atomic technology could lay the foundations for a gleaming new world. Female sexuality also formed part of this utopian futurist narrative. A strong America depended upon the reinforcement of family structures, and so femininity and sexual allure needed to be tamed and rendered subservient by marriage, monogamy, and motherhood. The parallels with post-war nuclear discourses are readily apparent here. Whether viewed as the sexualization of the nuclear or as the infusion of the atomic into the realm of the sensual, it is clear that the conflation of femininity and radioactivity was grounded in the issue of control and conquest. This unsettling juxtaposition of sex and death, an Eros and Thanatos for the Atomic Age, is in many ways emblematic of a uniquely transformative period in American history. That the bikini simultaneously refers to atomic testing and “bombshells” in the wake of Hiroshima speaks to America’s uneasy, ambivalent relationship with the new forces, both technological and social, born from the ashes of the Second World War.

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature at University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural, and witchcraft. She is currently working on two monographs: one focused on paranoia in American and Soviet literature, and another about witchcraft and adolescence in popular culture. She is the co-editor of Exploring The Horror Of Supernatural Fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (forthcoming in 2020 from Routledge).

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4 thoughts on “Atom Bombs and Beauty Queens: Female Sexuality and the Iconography of Destruction

  1. What an excellent article! Well written and researched. I’ve always been a fan of the pop culture of that era in America and the parallels are amazing. Your digging deeper and exposing those connections, as well as the unhealthy attitude towards women is very important for a lot of us as men to see where our dads picked up this information. Sadly, many families have not progressed very far from the whole ‘might is right” and “dirty women will give you diseases” approach. It is way too prevalent and visible in this country! I am a writer of speculative fiction as well as a reviewer and one of the goals of the international group of writers and poets I hang with is to support each other equally. We also value our differences and I know many of us are the richer for it. Maybe, if we are lucky, this period of time will someday be known as the time of great equality brought about by creatives. But there is still so much atomic lingo used today, which may mean we’re just pre-explosion? The survivors returning to cave dwelling? It is hard not to think so with some male world leaders behaving like spoiled children and keeping us on the edge of our seats in fear! Recently I had the opportunity to review a book by William Quincy Belle that takes a really solid look at gender inequality and sexual dysfunctions. “Of Sound Mind and Someone Else’s Body” is the title and the main characters do indeed switch bodies accidentally during some experimental scientific research. They also switch careers. Hana is a very high end escort and Alan is a corporate mover and shaker. The dialogue when the roles are switched offers priceless insights into our heads. After all, how many people know the truth about why bikinis were created? Hana might, but Alan wouldn’t.

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