Published: March 1, 2011 By

The bikini“As no doubt we all know, no single instant, no atom of our life (of our relation to the world and to being) is not marked today, directly or indirectly, by that [atomic] speed race.” – Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” Diacritics

The history of (the) Bikini

[1] An important psychic moment occurred during the post-war 1940s. Hitler’s holocaust, as well as the war, drastically altered humanity’s conception of its own demise, recognizably clear from the thousands of soldiers and civilians’ bodies. The dreadfully efficient methods in the concentration camps permanently recast notions of the possibility of human eradication, realizing a nightmare more comparable to natural disasters, like the Black Death or the China Floods of 1931, than to conventional human warfare. Before the full force and significance of V-E Day could reach a place of propitious understanding within the human psyche, less than three months subsequent, Hiroshima and Nagasaki became ever etched into the cognizance of humanity worldwide as remnants of a newly weaponized horror. The two lessons created an important juncture vis-à-vis the fragile history of human existence, yet both theaters of war, in Europe and the Pacific, instilled a similar fear of annihilation. The violence that the belligerents perpetrated exposed bodies in demonstrably new fashions: the entire Wannsee-inspired apparatus quickly unclothed bodies for death chambers, and the nuclear bombs mangled Japanese bodies into wrecked torsos and limbs—once persons but now corpses. During World War II, the naked body became a central image and rem(a)inder of the scientific and meticulous dynamos of death.

[2] Another naked yet presumably benign cultural image that emerged in the ’40s, but which came to prominence nearly a decade later, was called Bikini. Four days after the first American nuclear test in the Bikini Atoll, Louis Réard, a French fashion designer, revealed his newly christened two-piece bathing suit at a Paris pool on July 5, 1946. He named it the “bikini,” purloining the name from the newspaper headlines about the Americans’ test. However, the bikini would not be in vogue until the late 1950s in the United States due to austere taste and convention. The skimpiness the bikini required of its wearer was un peu immodest, for this swimsuit exposed the body in a fashion that had not been customary in quite some time.

[3] A year before the tests in the Bikini Atoll, the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and another less notable event occurred. The Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger chronicled the first recorded case of anorexia nervosa in Ellen West (Bordo 140). Though the illness had most assuredly existed before his 1945 record, that Binswanger was unawares arguably suggests that the disorder had less prominence previous to the mid-forties (319). This illness dealt with patients, notably women, who expressed traits of body dysmorphia that extended to habits harmful to her body and her well-being. That the atomic bomb exploded into the public sphere, that Binswanger recorded West’s case of anorexia nervosa, and that the bikini bathing suit appeared all within the span of the same year indicate an important connection that links bodies and the bikini bathing suit with atomic weaponry.

[4] In this essay, I propose that the fears of the atomic bomb get displaced onto the bikini-clad woman’s body. To be sure, this displacement does, at least figuratively, weaken the primary fear—that of nuclear weapons. The metaphorical action of bomb-to-bikini domesticates the threat of the nuclear, which appears as a threat to the increasingly vulnerable, naked bodies—in that women’s bodies, while also dangerous, could display a controlled and managed nudity. However, the bikini has its own problems. In some ways, the dangers of or drawbacks to the bikini parallel the effects of the bomb. The dietary and exercise regimens, for example, that a woman must follow in order to wear a bikini appropriately is not only a result of the displaced and domesticated threat; they are also causes that could lead the bikini wearer to dangers similar to those of the bomb’s. “Looking good” in a bikini means much more than merely slipping it on; it includes a panoply of restrictive routines. These practices, at best, shape the body or limit food intake, and, at worst, they (surgically) sculpt or starve the body.

[5] By theorizing the bikini and the bomb, arguing their similar markings of the body, and analyzing some of the first films that deal with bombs and bikinis—Gojira (1954), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman(1958), Dr. No(1962), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)—I will demonstrate that fears of the atomic bomb are eventually displaced onto the seemingly good and unthreatening bikinied body. The advantages of this displacement oblige a different understanding of the body, onto which the nuclear threat is dislocated. Building upon Susan Bordo’s discussion of the clinical nativity of anorexia as well as the bombs of the ’40s, both which literally changed the shape of the human body in the 20th century, I would like to argue that the bikini, more than any other article of clothing, exerts a force worthy of the appellation “atomic” in all its significations: it denotes a weapon; it traffics bodies; it peddles sex; it indicates explosion and radiation. Finally, the strict regimen that one follows in having a bikini body instructs a woman to become smaller, more slender, and count caloric, near-atomic minutiae.

[6] In the first of the following sections, I delineate the cultural practices associated with the bikini and how they relate to appropriate bodies. In order to wear a bikini properly, the wearer must follow the specific dos and don’ts of swimwear etiquette and, to some extent, imitate “ideal” sex symbols. This leads to a discussion of the first bombshells and bombs. Those appropriately-bodied sex symbols, who would become known as bombshells, were frequently described by newspapers in terms of atomic or nuclear imagery and verbiage. The choice to domesticate real nuclear bombs in terms of female celebrities’ bodies constitutes a major cognitive step toward the displacement from bomb to bikini. This transfer between bikini and bomb does lessen anxieties over nuclear threats, but it also imbues the bikini with some of the problems associated with the bomb. Thus, such similarities between the bombshell bikini and the actual bomb are also important to note, so I provide a reading of bikini and bomb side-by-side.

[7] In the last two sections, I turn to popular culture, namely, film. Starting with Gojira (Godzilla) and ending with Dr. Strangelove, I reveal the metaphors of and displacements for nuclear weaponry onto the female bikinied bodies within these films. Sometimes the bikini-clad bodies function as simple cases of displacement; at other times, the displaced nuclear threat ruptures and nearly returns to its atomic bomb origin, which can happen, for example, through female characters’ actions or even in the film’s posters. In the final section, I conclude with a discussion of a more recent film, True Lies (1994). InTrue Lies, the obligatory use of the bikini in a striptease neutralizes the threat of a wife’s infidelity, and the bikini-clad wife, in turn, comes to mitigate the impact of an on-screen nuclear explosion in the Florida Keys. These films prove valuable in understanding how the bikini existed in relation to the bombs of the ’40s, the bodies of women and the threats associated with both.

(The) Bikini’s cultural practices

[8] Only a few weeks before Réard’s bikini debuted at the Piscine Molitor, Jacques Heim introduced theatome swimsuit—what Heim thought was “the world’s smallest bathing suit” (Alac, Bensimon). Heim’s suit consisted of two pieces, with the lower piece covering the navel and most of the buttocks. Réard, however, chose to invent a swimsuit that was even tinier. It bore a low-cut, G-string bottom, and because the swimwear bared more of the body than ever before, at least in the 20th century, Réard was forced to enlist a nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini, to wear his bikini. Most believe that Réard’s decision of bikini arose from the testing of the atomic bomb on July 1, four days earlier—though juxtaposed to the atome, bikini
has an even more shocking and atomic effect. Moreover, Réard’s choice of name contains the nuclear threat within the sexily clad and controllable woman’s body. Bernardini’s profession, a dancer in the Casino de Paris performing burlesque shows, already positions her body as an authorized bodily spectacle, yet other bodies, such as the Parisian models who would customarily flaunt a fresh fashion craze, were demure and guarded against something as crazy as the bikini.

[9] Teresia K. Teaiwa’s reading of the bikini suggests the notion that bodies exist under a regulatory power regime. She exposes a cultural exercise directly relating to the bathing suit. She writes, “While the breasts are tantalizingly emphasized, pubic hair is considered fashionably deadly if not concealed: women are encouraged to shave or wax their bikini lines” (99). This potentially unfashionable faux pasexists independent of the choices of the bikini-clad woman, for if she prefers to avoid the wax, she runs the risk of a social blacklisting, complete with guffaws, askance glances, and turned-up noses. Moreover, the painful chore of removing the pubic hair burns the skin, a ritual that the bikini bearer endures in order to remain within the controllable confines of culture where, apropos, the body persists as such—a confinement.

[10] Susan Bordo writes, “Our bodies, no less than anything else that is human, are constituted by culture” (142). Culture, then, is the hegemonic strong arm for proper bikini etiquette. Bordo’s conception of understanding of the body as confinement echoes Foucauldian biopower. She states, “First, the body is experienced as alien…. Second, the body is experienced as confinement and limitation…. Third, the body isthe enemy…. And, finally…the body is the locus ofall that threatens our attempts to control it” (emphasis original, 144-5). That “the body is the enemy” certainly reemphasizes the treatment of pubic hair as “alien,” a part which needs eliminating, even scorching. Its removal epitomizes the manner in which culture scrutinizes parts of the body as not part of the body. This treatment of the body also exemplifies the measure of discipline over the displaced fear. Through the regulation of all aspects of the bikini, there exists a detainment of any threat.

[11] In Patrik Alac’s book The Bikini: A Cultural History, he writes, “There is virtually no other item of clothing linked with so many ideas, images and preconceived impressions. For the bikini belongs to the mythology of today that shapes our concept of reality” (11). Nowadays, the myth of the power of the bikini enforces the regime mentioned earlier but also even more disciplinary practices that consist of television segments or magazine articles on achieving thebikini body, which include working out, eating correctly, and dieting; how much one should tan in a tanning bed so that undesirable tan lines disappear; visiting spas or salons to wax the bikini line; plucking; shaping; shaving; and even in some cases plastic surgery. After all the tweaking and augmentation, the pain and effort, the body becomes the appropriate and accepted body.

[12] The desire for the perfect body, as Alac suggested, is patently linked with images of bikini-clad women, for the cultural body is read as “naked” and vulnerable. He claims,

Fashion, after all, is nothing without a human body on which to display it. It achieves significance only because the human body lends it life and purpose – although the reaction is reciprocal for the fashionable object also lends the body some of its own qualities. Without clothing, the body is virtually without expression: the body has to rely on movement, on physical activity, to be given any attention. Clothing without the body, meanwhile, is a skin that has been sloughed off, an empty envelope. (29-30)

That the body needs clothing and the clothing needs the body portrays the body in binaristic terms that disallow it to exist withoutculture. The qualities of the clothing fuse with the attributes of the body, and though this leaves the body as an expressionless mass when sans clothing, we can see that “[t]he body… is a medium of culture” (Bordo 165). This medium, in turn, becomes a complementary player in furthering the will and influence of culture, exemplified in the images and practices so completely linked to the bikini’s influence on its wearers and society. In the tightly controlled bikini body, there are no threats—only good looking bodies.

[13] The destructiveness that the bikini suggests—attaining a fat-less and trim physique—occurs on the body. Moreover, the fear of being overweight and therefore unattractive has permeated Western society so much that Bordo is able to offer a study that reveals a large number of women were most afraid of “getting fat.” She writes,

In an age when our children regularly have nightmares of nuclear holocaust, that as adults we should give thisanswer—that we most fear ‘getting fat’—is far more bizarre than the anorectic’s misperceptions of her body image, or the bulimic’s compulsive vomiting. (140-1)

It is critical to observe that the first fear Bordo apprehends as anauthentic fear is nuclear holocaust. The bikini’s nominal ancestor is undoubtedly tied to the practice that exists as the inappropriate fear; furthermore both the bikini swimsuit, including its practices, and the location Bikini concern matters of destruction, though one is much less scary than the other.

The first bombshells and bombs, and their similarities

[14] A notable babe and appropriately-bodied person who came to typify American female sexuality exploded onto the big screen one year after Réard’s swimsuit debut in ’46. Marilyn Monroe, an archetype of feminine sexuality, also became known for her exercise regimen and a metaphor redolent of atomic weaponry: the bombshellbody. According to Stephanie Smith, Monroe’s attention to eating, dieting, and exercise exemplified her as one of the first “bombshell” beauties accustomed to a ritualistic, body-centered routine (77). Monroe’s close focus on dietary restrictions signifies the desire for a perfect body but also implies the notion that others may not have exquisite bodies. Her body also suggests the strict practice that she had to maintain as well as the displaced nuclear threat. Smith writes, “[Monroe] was also cited for the genius of her flesh impact on film, an impact that was likened to light itself, to the radiance and sublime luminosity echoed by descriptions of the first Trinity site tests” (76). Where Smith argues for a specific definition of the bombshell, one can ascertain again the metaphor of the woman’s bikinied body as relocated and displaced bomb. Thus, during the bikini’s formative years, Marilyn Monroe embodied both the nuclear and libidinal chaos that the bikini body and the bomb suggest.

[15] The bikinied body is indeed a subconscious recognition and displacement of destruction. Smith writes, “[A bombshell], simultaneously, induces an enabling amnesia about that violence [where she knocks your socks off]—she’s not likely, all references to bombs aside, to take you out permanently” (70-1). Embodying sexiness and the displaced violence of the bomb, the bikini influences the individual, provoking issues of body image that could wreak havoc upon the individual’s body—all of which parallel the volatile and destructive procedure the atomic bomb follows.

[16] When one dons a bikini, the wearer adheres to a set of conventional social practices. She strips away any unsightly hair, rids her body of cellulite (or attempts to), eats healthier (or less), manicures her body in the tanning salon and the body spa, and possibly undertakes surgical augmentation of the body—tucking or perhaps excising parts of her body that are objectionable. The bikini-clad body, since Monroe, has increasingly looked frail. With ribs protruding and no visible sign of hair nor, in fact, any blemishes, the bikini wearer looks sexy and alluring in the eyes’ of culture—which disguises the frailty, the ribs and lack of blemishes. That G-string covers so much, compressing the genitals down to the size of an atom, and the elimination of the hair leaves no trace of the body in its original state—meaning, hair usually grows everywhere, and now it is noticeably absent. The body becomes barren. Moreover, if she follows bikini etiquette too far, she runs the risks of body image issues, such as anorexia, body dysmorphia, bulimia, or even skin cancer. Her body begins to become smaller due to dietary restrictions or the sun’s ultra-violet rays, which the bikini swimsuit allowed to reach far more parts of her body than any other piece of clothing. The bikini, though not radioactive, forces the body to become soaked in the sun’s radiation. One of the most common disadvantages of bikini sunbathing is the loss of beauty later in life due to sun-damaged skin. In the very practice of being sexy in a bikini, the wearer actually undoes her beauty. In the absolute worst cases, death can occur, either from UV poisoning of the skin (basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer or melanoma) or from the strict cultural discipline to obtain the appropriate body image. The bikini can become a weapon against its wearer, undercutting her sexiness or actually endangering her life. Though the displacement from bomb to bikini arrests the nuclear threat, there can still be problems associated with its displacement and with the very practices that domesticated and contained it.

[17] Not unlike the hazards of the bikini, the danger that the atomic bomb embodies assumes an ostensibly parallel structure to the bikini’s “fallout.” The nuclear bomb exacts its destruction in nearly the same method. After the nuclear bomb detonates, the explosion divests the land of all traces of its original state. Like the pubic hair, the cellulite, and the tan lines on the body, the bomb erases foliage and massive amounts of geography and leaves its area of destruction cracked, dry, and burned in one color. If anything survives, the radiation poisons it. The atomic bomb’s ability to radiate and destroy, leaving the land and its people ill and devoid of vegetation is, arguably, the process the bikini undertakes against its bearer: the extremes of sun damage and fierce dieting. The bomb and the bikini thus resemble each other in the results that they both generate. The displacement conceals the threat, but it creates a concomitant danger.

[18] Until the 20th century, humanity could destroy itself only with immense effort. However, the development of atomic arms reduced that effort and amplified the chances of destruction. The event that substantiated this claim was the bombing of Nagasaki. The date that the bomb named “Fat Boy” (yet another association between body image and atomic weaponry) detonated on Nagasaki was August 9, 1945, which was less than a month after the first test of the plutonium bomb in New Mexico on July 16—those Trinity bombs to which Marilyn Monroe was likened. This bomb could not be held in storage for longer than three weeks subsequent to its initial testing date and before the United States chose to employ it in Japan. The Nagasaki bomb killed over 70,000 people, injured nearly 75,000 more, and affected another hundred thousand with radiation (“Nagasaki”). With the immediate effect of 70,000 dead in a world population of circa two billion in 1945, the effort required for instantaneous worldwide destruction could have been accomplished by a number easily cognizable in a human mind, but which leaves that mind uneasy: about 30,000 bombs with the same kilotonage as the Nagasaki bomb. The destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima continue as the only examples wherein a national government chose to use nuclear weapons. Yet fascination with the bomb persists long after Nagasaki and Hiroshima in films and literature, and as I have contended above, that fear and fascination has been displaced onto the female bikini body and beyond matters nuclear.

[19] “As late as 1972,” writes Elaine Tyler May, “a civil defense pamphlet personified dangerous radioactive rays as sexy women…as large breasted bathing beauties in seductive poses” (105). The psychological connection between swimsuits, busty women and atomic weaponry also began as early as the first tests in Bikini. During the historical moment of Réard’s bikini unveiling, the magnetism, which the atomic bomb enticed, exploded into mainstream newspapers, in articles having no connection to bombs. Alac offers an example concerning Rita Hayworth: “In the beginning, on July 1, 1946, the atomic tests on the Bikini Atoll were reported in just a single French newspaper…. On July 3, readers in Paris learned that another sort of bomb had gone off – American movie star Rita Hayworth, in her latest film, was ‘emanating the torrid heat of an atomic explosion’” (42). Only two days after the initial test in the atoll, one day before Réard showed the bikini at the Piscine Molitor, and less than a year after the nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities, the French newspapers employed atomic rhetoric to describe the success and allure of a movie star. This metonymical switch demonstrates the expeditious and easy domestication and displacement of something apocalyptically destructive onto a celebrity’s glamorous and untroubled sexual appeal. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Hayworth had already been held as a sex symbol in America, and Gilda (1946), the film referenced, was one of her most sensuous roles, featuring a wardrobe whose sex appeal had not, up to that point, appeared in film. To describe Hayworth as “emanating the torrid heat of an atomic explosion” effectively re-affixes her already celebrated sexuality and body to the destructiveness of an atomic bomb, thereby either vastly aggrandizing her sexuality or couching nuclear power under a notable and unportentous celebrity. ThoughGilda premiered before the bikini debuted, movies would soon showcase the atomic bathing suit.

Echoes of (the) Bikini’s shock in film

[20] In 1954, the American government tested Castle Bravo, the most powerful nuclear warhead the country has ever exploded to date. Detonated in the Bikini Atoll, the Bravo bomb yielded around 18 megatons, nearly 1,000 times larger than either of the Fat Man or Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb. This bomb, more importantly, contaminated more atolls and islands than any other bomb tested in the Pacific, with American repatriations to the native islanders still occurring over fifty years later and carrying heavier price tags each time. Not only did it pepper numerous islands and hundreds of people with radioactive ash, Castle Bravo too damaged a Japanese fishing trawler, Lucky Dragon No. 5. The ship’s captain and crew all contracted acute radiation sickness, with the captain dying less than a year later from exposure. The ship, arguably, inspires the opening scene in the Japanese monster film Gojira (1954), known to American audiences as Godzilla. In the film, a mysterious attack leaves a fishing boat, whose name is almost identical to the name of the boat in the wake of Castle Bravo, completely obliterated. Furthermore, Professor Yamane, one of the film’s protagonists, directly attributes the reason for the Gojira monster waking from his sleep to the Americans’ nuclear testing in the Pacific. Recently roused, Godzilla assails the fishing boat in the area near Odo Island, a thinly disguised Bikini, which further bolsters the reading of Godzilla as a displacement and metaphor for the American bomb. After he destroys the fishing boat and then a rescue boat, Godzilla attacks Odo Island, the Bikini stand-in, and its fishermen, and then he repairs to the island of Japan, namely, its capital city Tokyo.

[21] Ishiro Honda’s film Gojira, the first installment in the Godzillamovie franchise, displays the implicit harangue of a nation over (and also its fear of) atomic weaponry, a concern that was so fully at the fore in Japan in the ’50s. This film contends with little explicit sexuality but manifests the dread of destruction in a 400-foot tall, radioactive monster that obliterates Tokyo. Godzilla and the destruction he commits come to function as a metaphor for the bomb, similar to what I have argued about the bikini. Indeed, Nancy Anisfield asserts, “Godzilla films equate the monster with the atomic bomb” (53).  The same need for containment of the nuclear threat within the bikini occurs in Gojira but in a drastically different manner because, of course, Japan had already experienced the fulfillment of such a threat. In Gojira, a ruined Tokyo takes the place of the bikinied body. However, unlike the bikini-clad body that displays sex appeal and heat, the devastated Tokyo illustrates death and radiation—that flip side of the bikini associated with restrictive cultural practices and skin cancer.

[22] Philip Brophy provides a schema that compares Japan to a human body and Godzilla to American bombs, a fitting analogy since the bomb imposes its violence in the most personal measure—on the body. Brophy suggests, “If the docks of Tokyo Bay symbolically function as a haunting epidermis of the Japanese embodiment of such regret [i.e., being bombed], Godzilla and company ritually rupture the outer skin of the metropolis like fallout on flesh” (40). Tokyo Bay as skin additionally indicates that Japan is a body, upon which Godzilla (and American bombs) inscribes its mark of power. Employing the Godzilla/bomb reading, Brophy conceives of Godzilla’s raid as a (Western) cultural scarring of Japan’s body and establishes the trauma, implicating nuclear bombs additionally, on a collective Japanese body, within the country’s communal consciousness.

[23] If Japan can be read as a body and Godzilla as a bomb, then the devastated Tokyo becomes the metaphor for domesticating and taming the trauma of the bomb, similar to what I have argued about the bikinied body as a displacement. Though there are no bikinis inGojira, its paratexts do display a peculiar fascination with blazing female bodies, namely, the parts of the body associated with bikinis. In a French poster for Gojira, there is a distinct body falling from a trolley car: a woman’s body, engulfed in flames. Notably, the body parts ablaze are the groin, the stomach, and the breasts—the same parts on which so much attention is placed in regard to bikini etiquette. Another poster, one of the original Japanese advertisements, exhibits the figure of a woman burning from bikini line to breasts. In this poster, one can discern flames radiating from the breasts, embellishing their importance. With the tacit declaration of radioactive, radiating breasts, this poster curiously doubles the later 1972 civil defense pamphlet that personified radiation as busty women and also the accounts of Hayworth and Monroe. Similarly, in most of the posters we see emanating from Godzilla’s mouth a radioactive beam (like the description of Hayworth in French newspapers or other media’s portrayals of Monroe) that causes buildings and bodies to burst into flames. Though the film does not openly allude to sunbathing, one can only imagine such a connotation! Notwithstanding the obvious lack of explicit references to a bikinied body within Honda’s film, theGojiraposters’ underlying attraction to the parts of the body that pertain to the bikini swimsuit, largely the breasts, communicates the domestication of atomic weapons taking place on bodies—both Japan as metaphorical body and actual female bodies.

[24] In Nathan Juran’s 1958 film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a busty and tenacious wife attacks her husband after she discovers her husband’s dalliances with another woman. The film depicts the wealthy heiress Nancy Archer, played by Allison Hayes, as a materialistic, raucous, and often inebriated woman whom no man, other than her butler, will regard with any amount of respect, and her husband Harry as a swindling adulterer who will kill for his wife’s millions. Audiences first encounter Nancy after she crashes her car on a dirt road. She steps out of the car, dressed in a form fitting, low-cut black dress and a large diamond necklace (both which accentuate the bust). Immediately after being assaulted by an enormous hand that marks her neck, Nancy drives fervently into town and demands the sheriff’s help. The sheriff dispatches his deputy to the local bar in order to collect Harry; however, he and his mistress are lip-locked, and Harry bribes the deputy to leave him alone. The audience comes to learn that an alien, off-screen at the time of Nancy’s assault, inadvertently scratched her while he—the alien is oddly reminiscent of a medieval warrior—attempted to steal her necklace. The cut in her throat, we also learn, is radioactive. The radiation then mutates her, transforming her into a fifty-foot woman. In the scene of final metastasis and her metamorphosis, she explodes from both her house and clothing, scantily clad in a bikini bathing suit. The bikini-clad woman is not so benign when she is fifty feet tall and radioactive! Also, within this particular film, the displacement from bomb to bikini does not quite exhibit complete control over the bikinied woman. Nevertheless, Nancy is quickly electrocuted and felled by power lines, and thus the Godzilla-like power she wields lasts only a few minutes: the bomb, bikini, woman, and Godzilla are brought under control.

[25] The fear of an overtly powerful wife, according to Elaine Tyler May, found its way into all forms of media, including film and that 1972 civil defense pamphlet, for example. The wives of the ’50s were supposed to eschew an outwardly sexual appearance while remaining sexual nymphomaniacs in the bedrooms. May writes, “[U]nlike Victorian mothers, who were expected to be reluctant sexual partners who tolerated sex for reproduction only, wives in the postwar era were recognized as sexual enthusiasts whose insistence on conjugal satisfaction would contribute to erotically charged marriages” (99). However, wives’ desires for satisfaction also suggest that feminine sexuality may have discernable, realizable power. Thus, when Nancy inherits her millions, which extends her power beyond the domestic sphere, Harry decides to steal his wife’s money by having her committed and deemed mentally unstable. Responding in accordance with the times, Harry tries to control and tame his wife.

[26] Having a “clear” mind during the ’50s and onward rose to such importance, increasing the number of trips to the psychologist, that even the appearance of an unsound mind conceded enough to allow husbands the legitimate acumen to demand therapy for their wives. May argues that the sexual desires of both men and women also necessitated concern for the health of the psyche, mostly put forth by psychologists (84). Because of the threat of nuclear war from outside the country, the home took up the burden of calming post-war Americans: “The modern [i.e., nuclear] family would, presumably, tame the fears of nuclear holocaust” (99). Following the same logic, Smith writes, “Given that the possibility of planetary annihilation is part of the narrative of nuclear holocaust and the atomic bomb has been represented as all of humanity’s drive toward mass suicide, the connections [between the nuclear family and the nuclear holocaust] become harder to disavow” (90). This meant that men married women, each had their role, and couples would have appropriate, healthy, non-Communist sex that produced American children. May writes, “Presumably, female sexuality could…be contained and domesticated. Knockouts and bombshells could be tamed, after all, into harmless chicks, kittens, and the most famous sexual pet of all, the Playboy bunny” (emphasis original, 98). The controlled female body, forced to be sexier and bustier but also more restrained in light of the threat of a woman’s libido and Communism, came to exist as the locus of displaced anger over the Cold War and nuclear chaos.

[27] That Nancy Archer is dressed to emphasize her breasts within the first scene of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and in a bikini at the film’s end depicts the relationship between unchecked sexual female power, nicely wrapped up in a bikini, and the attempts to control it and what it symbolizes. In this case, it represents the displaced fears of nuclear radiation that break out of its “domesticated” state. May writes, “Subversives at home, Communist aggressors abroad, atomic energy, sexuality, the bomb, and the ‘bombshell’ all had to be ‘harnessed for peace’” (108). Interestingly, both the bikini babe and the bomb must remain controlled because the instability of a nuclear reactor leads to chaos as does, supposedly, the unstable wife.

[28] In 1962, Ursula Andress starred in Dr. No, the primogenitor of the James Bond movie franchise. In the film, Andress, playing Honey Ryder and not a wife, modelled her now infamous white bikini swimsuit, appearing from the sea as if she were a 20th-century Aphrodite. One of the most iconic images of the bikini, Andress in her swimsuit illustrates the connection between sex and the threat of destruction, with which Dr. No is replete, for the other object associated with her bikini is a dagger. Easily read as a phallus, the knife is quickly quelled by Sean Connery’s Bond. The dagger is also initially undermined by the fact that it is strapped to a bikini. “The bikini bathing suit functions,” Teaiwa claims, “as a token of triumph…over the threat of castration by enemy nations, and as psychic protection against the horror of their own destructive powers” (98). Ryder cannot be an authentic threat to Bond because the bikini has coded Ryder as a benign sign of displaced nuclear threat.

[29] The threat of destruction occurs in the film too. Besides the numerous deaths of men and women, an entire island—à la Bikini—is completely contaminated by radiation. Located on the island is Dr. No’s clandestine control center, from which he attempts to disrupt Soviet and American space travel, the newest technology of domination since the bomb. The only energy powerful enough to fuel Dr. No’s diabolical scheme is radiation, which is harnessed in an atomic radio beam that topples rockets. At the climax, Bond destabilizes a nuclear reactor, thereby destroying Dr. No’s laboratory and contaminating the island, which also mirrors what Western white military men, like Bond, had done a decade before to the Bikini islands. Of course, Bond successfully averts catastrophe with the help of his bikini babe, yet the nexus of nuclear radiation and the bikini-clad figure is manifest in Dr. No, especially when the radioactive Ryder must take a radiation decontamination shower. While on the island, Ryder, as well as Bond, literally becomes a radioactive bombshell.

[30] By 1964, atomic weaponry as a sexual metaphor was well established and something to satirize, so much so that Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove emphasizes the consummated end of the sex/bomb metaphor. The bikini makes a few appearances throughout the film. After the opening credits, the first scene focuses the filmic gaze on a woman sitting on a bed and clad in a bikini. Within a few minutes, the audience realizes that the bikinied woman is actually a secretary in a bedroom at the Pentagon. Thus, the powerhouse of the United States military contains within it a bedroom, complete with a woman in a bikini. The nuclear threats within the film are countered by bikini-clad women, starting with a secretary. We soon learn that Colonel Jack D. Ripper, a base commander, has issued a nuclear attack by his own authority on the Soviet Union because the Communists poisoned America’s water system and therefore Americans’ “precious bodily fluids,” that is, semen—or so he intimates. Though Ripper’s reasoning is farcical, it does not stand too far from what Elaine Tyler May writes about sex and communism—that through sex communism would poison the United States (83).

[31] Separate from the decision-making in the Pentagon’s War Room, a wing of bombers, carrying nuclear bombs, leaves their fail-safe point and descends upon soviet Russia, following Ripper’s orders. The first time we meet Major Kong, the wing commander, we see him eyeing a foldout of a naked woman, a newspaper draped across her buttocks. This scene resembles the way the film first guides our gaze to the bikinied secretary. Here, Major Kong sits before a naked woman andsits on nuclear weaponry. That the woman is imprinted with text only adds to the irony of the body as cultural text; the pattern that Réard chose for the first bikini was, in fact, newsprint. Once Kong receives the attack order, he dispatches an airman to retrieve the launch codes for the bombs, which are kept in a safe. The back of the safe’s door flaunts five bikini pictorial shots. That the codes—the authorization that the bombs require for action—are housed in the same confined place as bikini-clad women furthers the conception that bikinis are used as metaphors to displace and contain threats of atomic destruction. Teaiwa notes, “Nuclear technology becomes gendered and domesticated. In the end the female body is appropriated by a colonial discourse to successfully disguise the horror of the bomb” (96). The bikini guards against nuclear death, which is no more evident than in the contents of the safe.

[32] As counterpart to the first bikini of the film, the end of the film is consumed with destruction and the body. Directly before Kong’s final journey atop the phallic A-bomb and just before a montage of mushroom clouds, Dr. Strangelove, the former Nazi and current counselor to President Merkin Muffley, details his contingency plan for nuclear holocaust: a ratio of ten women to one man for repopulation and taken deep into mineshafts. Dr. Strangelove says, “I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics, which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature,” suggesting that the best method to overcome worldwide nuclear holocaust is easily remedied by several orgies—displacing an apocalypse onto female bodies (Dr. Strangelove). General Turgidson, excited by the idea, then argues that along with the women taken to the mineshafts, where humanity, or actually mankind, will literally ride out the above ground carnage, they should bring nuclear bombs for protection once they emerge from the mines, thus repeating the same cycle.

[33] Though the audience is bereft of the atomic destruction afforded from “King” Kong’s last ride, Dr. Strangelove finishes with a medley of images of mushroom clouds, set to Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll Meet Again,” a song implicitly about death. The collection of nuclear explosions, furthermore, is actually comprised of military videos of bombs in Bikini and Enewetak. In the bikinied bodies of the secretary and the safe’s contents, as well as the women in the “contingency plan,” the seriousness of nuclear war gets assuaged, and the displacement of the bomb to the bikini becomes parodic.

(The) Bikini’s imagery, from then to now

[34] The bikini’s apotheosis transpired slowly. Initial reactions expose the concrete distaste for the bikini in the late ’40s and early ’50s. For example, in a 1949 Los Angeles Times article profiling then-Miss America Bebe Shopp’s visit to Paris, Shopp is quoted as having said that she did not approve of the bikini for American girls (“Miss” 1). This kind of disapproval kept the bikini off most bodies if not just American ones. Nevertheless, a only a few years after Bernardini premiered the G-stringed swimsuit at the Piscine Molitor, Brigitte Bardot modelled the first on-screen bikini in the French film Manina, the Girl in the Bikini (Manina, la fille sans voile) in 1952, which was not released in the United States until ’58, and the second time the bikini appeared in film, which is also attributable to Bardot, was in And God Created Woman (Et Dieu…crea la femme) in ’56. Bardot, now someone who is touted as an example against sunbathing, appeared in a gingham bikini, or, according to Kelly Killoren Bensimon, former model and author of a book on the history of the bikini, Bardot appeared “in nothing at all” (47). Yet after its rocky and protracted adolescence, the bikini took to America, “seducing Americans…fresh off the beaches of the French Riviera” (47). The belatedness of the bikini’s cinematic debut, like its delayed incorporation into everyday society, can be contributed to the austerity of conventional fashion and the initial repudiation of anything new.

[35] Sixty years after the birth of the engineer-turned-designer’s two-piece swimsuit, the bikini’s presence shows no signs of waning. Sylvia Rubin, fashion editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes (in 2006), “[T]he bikini is as integral a part of a young woman’s summer wardrobe as white shorts and hoop earrings. And since the bikini, bared flesh has become as common at the nightclub, the mall and the five-star restaurant as it is at the beach” (Rubin para. 10). The bikini’s ubiquity is seen and felt everywhere, notwithstanding its unhurried takeoff.

[36] The a bikini as a metaphor for nuclear weaponry was perhaps more prominent in films in the ’50s and ’60s, but the more recent 1994 film True Lies shows that threats of nuclear weaponry still get displaced onto bikini-wearing bodies. In True Lies, Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Helen and Harry Tasker attempt to thwart a terrorist contrived nuclear attack on the United States. The film’s significant similarity to the films of the ’50s and ’60s that I have already discussed is that the nuclear threat is camouflaged in a domestic dispute between husband and wife, which is eventually resolved by a bikini and a woman’s body. Harry, a spy, suspects his wife Helen of cheating on him, and to catch her in the act he misappropriates governmental manpower and resources. This case of marital infidelity and Harry’s subsequent actions to entrap his wife function as a smokescreen to the larger, scarier plot device: four stolen nuclear bombs. By focusing the audience’s attention on the wife’s possible unfaithfulness, the nuclear threat assumes a supporting role, and when Helen’s loyalty is no longer in question, that, in fact, she has initiated but not gone through with an affair, her bikinied body serves as a panacea for her bad behavior and equally tempers the later threat of nuclear destruction.

[37] After Harry catches Helen in what looks like an illicit rendezvous with her lover, Harry forces her to pay penance by working on a secret mission. Not knowing for whom she is working, Helen embarks on her mission: a striptease for a suspected arms dealer. Harry, posing as the arms dealer, then watches his wife, who is dressed in bikini underwear, do an erotic dance. Before she arrives at the arms dealer’s hotel room though, we see her alter her rather conservative dress by violently tearing pieces of it off, baring more and more skin with each rip. Moreover, she wets her hair, puts on lipstick, and repositions her bra so as to emphasize her bust, which is a radical makeover from the sober, bland and de-sexed appearance she has had earlier in the film. By following the restrictive practices of “being sexy,” Helen’s labor amounts to little more than a striptease that works as a method of control by her husband and for his fears. The incident in the hotel room operates as a containment of Helen’s formerly neglected and unchecked sexual autonomy since it re-domesticates her desire by redirecting it squarely toward her husband; it also foreshadows another threat associated with the bikini—those four stolen nukes. After Helen’s erotic display, both husband and wife are kidnapped and taken to a terrorists’ camp on an island near Marathon, Florida. Here, Helen learns of her husband’s true profession and that he sent her on her secret striptease. With these details now known to Helen, the marriage’s stability is called into question. Only through Harry and Helen’s reconciliation, culminating in an embrace and a kiss in front of a nuclear shockwave, do the fears of sexual impropriety and atomic bombs get allayed. The sexy, bikinied Helen mitigates the damage done to her nuclear family through helping contain nuclear destruction by refocusing the audiences’ attention on her bikini underwear.

[38] Where other fashion articles may only enforce a certain look, the bikini denotes a disciplined, taught physique and much more. The bikini serves as a domesticator of and a displacement for nuclear threats and fears, even when there is no Cold War and when knowledge of nuclear attacks is as commonplace as a “Threat Level Orange” alert. As Teaiwa affirms, “A bikini-clad woman visually embodies and denies both sexual and nuclear chaos” (98). The stripped, trimmed and manicured body functions as a cultural site of nuclear threats displaced, where the body flaunts sex appeal but in a controlled presence, where nuclear power is implied but safely contained.


I thank Malini Johar Schueller and Tace Hedrick, who both helped a great deal through their invaluable suggestions, as well as Genders’ readers who provided great feedback. I also want to thank Renée Dowbnia, for her encouragement and wonderful support, and Michelle Mattson and Ellie Lassiter for their assistance.

Works Cited

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