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The Role of Sexuality in the Film Classic, Gilda

Updated on June 30, 2013
Gilda | Source
Rita Hayworth as Gilda
Rita Hayworth as Gilda | Source

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Rita Hayworth was often quoted as saying, "They go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me." Hayworth was the quintessential star of the studio-era; she was glamorous and strikingly beautiful. Her most famous role in the Columbia picture, Gilda sealed her iconic status in 1946. However, the character of Gilda was not just another supportive wife, with a gorgeous face and pretty singing voice lost in a sea of dominant men. Instead, her sharp wit and irreverent attitude set her apart from the typical housewife roles that were common for actresses at that time. While her motivations were not always doused in ethics and morals, Gilda's humorous disregard for society's standards made her charming and likeable. There were moments in the film that showed her vulnerable side, but only enough to humanize her and to separate her from the power-hungry men that surrounded her. She was a strong woman, but was not portrayed in a masculine manner, as any independent female would have been at the time. Gilda was a woman in charge of her sexuality, who used her cunning to manipulate societal roles to her advantage.

Gilda was made decades before the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Louis Giannetti addresses Feminism and women's roles in the early years of cinema in his book, Understanding Movies. Gilda was not depicted as the average American woman of the time, who was docile and well-mannered. Gilda was sharp-tongued, impertinent and often devious. She used her sexuality as a weapon and was unapologetic about it. Giannetti describes the characteristics of intellect, ambition, sexual confidence, independence and professionalism as inherently masculine characteristics in early cinema. Gilda went against the grain in all of these areas and defied conventional gender roles. While she did get married twice in the film, her motivations were vastly different than the average woman. She did not always have honorable objectives, often she sought to make her former lover, Johnny Farrell jealous by flirting with other men in front of him. She was able to achieve her goals by using these societal limitations to her advantage. Her refusal to behave properly in public infuriated Johnny, and Gilda pretended to have extra-marital affairs unbeknownst to her husband and Johnny's boss, Ballin Munsdon. While this film often seems misogynistic on the surface, upon close analysis of the character of Gilda she defies the rules set forth for her by society and in the end she saves Johnny from complete destruction.

Giannetti addresses the way women were often construed as "the other" before the 1960s and this is certainly prevalent in this film. The casino is truly a man's world. The mantra of the establishment is "women and gambling do not mix," as Ballin says to Johnny when contemplating hiring him. Gilda, the namesake of the film, is not even onscreen until almost eighteen minutes in. This helps establish the theme of male-dominance.

Inside the casino, there are significantly fewer men than women, with the majority of women being escorted by a male companion. Gilda comments to Ballin, "I think that's good business to surround yourself with ugly women and beautiful men." Rita Hayworth is the only female actress that addresses any of the men for more than two lines. Gilda has a maid, Maria, who is an unattractive older woman. She is onscreen briefly and she only speaks to Gilda. This scene begins with a shot of Gilda's leg in the air, as she is putting on stockings. Maria enters and she is a stark contrast to the beauty and sexuality of Gilda. The maid, however, serves as a prophet of sorts. She explains that the festival that is being celebrated will end in three days and will be followed by a period of penance. Gilda expresses that she feels that is true for her life as well. She is correct, of course, because shortly after this Ballin is in a plane crash. This leads to her marriage to Johnny, which is more similar to purgatory than a honeymoon.

Meanwhile in the casino during Carnival, some women are celebrating and attempt to kiss Johnny at midnight. He shoves them off and they move onto another man. This is when their only speaking lines take place, as they react in fear to the discovery of a dead man sitting at the bar. These minor roles of women in the film, not only project Gilda to the center of attention, but also reiterate the struggles she faces in a truly male-dominant environment.

Before Gilda is introduced, Ballin's faithful companion is a cane that has a protracting knife tip, which he refers to as his "little friend." It is an object of power and control to these men and is a blatant phallic symbol. Ballin describes it affectionately as faithful and obedient, which are also characteristics of a "good wife" in the 1940s. Ballin and Johnny make a toast to themselves and the cane as a trio, with Johnny holding the cane erect as a sign of masculine power and unity. Women are considered expendable to Johnny Farrell, as he explains, "Statistics show there are more women in the world than anything else, except insects." This truly is an all-men's world before Gilda's arrival.

The character of Ballin is the ultimate symbol of male domination. He controls those around him, especially Johnny and Gilda, with the constant threat of violence if they disobey him. In the early scenes with Johnny, the cane is an ever-present symbol of Ballin's masculine dominance. Not only is it a reminder of violent consequences to anyone who disobeys Ballin, but also it establishes that he is the king of the castle.

Gilda's presence emasculates Ballin, and his cane is a much less prominent symbol after her entrance. The night that Gilda arrives at the casino, she, Ballin, and Johnny go to dinner. The cane is noticeably absent. Ballin proposes a toast to the three of them, this time his "little friend" has been replaced by his wife. The great irony in this scene is that Gilda is later found to be anything but faithful and obedient. As she tells Johnny, "I'm going to do exactly what I please, when I please." These are not the words of a submissive housewife who dutifully acquiesces to her husband's requests, but of a woman who is determined to make her own rules, no matter what the consequences.

On the surface, Gilda's arrival is the catalyst to his ultimate downfall. Upon closer examination, Ballin's illegal business practices began spiraling out of control as his thirst for power became unquenchable, not because of Gilda's influence. She does not go into Ballin's office and does not interact with any of the German messengers. In fact, she is not present in any of the scenes that any sort of business is discussed. This is reiterated by the fact that the ultimate sign of masculinity, the cane, destroys Ballin in the end.

In the beginning, Ballin asserts his authority over everyone around him, especially Johnny. Even when he marries Gilda, he refers to the ordeal as a business transaction. He tells Johnny that he "bought" her. As the film progresses, however, Ballin admits to falling in love with her. This is when he loses control over all aspects of his life, especially his business. Johnny, on the other hand, is positively impacted by Gilda's presence. He stays away from the dangerous predicaments that Ballin faces because he is occupied with following Gilda. As a husband, Johnny more successfully controls Gilda for a short time. He treats her like a prisoner and she does not gallivant with other men as she did as Ballin's wife. Ultimately, Johnny succumbs to his feelings for Gilda which leads to both of them being freed from his tyrannical rule.

Throughout the film, Gilda is referred to as Ballin's property. Johnny is burdened with the responsibility of looking after Gilda, as he does for the rest of Ballin's property. Gilda mocks Johnny's blind obedience to Ballin. She also gloats that she is married to Ballin to make Johnny jealous with the line, "You're to take care of me because I belong to the boss." Later, Johnny makes a deal with Gilda that he must escort her to and from her rendezvous as to protect Ballin from seeing what type of woman she really is. Gilda is once again objectified as Johnny refers to her as Ballin's laundry. Gilda takes this remark in stride and replies that a psychiatrist would enjoy analyzing Johnny's choice of analogy. This comment not only reveals Johnny's attitude towards Gilda, but also Gilda's intelligence. Gilda is not only bold to suggest that his subconscious is at work, but also smart enough to evaluate Johnny in such a way.

Gilda recognizes her position, and openly mocks Johnny's attempt to control her actions. She snidely remarks, "I'm the laundry. I'm simply obeying instructions" when she is found singing below his bedroom in the middle of the night. When Johnny drives her home, she follows this up with, "Now that you've delivered me, don't you want to get a receipt from the man?" This shows that she is not a fool and is completely aware of her situation. She allows the men to believe they have some authority over her, but she continues to make her own rules. All of the times that she goes gallivanting with other men, she is only putting up a facade to get a reaction from Johnny. She is testing his feelings for her.

Gilda does not marry Ballin for love or even to be rescued from her life as a professional dancer. Gilda's motivation is revenge on Johnny for breaking her heart. As discussed by Giannetti, women in film during the studio era often had two goals: to get married and have children. Gilda, however, had a very different set of goals that primarily revolved around getting back at Johnny. Ballin comments to Johnny that Gilda has no interest in his money. She sees her marriage to Ballin as an avenue back to Johnny, even if it is just to make him jealous. When Gilda is caught with another gentleman, Johnny asks if it bothers her that she is married. She smartly replies, "What I want to know is, does it bother you?" Gilda's true feelings surface later when she admits to Johnny that "getting married on the rebound is so stupid." This makes Gilda a sympathetic character, as she irrationally reacted to her broken heart by marrying a man she did not love.

Prison is a motif throughout the film. It begins with Ballin referring to Gilda as a canary. This implies that she is like a beautiful creature that the owner, Ballin in this case, keeps in a cage. Gilda sings throughout the movie, thus reiterating this point. As time passes and she sees Ballin's levels of control increase, she grows to fear him and becomes trapped. In one scene, he inadvertently warns her not to "step out of line" or she will face grave consequences. In spite of being unable to leave him for fear for her life, she continues to rebel against these prison walls.

Following Ballin's "death," Johnny marries Gilda to gain control over her inheritance. Gilda does not care about Ballin's money, but believes that she has finally won back the man who broke her heart. Almost immediately, Johnny begins to overtly treat her like a prisoner. He completely ignores her, but he does not threaten the same violent consequences that Ballin had previously. Gilda runs away, but is quick to realize that due to the varying laws in South American countries, she has trapped herself again in marriage. She has to return to the place of her imprisonment, Argentina, in order to set herself free for good.

The film contains some of the typical gender roles in place. Johnny, at the beginning of the film, whistles at an attractive woman in the casino. However, when Casey, the doorman, is describing Gilda, he whistles to signify her attractiveness. Johnny scolds him for this behavior because of his feelings for her, but he quickly uses the excuse that she is Ballin's wife. It is socially acceptable to objectify a single woman, but not a married woman. This resurfaces in Ballin's response to Johnny comment that "women and gambling don't mix." Ballin takes offense to their former mantra and says "she's not a woman, she's my wife." This demonstrates that women are no longer considered sexual creatures once they become a man's property. Gilda rejects this notion by not only maintaining her sexual appeal, but by magnifying it.

Ballin has a sense of patriarchal authority over females, especially Gilda. He calls her a "beautiful, greedy child," and describes women as "funny little creatures." Even before the audience is introduced to Gilda, she is referred to as a canary by Ballin. This conjures images of a small bird locked in a cage. This turns out to be a suitable metaphor for Gilda, as she often feels trapped by Ballin and later Johnny. In the scene where Gilda is caught sneaking into the house with Johnny, she lies to Ballin and says she is nervous because has lost an expensive clip he had given her. The dialogue suggests a father-daughter relationship rather than a husband-wife. Gilda waits for her punishment, and is shocked when she does not receive one.

While Ballin and Gilda have a father-daughter relationship, Gilda and Johnny, on the other hand, are more often on even playing fields. They both seek revenge on each other and their love-hate relationship often boils over. They see each other as worthy opponents, always trying to gain the upper hand on the other. Johnny has difficulty paying Gilda a compliment, even when prompted by Ballin. However, he acts very protective of her and hides behind the excuse that he is following orders from his boss. Meanwhile, Gilda often uses feminine descriptions of Johnny such as "beautiful," and "pretty." Gilda uses her sexual appeal to flirt with other men to provoke a reaction out of Johnny.

The song that Gilda sings throughout the film, "Put the Blame on Mame" is symbolic of her role in the downfall of the men and the casino. The lyrics refer to several different natural disasters such a fire, an earthquake and a blizzard. The first part of the verse contains a rational explanation for why these events occurred, but then the second part tells the "real" cause: a woman. This song underlines the theme that the casino's demise can be blamed on mixing gambling and women. When Johnny and Gilda are alone in Ballin's house before they kiss, Johnny's voiceover blames Gilda for destroying all of Ballin's dreams. Meanwhile, Ballin had been making poor business decisions long before he met Gilda. He is the leader of a cartel and it is his greed, not Gilda that influenced the decisions that led to his demise.

In following the same structure as the song, the first verse of "Put the Blame on Gilda" involves business deals that went awry due to Ballin's overwhelming desire to "rule the world." The second half of the verse would explain how the blame could actually be placed on Gilda. According to this logic, if she had not married Ballin, the casino and the men may have continued on successfully for many years. Ballin could have successfully risen to dictator-level of power over the entire world. Gilda is simply a scapegoat, and while she may have made some poor marital decisions, she ultimately was not the reason for the destruction of Ballin or the casino.

Gilda has moments throughout the film where she is on an even playing field with some of the male characters. She is as manipulative as they are and "makes her own luck" just as Ballin and Johnny do. Gilda uses her sexuality as a tool of manipulation. While Giannetti points out that women were commonly portrayed as sex objects, in contrast Gilda is in control over her sexual power. She flirts with men whenever Johnny is paying attention, but when he was not looking she asserts a hands-off rule. Since the film is told from Johnny's perspective, the audience is never given the opportunity to see what Gilda does in the hotel room with the men she meets in the casino. However, she explains to Johnny and then the police officer reinforces that she had only put on an act to make Johnny jealous. This shows that Gilda effectively used her sexuality as a weapon against Johnny, but had not truly compromised herself by taking it too far and sleeping with these men out of spite.

Both Gilda and Johnny were "born the night" they met Ballin. This implies, at least for Gilda, a new virginity, and all men from her past have been erased. Ballin treats Gilda like an angelic, obedient wife with no past. Even as Gilda's actions reveal that she cannot be tamed, Ballin refuses to chase her around like a "foolish" husband. However, the truth is revealed in the scene where Ballin catches Gilda and Johnny sneaking in at five o'clock in the morning. The two give the excuse that they were swimming and Ballin accusingly asks Johnny if he taught Gilda how to swim. Johnny answers in frustration, "I taught her everything she knows."

The dialogue in the film, especially Gilda's, is sharp and helps portray Gilda as an independent woman who disregards social norms. From the first time the audience is introduced to Gilda, it is obvious that she is not shy or reserved. Ballin walks into the bedroom to introduce his new wife to Johnny and asks, "Gilda, are you decent?" Gilda's reply is fraught with playful innuendo, "Me?" then she sees Johnny with Ballin. After a pregnant pause she replies, "Sure, I'm decent." Rita Hayworth's delivery gives the audience a sense of who Gilda is immediately and demonstrates clearly the connection between her and Johnny. There is no embarrassment or modesty in this initial encounter, even though the men have walked in on her getting dressed. Instead she is coy, mischievous and unconcerned with social propriety.

The dialogue is also a tool to assert Gilda's sexual confidence. When she is going to leave the casino with Gabe Evans, in spite of Johnny's objections, she says to Gabe, "If I'd been a ranch, they'd call me the Bar None." In another scene, Johnny concocts a lie for Gilda to tell Ballin after she has spent time with Gabe Evans. He tells her, "You went to a picture show tonight, alone." She coyly replies, "Really? Would you like to know whether I enjoyed it?" This is a completely inappropriate response from a married woman, especially during this time period. However, Gilda not only owns her sexuality, but she knows how to use it against Johnny.

Another example of this sexual subtext takes place is during Carnival when Gilda and Johnny are dancing. Gilda compliments Johnny, and he tries to resist her charm. Finally, Gilda persuades Johnny to push her hat back so they may dance cheek-to-cheek. The tension throws Johnny off and he steps on her foot. Gilda says he is out of practice and then offers to help get him back into practice. She adds, "Dancing, I mean" to the end of her sentences to imply that she in fact does not mean dancing.

The climax of the Johnny-Gilda relationship takes place after Johnny successfully tricks her into returning to the casino after running away. Gilda's final act of rebellion occurs during a public performance of the song, "Put the Blame on Mame." Gilda's routine is overly sexual, as she dramatizes the role that Johnny has been accusing her of playing all along, that of a whore. Johnny watches from the crowd as Gilda stages a sexy striptease for the audience. The lyrics coincide with her actions. As the verse describes Mame causing an earthquake in San Francisco, Gilda shakes her hips seductively on stage. As the song ends, Gilda comments that she would have taken her dress off, but she cannot get the zipper undone. She asks for help from the audience, and as men rush to provide their assistance she gets pulled off stage. Johnny drags her out of the casino and Gilda confronts him about being embarrassed by her. She exclaims, "The mighty Johnny Farrell got taken, and he married a...," but before she can finish her sentence, Johnny slaps her. She had finally gone too far and Johnny forces her back into submission.

Initially, Johnny does not believe Gilda when she tries to explain that she pretended to be intimate with the other men like Gabe Evans. After receiving confirmation from the male police officer, Johnny is able to see the truth about Gilda. This confirmation by a man is necessary to ensure that Johnny does not look like a fool for forgiving a woman who has acted so outrageously. Male credibility is needed to make the audience of the time period not pass judgment on Johnny for being weak.

Johnny is then able to admit that he is still in love with Gilda, and that her scheming had worked. He begins to apologize, but Gilda stops him because they have both behaved foolishly. This puts them on an even level again. Johnny begs Gilda to take him back to New York with her. This is a gender role-reversal. The woman actually "saves" the man in order for them to have a happy ending. This is the reverse of Cinderella syndrome that feminists complained about the film "Pretty Woman," as referenced in Understanding Movies. Once both Johnny and Gilda set aside their pride, they are able to walk out of the casino together as equals. Gilda, who throughout the movie is considered to be the reason for the destruction of this man's world, is in fact the one who rescues Johnny.

Much like the character herself, the production of Gilda broke all of the standard studio practices as outlined by Giannetti. First of all, virtually no movies were produced by women according to Ginnetti; however, Virginia Van Upp produced Gilda for Columbia. Top billing was also rarely given to female stars, especially not above prominent male co-stars. The credits opened with Rita Hayworth's name printed largely across the screen. This is followed by the name of the film and Glenn Ford's credit. There was no doubt in the audience's view that this was a Rita Hayworth picture.

Gilda has many layers of meaning and subtext that demonstrate the power struggle between the sexes. Just as the dialogue appears to be harmless banter on the surface, the film on the surface is a male-dominated utopia that is ruined by the introduction of a beautiful woman. In reality, the characters' words are dripping with sexual innuendo and the men's greed fuels their demise. The character of Gilda, and the production itself, defied conventional gender rules to deliver a story of an independent woman, who refused to hide her sexuality and instead used it to her advantage to achieve her goals.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      You've already given me a bit of luck, as I've printed out your analysis of Gilda's character. Thank you.

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Toyspawn--Thank you so much for your comments. I am always excited to hear from people who appreciate classic films and the actor/esses that made them so special.

      Good luck on your novel!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Reading your through analysis of the sensual role Gilda’s character embodies in the film Gilda, despite my enjoyment, admittedly I was saddened by it, as Rita Hayworth in reality was not Gilda, was nothing like Gilda.

      It was not mere extraordinary beauty, charisma made Gilda a seductress. Rita Hayworth, I have studied for a year, though her life and she was fascinating, painfully shy, Rita Hayworth possessed little of the charisma she embodied while acting as the seductress Gilda, hence her infamous quote, "They go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me."

      Despite this I find deep fascination in actresses of that life such as Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and of course Rita Hayworth; all seductresses of film noir.

      Megavitamin, I will gladly write that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Movie analysis in, “The Role of Sexuality in the Film Classic, Gilda” most especially your character analysis of Gilda. Inevitably, when first I saw Gilda, the film and the character, I was seduced as almost all are.

      I thank you for writing your thorough analysis on Gilda’s role of sexuality. I have also decided to use Gilda as reference material for my novel character. Now to find more source material of her character to assist me….

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, daffy! I'm always glad to see comments on this hub. It's such a great movie.

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Loved the film and all your insightful comments. Appreciated the distinction between sexual object and Gilda owning her sexuality and using it as a tool.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i feel it is a good story...larry

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thanks, eli! I actually have a degree in Television, Radio, and Film which gave me a new perspective on how I watch TV and movies. However, I think you can watch movies you enjoy and take chances on ones outside your comfort zone. You never know when you'll stumble upon a new favorite. Plus, you can save all that money on going back to school :0)

    • eli grey profile image

      eli grey 

      9 years ago from Philadelphia, Pa

      Nice to see someone else appreciates the classics. I was raised on them. But this is one I've seen only recently. Great film. I really need to get back to school and study film so I can have a better eye for them. Well written hub.

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      Definitely check this movie out, and let me know what you think, Cheeky Girl. Hayworth is the ultimate bombshell. Lauren Bacall is great too!

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 

      10 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      I have never seen this Rita hayworth film, but now I am very interested after reading this. It sounds like a gem! I will have to go to my local video store! I love the old classics! Lauren Bacall is another of my faves. Great Hub, megavitamin!

    • Megavitamin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      Rita Hayworth is the definition of sexy in "Gilda" and she proves that you don't have to be trampy to get the menz to fight over you!

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley Marks 

      10 years ago from California

      "Gilda" is considered a film noir classic, though the movie didn't seem terribly "noirish" to me. Not enough darkness in it for that. Nevertheless, Hayworth is certainly steamy in it, creating perhaps her greatest role. Whew, what a babe! You gotta love those silver screen femme fatales. Incidentally, this was the part that inspired the title to Stephen King's novella, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" and the resulting movie. Later!

    • profile image


      10 years ago



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