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What ever happened to broads?  You know, those larger-than-life women who swore like sailors, threw back shots of whiskey, sounded like they’d swallowed whole packs of cigarettes, and aged without apology. 


Mae West was a pioneer broad back in the 1930s, tossing out double entendres in a saucy tone that left no mistake as to her meaning.  Some of the most famous and infamous women over the next several decades followed her lead, surprising and delighting men and women alike with their in-your-face attitude, among them the actress Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame), the Broadway “belter” Ethel Merman, the controversial playwright Lillian Hellman, the feminist leader Bella Abzug (the one with the ubiquitous hat), and the former governor of Texas Ann Richards and her pal the columnist Molly Ivins. Sadly, they are no longer with us.  But their legacy remains.


It’s amazing to me how the quips Mae West famously uttered still serve as quotable quotes today:  “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” “A man in the house is worth two in the street.”  Now, that’s a broad!


Half a century later, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Ann Richards delivered one of the best lines in all of American politics when she said of then-Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush, “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Only a broad could pull off a line like that—and make it seem unrehearsed and natural.


I hate the term ‘bitch’ (unless Tina Fey’s using it), but I really like the term broad.  I don’t know what the official definition is in the Oxford Dictionary of Offensive and Non-Offensive Terms Describing Women, but here’s what I have in mind.  Today’s broad:


• Would never be caught speaking the words “that’s hot.”


• Doesn’t own any pairs of Manolo Blahniks


• Uses salty language, especially around men.


• Developed her brain and talents and flirtiness, in part because she couldn’t coast on her looks alone.


• Doesn’t watch her cholesterol or have her body mass index measured.


• Can probably be found right now in a back room somewhere playing poker and smoking cigars with the boys.


• Can kick your ass, and mine.


• Is not the librarian with glasses and her hair in a bun who then tosses her glasses and shakes out her hair to lure a man.  She’s the librarian.  Period. 


• She’s not the superhero/martial arts heroine who beats the guy at his own game and then lets him “take” her.  She’s the one who beats the guy at his own game.  Period.


• Knows who she is, and so no one would think of asking her to be something she’s not.


Does anyone today fit the definition?  I can think of a few women who were once broads but have since forfeited the title.  Back in the late ‘70s when Bette Midler was performing bawdy routines in gay bathhouses, she certainly acted the part.  But a real broad doesn’t sign multi-picture deals with Disney or, worse, slim down and dye her hair blonde or, even worse, straighten it. 


Etta James, the great and gritty rock and blues singer, fit the bill…until she underwent gastric bypass surgery around five years ago and lost 200 pounds.  Now, I know it was probably lifesaving and I’m happy for her, but a broad simply doesn’t do things that are good for her health. 


Roseanne once qualified, but a broad can’t have multiple personalities; one alone is more than sufficient. 


Rosie O’Donnell could still be one but for a serious drawback:  broads don’t blog, especially in haiku.


So, who’s going to follow in the footsteps of the great broads?  Or, are we seeing the last of a breed?  I fear we may be. 


Broads can only thrive under certain social conditions, and those conditions, alas, no longer exist.  For this species of woman to flourish, society must have an appreciation for: a zaftig figure, not just supermodel skinniness; age and the attitude it brings, not only youthful naïveté; hard-won lines and a range of expressions on a woman’s face, not a Botoxed-into-submission look; unabashed ethnicity, not homogeneity; men that can stand toe-to-toe with a strong woman, not be cowed by her; the truth, not political correctness.


It’s sad to think that a certain female archetype is simply disappearing, perhaps never to return.  But, maybe yesterday’s broads, and the modern climate change, have given rise to a new female form:  the kick-ass woman. 


That would be: Helen Mirren, Christiane Amanpour, Tina Fey, Melissa Etheridge,  Sarah Silverman, and not least Queen Latifah, who comes closer to the broads of yesteryear than just about anyone.  Sure, kick-ass women may avoid trans fats and teeter around on ridiculously high heels at red carpet events, but they know who they are, and so no one would (or at least should) think of asking them to be something they’re not.  I bet they’d make Mae West proud.


 

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.


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