If you are a bookworm, you must have read a lot of books growing up with powerful female protagonists whose best possible trait is “not-like-other-girls.” With this dilemma of not being “girly” and avoiding anything pink and cliche, most of us teenage girls grew up imagining that if you want to feel powerful and significant, you have to let go of the feminine side of yours. This demeaning idea that literally tries to erase a part of your sexuality just to feel more empowered is nothing but another brainwashing one from this patriarchal society. Remember when our beloved pop queen Taylor Swift said,
“I Want To Love Glitter And Also Stand Up For The Double Standards That Exist In Our Society. I Want To Wear Pink And Tell You How I Feel About Politics. And I Don’t Think That Those Things Have To Cancel Each Other Out.”
Thankfully, we have books and movies these days that uproot the idea of sacrificing one’s sexuality to become “the protagonist” completely. These genres of books and movies explore the idea of being badass and unique yet graceful and feminine. And one of the perfect examples for this is the masterpiece of Taylor Jenkins Reid, “Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” All you need to know about this book before diving in is that this is about a woman, who peels off layers and layers of herself to exist in a male-dominated industry, yet still somehow stands her ground when it’s necessary and keeps being her bold and feminine self till the end.
Becoming a Diva of Beverly Hills from a Child of New York in a Patriarchial Industry
From a nobody to a phenomenal Hollywood sensation- it has been quite the journey for Evelyn Hugo. She is a damsel in distress, except she isn’t.
By the age of fourteen, a motherless Evelyn learns how the world worked differently for men from how it did for women. You would think that a girl with a pretty face and attractive physique is vulnerable, always in danger of getting pounced on. But Evelyn is not the one to see her beauty as a weakness. Left in an impoverished life with an abusive father who wouldn’t bat an eye before marrying her off to some terrible man in exchange for money- all she knows is that she has to make it out of there.
Thanks to her quick-witted mind, she soon discovers that she has the power to choose which man to attract and that she can use him to get what she wants- leave her poverty-stricken life in New York and set foot in Hollywood. So when she finds someone who could be her ride to Hollywood, she marries him. And then her impeccable determination paves her way into Hollywood with small roles when producer Harry Cameron notices her working at a cafe next to a movie studio.
As a reader, I see Evelyn as young and strong-willed, impulsive even, but never careless. She knows she can’t fight patriarchy, so she pretends to succumb to it. Can’t forget how she appears as “harmless” and “domestic” before her husband Ernie so that he doesn’t feel threatened by his wife’s success and keeps supporting her “hobby”.
To get the recognition as an actress, the recognition she truly deserves- Evelyn lies, manipulates, even recreates her identity as a white blonde woman to secure a romantic lead in a movie. She has standards to meet- the “socially acceptable, flawlessly beautiful, sexy but innocent Hollywood girl” standard. The man’s world of the ’50s wants a shiny jewel with no backbone, and she gives it to them.
The more you read about her bold feats, the more you’ll relate to her desperate need for recognition in the industry. She has a dream, and she knows she deserves the chance to fulfil that dream. It’s just that a woman has to fight with her teeth clenched to earn that chance- and you could do that by either giving in to the masculine standards or fighting them. Evelyn Hugo gave in to the standards and silently fought them, as she, too, was using them to achieve something.
“So do yourself a favor and learn how to grab life by the balls, dear. Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.”
Falling in An Ugly Love
Evelyn’s first love was both naive and messy. She falls in love with a handsome man who gives her butterflies and is her first ray of hope for a happy, normal, wholesome life in this cruel and complicated world. It was more than her pheromones falling for Don Adler’s charming smile. She falls for him because he was the first man to do the bare minimum- treat her like a human rather than a provocative object.
Unfortunately, it isn’t long before we see Evelyn fall from the high her second husband Don had taken her to. When she falls, she falls apart too.
The thing about being in an abusive relationship is that the abuse comes from a loved one, someone who you thought was your “ride or die”. You know they’re in the wrong, and you know that the right thing to do is to leave. But it takes you several stages before you decide to leave. At first, you don’t believe that you’ve chosen the wrong person to love. So you find excuses for them. For yourself. That’s what Evelyn does too. Bits of her heart continues to love Don, even after he breaks it by showing her his insecure, fragile masculinity- his fear of falling behind his wife. So she gaslights herself every time he bruises her and disrespects her. She remains hopeful that her husband will return to his charming, loving self when things would look up for him.
Once the emotional reasons to stay in that relationship seem to fail, you start looking for practical reasons. For Evelyn, leaving Don meant throwing away the dreams that she had worked so relentlessly for. Because it is still a man’s world that she is living in, her husband holding all the cards, all the power to demolish her career. At that time, the impending success seems worth the price, no matter how vile it is. So, even when Don physically abuses Evelyn to mask his own insecurities, she cannot just leave. You could say that she is desperate and delusional. But perhaps she is practical and smart. She does divorce him when the situation calls for it, and her divorce drops her to the deepest pit of her career- once again, fragile masculinity wins.
Queerness and the ‘60s
From Evelyn’s point of view, the writer portrays one of the cruellest and most harsh times when being a queer person was seen as an absolute crime. Evelyn hides her true sexuality all her life to protect her career and herself. We also see several other characters surrounding Evelyn, including her lover Celia, struggle through a time where their mere existence is denied.
Even though we have progressed much as a society now, a safe environment for queer people is still a dream. Evelyn kept being herself no matter what it took, even though she knew her mere existence of sexuality was a crime in her time.
Losing a Part of Oneself to Keep Up with Glamor
Through the later parts of her stardom, Evelyn adjusts herself to the showbiz world, not surprisingly the exact way the industry wants her to be. We see a specific scene where she literally has to fake a marriage and tolerate a nonconsensual sexual encounter with a man she barely knows. The intention behind this horrific ploy was to withdraw the attention Evelyn and Celia were getting from the media to prove that there weren’t any “unethical” relationships between the two of them. Evelyn keeps these sorts of appearances all throughout her career, from living in loveless marriages to letting her mind and body be exploited for the sake of success. Like every other powerful woman, Evelyn has to make peace with the fact that if she wants to keep shining in this male-dominated world, she must burn significant parts of her being to ashes again and again.
Back in the days, when a man got separated from his wife, society didn’t waste one single moment to blame the wife of all kinds of sins, a homewrecker, a vain to her name, and whatnot. Even after staying in an abusive relationship for years, when Evelyn gets divorced from her first husband, the whole world lashes out and accuses her of ruining her own marriage with unladylike ambitions and independence. Every step of the way, Evelyn loses her place in her career repeatedly for something that’s not even remotely connected to her career.
Funny how still, after all these years, women get slut-shamed only because she has lots of male acquaintances. Funny how people still think it’s justified to harass a woman only because she was wearing “unconventional” clothes. Evelyn is the biggest example of how every person in society is never hesitant to corner a woman because of crimes she never committed. As if because she was an ambitious and exotic Hollywood star, it wrecked her chance of being an “obedient wife.”
Cashing in on the Sexism of the Showbiz World, Head Held High
You’ve heard of women sleeping their way to the top, and you’ve probably been quick to judge them. Sure, it’s unfair. But what’s more unfair is that this is all patriarchy limits a woman’s worth to. Your talent and skills relevant to your work- matter less than your willingness to sacrifice a part of yourself. Does Evelyn give away her chastity to get to the top? Yes. But does she have any alternative to secure a name as a prominent celebrity in the hypocritical, disrespectful showbiz world? No.
Branded as the “sexpot of Hollywood,” she knows that those throwing derogatory comments at her, sexualizing her offensively, were the ones who savour her performance. Society doesn’t blame those hypocrites, even now, in a real 21st-century world.
“They blamed the sexpot they’d created whom they could now call a tramp. They weren’t going to give me an Oscar for that. They were going to watch it alone in a dark theater and then chastise me in public.”
Evelyn hasn’t been one to cower to society’s way of defining her. When she has to pick a movie that would raise controversy about her image, she does it. Because she has a lot to gain from it, and when people criticize her for losing her “decency,”- she doesn’t care. She knows they are all hypocrites under their veil of modesty. And for her, it is a fair trade- if it gets her more fame and more success. And she has never regretted her actions, nor she should.
Hugo’s priorities have been clear from the get-go. She aims for the sky and stops at nothing to reach it. That’s what you’ll admire the most about her character. She isn’t some perfect, righteous, flawless hero. She is human, flawed, and selfish but determined. You will hate her, you will love her, you will sympathize with her, but you will also wish that you were as strong as she. Her character is so beautifully obnoxious and pleasant- the lessons she learns along the way; the way she always gets back on her feet no matter what; the way she manipulates and tricks; the way she loves and gives her all to protect the ones she loves- you will realize that from the beginning till the end of her life story, she has so much more to offer than a ravishing appearance. She is a born star, and till her last day in the world, she shows that “a star is always and forever a star.”
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