Characters in popular art who make fun of sex, of their own sexuality, while still being deeply and powerfully sexy strike me as peculiarly American — I can't think of any examples that originated in other countries.
The English music hall created a kind of ditzy sexpot, best exemplified by Beatrice Lillie (above), but the ditzy sexpot had a very restricted erotic appeal — she tried to appear accidentally sexy, and was never sexually threatening in any way. That was her charm. The “naughty schoolgirl” figure crosses cultures, too, but her mask of good-natured innocence is just that — a mask, behind which to deliver erotic innuendo.
But America came up with something new — and as far as I can tell, Clara Bow was its first example. She was frankly, unabashedly sexual, often in a way that threatened buttoned-up men, but she had a way of laughing it all off as a lark — as something not to be taken too seriously.
You can see traces of this attitude in the great female blues singers of the early 20th Century, like Bessie Smith, but Smith knew that she was being bad — her tossed-off double-entendres had a leering quality, suggesting a down and dirty smirk.
Bow had none of this — to her there was nothing down and dirty about sex at all. It was just about having fun, and if it was the most important thing in life, that was only because having fun was the most important thing in life. Her overt but always skillful and imaginative flirtatiousness honored the game of flirtation, accepted it for what it was — if men didn't understand it, or know how to play it well, that was their problem. It gave her an advantage which she cheerfully exploited.
Bow was different from the wise-cracking females in screwball comedies, who played the game with an edge of cynicism, somewhat resenting men for their dull-wittedness, even if they ultimately forgave them for it. Stanwyck's character in The Lady Eve (above) is the paradigm for this type.
Bow's true successors in American culture were Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, who were sexy, knew they were sexy, laughed at their own sexiness while flaunting it without shame, in a state of paradoxically pure innocence about it.
They could be ironic but never, ever cynical.
The new DVD set Treasures From American Film Archives: The West has a stupendously good print of the silent film Mantrap (above) in which Bow definitively realized the new type of sexuality she pioneered. It's one of the greatest and most electrifying performances in the history of cinema, a performance that led to her being cast in It — to be seen as “The 'It' Girl”. They had to call it “It” in her case, because there was no existing word for what she had — no previous form of sex appeal applied. It was a new kind of it.
[I have never seen a still photograph of Bow that really captures her screen persona. The studio publicity photographers tried to fit her into familiar categories — glamor queen, vamp, flapper — none of which came close to evoking what she did on screen, which is hard to evoke in words, too. You just have to watch her best movies — she herself thought that Mantrap was the best of them all — and marvel.]