Rita Hayworth, in a curve-hugging black strapless gown and opera gloves, swaggers out onto a shiny black stage as the orchestra plays a jazzy intro. Under a spotlight, she begins to sing and sway, captivating the audience within the film—and most of us watching the Gilda (1946) scene on screen. Hayworth’s Gilda is stunningly magnetic. Her hair, her mouth, the way she moves, her gaze: we can’t look away if we try. That the number is a striptease only magnifies its taboo power. Hayworth isn’t kittenish or coy; this is part of a film noir, not a musical.

Beauty and sex appeal, however, only begin to address what is so mesmerizing about this scene. The film content surrounding it is vital. With vengeful aplomb, Gilda effectively convinces her ex-lover Johnny (Glenn Ford), who has loved and left her before the film begins, that she is the femme fatale he (mis)takes her for. He’s stuck, loving and loathing her, just as she loves and loathes him. He marries her just to shun her and then thwarts her every effort to escape his control. Desperate and hopeless, Gilda gives Johnny what he’s asked for: she enacts the whore image he’s painted.

The song Gilda sings, “Put the Blame on Mame”, is about an infamous woman who can be blamed for all the world’s ills. I find its implications feminist, particularly in the context in which Gilda sings it. Like the biblical Eve, “Mame” stands for the quintessential woman, demonized for her sexuality in a patriarchal culture. Gilda is a heartless temptress, Johnny decides, and so Gilda gives him what he asks for.

She sings:

When they had the earthquake in San Francisco
Back in nineteen-six
They said that Mother Nature
Was up to her old tricks
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
One night she started to shim and shake
That brought on the Frisco quake
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

They once had a shootin’ up in the Klondike
When they got Dan McGrew
Folks were putting the blame on
The lady known as Lou
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
Mame did a dance called the hoochy-coo
That’s the thing that slew McGrew
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

The song was written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher specifically for the film, but not, ultimately, for Hayworth, whose voice was dubbed by Anita Kert Ellis. That Hayworth’s voice was deemed inadequate for Gilda’s singing is an example of a common experience for actresses in Hollywood musicals (Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964), whose songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon, is one of the most famous). Here, however, the lack of voice is particularly poignant. Gilda’s self-destructive love for Johnny has robbed her of her voice, which she demonstrates in the song, the striptease, and after. When Johnny drags her off stage before an eager audience member can unzip her dress, Gilda angrily refers to herself as a whore—or nearly does, for Johnny slaps her face just before she can say the word. The physical abuse shows the gendered double-bind: women are called whores, but when they point this out by adopting the term themselves, they must be punished.

Here, context is as important as content for understanding the ultimate importance of the number. The film offers, on its own problematic terms, a happy ending. Johnny explains that neither he nor Gilda has anything to apologize for because at last they’re “even,” both having hurt each other badly (and both, arguably, having slept with Gilda’s husband Ballin, but that’s another answer to another question). Both equally deserve happiness, together forever at last. I disagree, vehemently, with Johnny’s—and the film’s—conclusion. Gilda has been far more sinned against than sinning. If she has tormented Johnny, he has used his power to do her far greater wrong.

Finally, from a broader, extratextual perspective, I find it difficult not to see echoes of the Johnny/Gilda relationship in Hayworth’s own life. As a child, Rita Hayworth (originally Margarita Carmen Cansino) was sexually abused by her father. As a young adult, she was whitened for film, from raising her hairline to dying it from black to red, with Orson Welles going so far as to make her a platinum blonde for The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Biographers attribute her lifetime of disastrous relationships with men to her abuse, and I can’t help but think about that every time I watch Gilda sing “Put the Blame on Mame,” in all her Hollywood-transformed vivaciousness.

Before her staged performance, Hayworth also  sings “Put the Blame on Mame” earlier in Gilda. The first time she sings only an excerpt, late at night, accompanying herself on guitar. She offers a taunting serenade from the foyer of the club to a manager Johnny, sleeping above. In this scene, Gilda makes a statement about self-destructiveness which echoes throughout the film, the noir genre, Hollywood norms of femininity, and Hayworth/Cansino’s own life: “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me.”

Even more directly than her vengeful striptease, this scene identifies the entrapment of women under patriarchal (Hollywood) behavioral and appearance norms. Gilda’s rage at her objectification and misuse cannot be turned outward in action, only in words, and those words are ultimately self-destructive. A world that puts the blame on “Mame” will always misname and mistreat Gilda—as it did Hayworth. All Gilda can do is point to the injustice in her life and demonstrate its oppressiveness. A feminist critical reception offers the only hope that Hollywood and American culture in general will realize the sexism—even the misogyny—and someday take the blame off Mame.