Nyla Matuk

On Being Kittenish

Matthew Weiner, “Zou Bisou Bisou” (“Mad Men,” Season 5, 2012)

Not long ago, I was pondering the meaning of the word kittenish. I knew it was about flirting, about the heady combination of sexy and cute, but it brought something to mind that I had read many years ago, or had been told, many years ago: that true flirtation involves absolutely no references to sex, mating, dating, or courting. That flirting, properly executed, requires no more than the absence of those things while the flirter carefully blends together wit and unthreatening mystery — contrived mystery: a flash of skin at the right moment, like a flash of the eyes, a flash of wit.

Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no “erogenous zones” (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. — Roland Barthes, “Pleasure Of The Text

I have always loved the dancer and actress Cyd Charisse. It is only in retrospect, watching her dancing on film, that I was able to realize that the type of character she played as a dancer amounted to exactly the type of person I imagined I would grow up to be when I was a girl. I didn’t know it then, but the person I really wanted to become, when older, was Charisse as she is in most of her movies. Every girl at some point desires not only to possess things owned by others, but longs to be some other, and Charisse fit the bill perfectly.

Nicholas Ray, “Cyd Charisse in Party Girl” (1958)

It was a watershed to come to an awareness that I spent about 14 years in my childhood and adolescence in ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance classes, perhaps only in order to support living a rich and fantastical imaginary life as a highly sophisticated woman who looked like, and danced, as she did in the 1940s and 1950s opposite Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ricardo Montalban

Nicholas Ray, “Cyd Charisse in Party Girl” (1958)

I believe she is the most kittenish Hollywood actress ever. It is not just her ability to dance, but during that dancing, her flirtatious moves. She excels at kittenish with every choreographed swish and step-ball-change of a character shoe, every exaggerated sidelong look through those false lashes, every cruel turn of her body. She is reluctant to fall into a man’s arms, but, finally, does it straight, with determination.

She is equal parts power and grace, poise and mischief. She is the beauty that does not care. She humbles the man, and he can do nothing but follow her lead.

Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, “Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

-Nyla Matuk

Ryeberg Curator Bio

RSS Feed
Nyla Matuk is the author of the poetry collections, "Sumptuary Laws" and "Stranger." Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant, The New Yorker and Poetry Review. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and various magazines. She is editor of an anthology of poems, "Resisting Canada." For more Nyla Matuk, go here.