Romcom of the Week: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Romcom of the Week is a project where I watch and review a romcom each week. I’ve always gravitated toward action films and indie dramas, but now I’m giving the lighter side of things a chance.

Long before Serena van der Woodsen dreamed herself into Marilyn for “Gossip Girl,” diamonds were a girl’s best friend.

Released in 1953, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” stars Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe as showgirls with big dreams. Russell plays Dorothy Shaw, a no-nonsense woman with a good head on her shoulders. Monroe plays her jewel-obsessed best friend, Lorelei Lee.

The film kicks off when the duo sets sail for France. Dorothy is looking for a husband and Lorelei might drop her future one for the highest bidder. Add an oil-slicked men’s Olympic swim team, a private detective, alcohol, gold lame, sequins, taffeta and the married proprietor of a diamond mine. Shake vigorously for drama.

When the film first came out, critics berated Lorelei and Dorothy (and by extension, Monroe and Russell) for their sexual confidence. Their forwardness, by modern standards, however, is considered praiseworthy. It’s two sides of the same coin: either the women’s sexiness makes them solely objects for male consumption or their fearless sex appeal is a mark of empowerment, making them subjects, autonomous, active players in their own adult lives.

What if, working in a heteronormative, capital framework, it’s a bit of both?

Nodding to the Monroe’s and Russell’s “charms and airy graces,” New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther writes in 1953, “The screenplay contrived by Mr. (Charles) Lederer is less the classic saga of two smart dames, which was originally played beneath this title, than it is a silly tale of two dumb dolls.”

Reviewing for Variety, William Brogdon decides, as gloriously as Russell and Monroe perform, to reduce them to eye candy.

“The two femmes are the picture’s outstanding assets for exploitation purposes and entertainment. Miss Russell is a standout, and handles the lines and songs with a comedy flair,” Brogdon writes. “Miss Monroe matches with a newly displayed ability to sex a song, as well as point up the eye values of a scene by her presence.”

Doling out underhanded compliments, critics recognize how gendered stereotypes pervade the film. But instead of calling out their misogynystic reading, they accept this as proof of women’s innate shallowness and inferiority.

Pushing back on archaic views of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are people like Samantha McLaughlin. A Monroe enthusiast and scholar, McLaughlin founded the All About Marilyn organization in 1990 to preserve the actress’ legacy. She also just started a podcast.

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” happens to be the film that drew McLaughlin to the Monroe community: as young as 3-years-old, she was enchanted with the glamour of the film. To this day, it holds her top spot for Monroe filmogaphy — a work of subversive genius. Apart from the characters’ cleverness, their respect for each other and mutual slay makes the film a favorite for McLaughlin.

“The characters in the movie celebrate and support one another. It’s one of the most positive female relationships I’ve seen in film. No man comes between them and they have each others backs,” McLaughlin says. “They accept one another despite their faults.”

“Both characters demonstrate that they are in charge of their sexuality and confident with their intelligence.”

Even their duets, McLaughlin points out, compliment and complement the other instead of competing.

For McLaughlin, too, the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number is a lesson in self-reliance. In the face of film critics and even the theatrical trailer branding Lorelei pejoratively as a “gold-digger,” this idea is crucial.

Maybe the only elements uniting filmgoers old and new are the richness of Russell’s voice, Monroe’s glinting smirk, the film’s spectacle-like qualities, the mystery lurking beneath the surface. But agreement on the film’s progressive values is probably a bit more elusive.

“It’s extremely liberating for the day, considering most women were homemakers and didn’t have financial independence,” McLaughlin says. “These women were fighting for their dreams and control of their own destiny.”

Are Dorothy and Lorelei villains of female sexuality, preying on and victimizing men? Or are they modern-day heroes for finessing the patriarchal, capitalist framework they’re living in?

Often, the process of unpacking gendered implications in film is like looking for a diamond in the rough. And as seen with with “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” sometimes, it takes a little extra sifting.