Disposable Men in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
In this classical Hollywood musical, we get a clear view of what these women want: sex and money.
By KIRSTEN STRAYER
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1954), which stars Jane Russell and makes Marilyn Monroe a force to be reckoned with, is the classical Hollywood film that upends our ideas of cinematic heterosexual romance.
Sure, it has a conventional love story. Russell’s good-time girl Dorothy eventually falls in love with the man hired to spy on her best friend. But this “normal” romance is by far the dullest part of the film.
The film actually invests in the relationship between two female protagonists (and quintessential opposites): Dorothy and “gold-digger” Lorelei (Monroe). While Lorelei searches for the richest good man to fall in love with, Dorothy is always interested in the next good-looking man.
On their steamer cruise to Paris, embarked upon so that Lorelei can engineer a wedding between herself and a wealthy heir, Dorothy attempts to seduce members of the (rather absurdly lily-white) American Olympic team. Dorothy likes sex, and Lorelei wants money. They save their intimacies and jokes for each other.
The film’s male/female interactions are steeped in satire. While women perform roles and men consume those performances, it satirizes male objectification.
On the one hand, everyone looks at Lorelei. She causes men to stutter in dismay, drop their musical instruments, and relinquish prized heirloom jewelry. And yet Lorelei also enjoys looking: she imagines men as literal objects.
In her most famous song and dance sequence, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Lorelei directly addresses her reasons for hoarding diamonds and rejecting the fairy tale romance. Men, she confidently confesses to her female backup dancers, are fickle. Better to stock up on diamonds than fall in love with a man who is bound to leave you for a more conventional lady (or his wife).
Despite her conventional love, Dorothy later even repeats the song (posing as Lorelei). She’s performing another side of Lorelei, perhaps one she would like to be, despite her conventional love story.
Lorelei’s and Dorothy’s performances show their predilections for self-construction. But beneath these underlie the charming earnestness of their friendship. While the two are publicly theatrical, they are still true to each other.
Further, the more “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” gets remixed in pop culture, the more we can see the emotional complexities of the first film. Although Madonna’s “Material Girl” video keeps the irony and camaraderie of the original, others lose the relations between women. In Moulin Rouge! (2001) the protagonist sings the song as a similar self-reflexive performance. However, as an operatic heroine, she stands alone and friendless, betrayed by another woman. As well, in Burlesque (2010), the song devolves into a catfight, in which only one woman can shine. Both of these films embrace the post-modern performance but don’t imagine a sincere friendship between equal women.
While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes continues to concern feminist writers with its consistent articulation of women as commodities — the line between satire and seriousness is incredibly thin, after all — the film’s sexual liberation and rejection of romance still appeals to those like Monroe at her most ruthless.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we get a clear view of what these women want. The film’s construction of female desire, friendship, and queer sensibilities overshadow and pervert the gazing males, who are imminently forgettable sixty years later.
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