Last week I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the first time. I had a sneaky suspicion I would enjoy it a lot, since I’d already seen some of the songs from it on youtube. And yes, I am still humming along to “Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend.”
But what really truly surprised me about the film – was its absolutely shameless materialism.
Now I haven’t read the novel from 1925 by Anita Loos – and as a blonde I was completely disgusted to hear that there’s a sequel entitled But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes . In any case, I cannot compare the novel to the film , although the novel has been added to my “to-read” list. I can’t really say if the materialist streak in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the movie stems from a 1950s baby-boomer infatuation with capitalism, or if it was already present in the original book.
Depictions of females obsessed with the pecuniary aspect of marriage have a long history. Think of Miss Crawford in Austen’s Mansfield Park or Becky Sharpe in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Indeed, for a long time in many cultures (and in many places this is still the case) marriage was seen mostly as a financial transaction between the family of the bride and the groom. Nonetheless for the woman express explicit interest in the wealth of her partner was usually seen as highly indiscreet, mercenary and even unethical – both Mary Crawford and Becky Sharpe are explicitly portrayed as anti-heroines.
Lorelai Lee (Marilyn Monroe), shameless about her mercenary attitude to love (“Did you say diamonds?”) is definitely a heroine, even if her friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) is more romantically- minded in her attachments. And though Lorelai is strongly satirized in the movie, I dare you not to stare in complete wonder at her rendition of “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”.
What makes the performance so compelling is that the whole thing is the double-entendre.
Time rolls on, and youth is gone
and you can’t straighten up when you bend
But stiff back or stiff knees
You stand straight at… Tiffany’s
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend
Erm… What does she mean by diamonds, exactly?
But there’s also something else to the song’s appeal. One could easily argue that the blatant turn to materialism in the case of Lorelai Lee is actually her form of protecting herself from a misogynistic world. In a world where power means money it makes logical sense to use sexual appeal to one’s financial gain. Lorelai without diamonds is just a girl from Little Rock. Lorelai with a diamond tiara is someone to be reckoned with.
The film’s overt message would be accurately summarized with Lorelai’s conversation with Dorothy at the end of the film.
Lorelai: I really do love Gus.
Dorothy: You do?
Lorelai: There’s no other millionaire with such a gentle disposition. He never wins an argument, does anything l ask… and he’s got the money to do it. How can l help loving him?
But my point here is that the love of money equals in this case love of power. Indeed, for both the songs “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and a song which has surely been inspired by it, “Diamonds are Forever” (the song from the 1971 James Bond movie), diamonds signify independence from the whimsy of affections of men
For what good will love do me?
Diamonds never lie to me,
For when love’s gone,
They’ll lustre on.
Ironically, the diamonds that can’t straighten up when they bend exactly correlate with the fickle nature of sexual passion. And, of course the same kind of play is present in the James Bond lyrics
Diamonds are forever,
They are all I need to please me,
They can stimulate and tease me,
So at the same time as these beautiful singers are declaring their independence from male influence they are actually declaring their complete subjugation to the power of male “diamonds”? That’s certainly what it looks like.
In perhaps the most famous reference to the “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, Madonna plays much the same game. Her video to “Material Girl” is almost an exact retelling of the famous scene from the already classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Madonna overtly declares openly that
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right
But in the video she only succumbs to the romantic gentleman who brings her flowers instead of diamonds. In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s best friend” is fused together with Madonna’s “Material Girl”, but the message is much the same as Madonna’s. A woman may declare that what she wants from a sexual relationship is diamonds, but what she actually wants is love, regardless of the man’s financial status. So basically it seems that a passion for diamonds is merely a manner of teasing the boys. It is a particularly American way of teasing – and did seem to have hit some sort of peak in the 1950s- especially if you think about Eartha Kitt’s famous “Santa Baby” song (1953)
Santa honey, I want a yacht and really that’s not a lot
Been an angel all year
Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight
Santa cutie, there’s one thing I really do need, the deed
To a platinum mine
Santa cutie, and hurry down the chimney tonight
In short, I will give you love if you give me my yacht… It is a bizarre juxtaposition between materialism and love – a gift exchange and an exchange of affection. Though it might conceal a woman’s bid for power in a man’s world, it actually acknowledges the male’s superiority as it is in his power to “bestow” diamonds to his female partner.
This bizarre fusion of sex and materialism is still very much present among us today. In theme song of the Sex and the City movie, Fergie proudly declares that
I know I might come off as negative
I be looking for labels, I ain’t looking for love
Relationships are often so hard to tame
A Prada dress has never broken my heart before
But of course the heroine of the movie, Carrie Bradshaw, is definitely not satisfied by labels, and much prefers love. Women’s materialism is thus equated with their wish to enter the power structure, and this is hence denounced as shallow. Real feeling or even simply sexual tension will always overcome this infatuation with “the material world”. At the same time, women in those movies must always be indulged, fawned over, given diamonds – not one of them seems to declare that she will make her own money and buy those diamonds herself.
This might be the reason why materialist women were perceived as villains in 19th-century literature, but the 20th century was prepared to embrace them as heroines. To put it simply, in the 19th century a woman had no chance of raising her social status other than by “marrying up” or becoming a mistress of a wealthy man. Hence women who sought to exchange sex for material advantage were frowned upon. But in the 20th– century women begin to have other options of making their way up. Suddenly, it turns out that it is much more dangerous for the patriarchal order to have women being able to make their own way in the world without men’s sanction. Hence women who achieve material gain through sex are seen as at least acknowledging the power of men to bestow or withhold their money. They are far more acceptable to the patriarchy then women who actually pay their own way through life.
Not only that, but when a “greedy” , “materialistic” woman recites a list of what she wants, she can easily name specific brands – Marilyn Monroe named Harry Winston and Cartier, Fergie sings of Prada, Manolo and Louis Vitton: to fuse the two, Beyoncé‘s performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” features in an Armani advert. It’s the advertisers’ dreams made real. Even if love for a man conquers all in the plot of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Moulin Rouge and Sex and the City, the heroine will usually be seen as wearing all of the above mentioned brands. To make herself attractive to her dream man. The patriarchic order and materialism seem to go hand in hand.
There is of course, one twist to all of this….
Do men really have rational decision-making power whether to give or not give diamonds when faced with the force of nature that is Lorelai Lee played by Marilyn Monroe? Mr. Esmond certainly didn’t.
This is a sneaky link to the script for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/g/gentlemen-prefer-blondes-script-transcript.html
There’s also an amusing video about the beginning of the world’s obsession with diamonds (you guessed it, a marketing ploy). I haven’t verified the information in this though, so bear that in mind http://anthillonline.com/how-exactly-did-diamonds-become-a-girls-best-friend-a-lesson-on-guru-level-marketing-video/
There’s also a link to an article from a first-year in Notre Dame analyzing Madonna’ s video to “Material Girl” https://freshwriting.nd.edu/volumes/2016/essays/materialism-madonna-and-you
Here are all the youtube videos for the songs mentioned in this post. Enjoy!