Women and Gender In Musicals Week: The Surprising Feminism of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Movie Poster
It’s always difficult to review older movies from a feminist outlook, especially ones that predate not only second-wave feminism, but the civil rights movement as well. On the surface, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is kinda anti-feminist – we have the stereotypical dumb blonde and the smart brunette, the dumb blonde is a blatant golddigger, we don’t get a full Bechdel Test pass (almost all of the conversations are about men), and the film is shot with the intention of emphasizing the lead actress’ sexiness as much as possible (with a few obligatory male gaze shots). Yet I was asking myself why I love this now almost 60 year old film so much. I looked a little deeper, and realized that there is a lot in this film for feminists to celebrate – not only the stars, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, but also the characters’ friendship, their mutual sexual liberation, and how a little song named “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” is not as much about being materialistic as it seems.

Marilyn Monroe has to be one of the most misunderstood household names. When people think of her, sure, they think of her beauty and sex appeal, but they also think of her drug addiction, her early death, rumoured plastic surgery, rumoured promiscuity, her stage name, and her difficulties as a performer. No one ever seems to know about her good points. They seem to think that her dumb blonde sexpot persona is her actual personality, when, in fact, she was acting. She was actually an intellectual who loved reading (and I’m talking difficult texts like Proust and Nietzsche) – her favourite photographs of herself are of her reading. There’s a reason she married Arthur Miller! She was also an early civil rights advocate – Ella Fitzgerald would recollect that Monroe personally called the owner of popular club Mocambo, which at the time was segregated, and demanded that Fitzgerald be booked as a performer immediately, promising that she’d be at a front table every night, and bring the press with her, if the owner did so. Her actions made sure that Fitzgerald would never have to play a small club again. Marilyn Monroe could act (in both comedic and dramatic roles), dance, and sing, and yet all that she is remembered for is her looks and her personal demons. She deserves better, especially as someone I consider to be an early feminist icon.

Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell in the film’s opening sequence
Jane Russell is another performer who deserved a lot more accolades than she got. Her portrayal of Dorothy Shaw is overtly feminist – sexually and intellectually confident in an era that tried to force patriarchal notions of morality. My Baby Boomer mother also fondly remembers her commercials for the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart 18-hour Comfort Bra (it remains one of Playtex’s most popular products). Here was a well-known star as a spokesmodel for lingerie. Even now, we don’t see famous women (besides the Victoria’s Secret supermodels) selling lingerie – at least not for the sake of promoting comfort over sex appeal. Never mind selling lingerie made especially for larger-chested women. These days, we buy non-sports bras for the look of them or the curves/cleavage they create, not because it kinda hurts to jiggle. Here was an actress who basically stated to the world, “Yes, I have large breasts, yes, I need a decent bra, and so does every other woman out there.”

The friendship between Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw is one of the most positive female friendships depicted on film, and is one aspect of the adaptation distinctly improved from the original novella by Anita Loos. (Yes, I’ve read the source material this time.) In the original novella, Lorelei is a flapper who keeps a diary of her daily events and describes both her ambitions of wealth and her attempts to juggle three suitors at once. She is vain, poorly educated (the prose is littered with deliberate misspellings), and disdainful of other women. Dorothy is supposedly her friend, but she often makes sarcastic snipes at Lorelei’s expense (which Lorelei is too dimwitted to pick up on). They’re a lot closer to frenemies in the original, which is a surprisingly misogynistic depiction of women from a female writer. The musical version instead makes Lorelei and Dorothy inseperable. They are absolutely devoted to each other and protective of one another. They disagree on relationships – Lorelei believes in only dating rich men and falling in love with them later, whereas Dorothy is a romantic who keeps falling in love with poor men. Each thinks the other is foolish when it comes to relationships, but they accept each other’s differences and are loyal to each other before any other man in their lives. Sisters before Misters.

Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell
Another feminist aspect of the film, one which I think is left over from the characters’ original incarnations as flappers, is their complete sexual liberation. Despite what Baby Boomer conservatives would like you to think, there was no such bastion of morality in the 1950s. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes they make it clear that the lead characters are “lower class.” (“We’re just two little girls from Little Rock, we came from the wrong side of the tracks.”) Both are completely confident about themselves and their life choices. It’s heavily implied that neither girl is a virgin, especially in the “Isn’t Anyone Here For Love” sequence, which is littered with innuendo. (The sequence has also infamously been read as subtly homoerotic – there’s a reason the Men’s Olympic team isn’t interested in Dorothy.) Lorelei is a master seductress, whose suitor Gus has to repeatedly turn himself away from because he has trouble resisting her charms. They drink, they smoke (though they are never seen actually smoking, just buying cigarettes), they dance, they party, they stay out late. And while wealthy men like Gus’ father look down on women like Lorelei, they are completely unapologetic about their choices.

The film also depicts the women as unmistakably intelligent, albeit in different ways. Dorothy is very obviously meant to be the “smart” one, who corrects Lorelei’s mistakes, catches on to other people’s insinuations, and is always ready with a witty retort. But while Lorelei might be “book dumb,” she’s not stupid. Together, Lorelei and Dorothy are master manipulators, and she’s far more devious than she lets on. Famously, at the end of the film, she convinces Gus’ father to let them marry through some admittedly clever logic. (“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”) Dorothy isn’t entirely smart either, because she tends to think with her heart over her head. She knows that Ernie Malone is a private detective out to ruin her best friend’s life, but falls in love with him anyway. Notably, however, she makes it clear that she chooses loyalty to Lorelei first.

Marilyn Monroe in the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” sequence
The most famous number in the musical, by far, is “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” which has endured for over 60 years and is considered Marilyn Monroe’s signature number. The sequence, depicting her in a hot pink gown against a bright red backdrop, is so iconic it has, amongst other homages, served as the visual inspiration for Madonna’s music video for “Material Girl.” On the surface the song is about being materialistic – that Lorelei’s love for jewels supercedes all other things, and at the surface, yes, it would be a theoretically anti-feminist song. But I think the song is actually about a longing for financial independence. If you pay attention to the lyrics, they describe how the men in Lorelei’s life are generous for a while, but are shallow (“Men grow cold as girls grow old, And we all lose our charms in the end.”). She is actually saying that while she appreciates romantic attention, she relies on their expensive gifts to live. (“A kiss may be grand…but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, Or help you at the automat.”) As a duo of showgirls, Lorelei and Dorothy might be fairly successful, but they’ll never earn enough to be truly financially independent. Don’t forget that in the 1950s, women were still expected to be homemakers. Lorelei’s manifesto is that having diamonds will grant her the opportunity to live on her own, feed herself, and be able to support herself along with her showgirl job. She will need that financial independence long after her looks have faded and the shallow men in her life have moved on. (“Cause that’s when those louses go back to their spouses”) This song, above all else, is advocating for women to work and take care of themselves, but until that day when they are allowed to be truly independent, Lorelei’s going to get to her dreams the best way she knows how.

Yes, the film is flawed, especially if taken at its apparently anti-feminist face value. But contextually, I feel that this film’s depiction of women is quite fair for its day. Yes, it would be nice if the girls weren’t stereotypes and Lorelei wasn’t a blatant golddigger, but then, where would the plot be? Not only are its stars, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, important landmarks in feminist history, but their characters are too. Their friendship is absolutely ironclad – they put each other first, even though both are looking for love in different ways. Their confidence in their intelligence, lifestyle, and sexuality is incredibly liberated for what was supposedly a time of suffocatingly patriarchal morality. And lastly, the famous song “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” might be about celebrating materialism, but is really about a woman’s dreams of financial indepdencence. All things considered, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is surprisingly feminist.

Myrna Waldron is a feminist writer/blogger with a particular emphasis on all things nerdy. She lives in Toronto and has studied English and Film at York University. Myrna has a particular interest in the animation medium, having written extensively on American, Canadian and Japanese animation. She also has a passion for Sci-Fi & Fantasy literature, pop culture literature such as cartoons/comics, and the gaming subculture. She maintains a personal collection of blog posts, rants, essays and musings at The Soapboxing Geek, and tweets with reckless pottymouthed abandon at @SoapboxingGeek.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11787940356768605925 Gabriella

    What an excellent article! I love this film so much, and used to watch it repeatedly as a child. Having grown up to be both an enormous Marilyn Monroe fan, and a staunch feminist, it’s extremely gratifying to read a piece such as this – many thanks!! Gabriella

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Not sure how I found this article – but it was fascinating reading, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is my all time favorite movie musical. LOL

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Isn’t it rather anti-feminist to assume that her “promiscuous sex pot” persona is a negative one? Being a promiscuous sex pot doesn’t make you any less of a person than someone who is “literary.”