20-era subversion for 50s-era audiences
Adventures in blog-reading and the interesting juxtapositions it makes: Reading that Jane Russell has died at 91, and reading this post by Paul Campos about the political use of nostalgia. (Also, Man Boobz recently chose to illustrate a post on women being funny with Anita Loos, the quite-funny writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which one of Russell’s most famous movies was based on.) Paul was talking about how nostalgia serves conservative ends, and how nostalgia for the 50s is channeled through reactionary nostalgia for sexual and racial hierarchies and conformism, instead of economic structures that spread the wealth around and made America the wealthiest nation on the planet by doing so. Amongst other things. Read the whole post; it’s kind of tangential to the point here, but has a lot of interesting insights about nostalgia-management and money.
What I want to point out is that nostalgia is a slippery thing. Yes, it’s usually used in service of reactionary politics, but sometimes nostalgia can be subversive. In the 50s, for instance, there was actually a lot of nostalgia for the 20s. I’m sure most of it was reactionary, as was 80s nostalgia for the 50s—it was remembered as a time of innocence and wealth, before the Depression and the war. But it was also remembered as a time when the usual rules and restrictions loosened up dramatically. I get the impression, from 50s products that incorporate 20s nostalgia, that part of the appeal was the escape from the stifling conformity and sexual repression of the 50s. (Ironically, I wouldn’t say the 50s were more sexual repressed than the 20s in practice—people had a lot more premarital sex, for instance—but I think it’s the difference between feeling like things are moving forward instead of backwards. In the same way, people can have nostalgia for the 60s and sexual liberation even though we’re far more liberated now than they were then.) Interestingly, two of Marilyn Monroe’s best films were 20s throwbacks that use the cover of nostalgia to poke fun at sexual repression and conformity.
If you doubt that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” has its subversions, I give you Jane Russell’s solo number from the movie, where she dances around a gym full of muscular, mostly-naked men working out in front of murals inspired by ancient Greece, while she sings about how there’s a bunch of sexy men around her but she can’t get laid.
This video has provoked some discussion over how many battles with censors were probably pitched over those dark bands at the bottom of the shorts.
Unlike “Some Like It Hot”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” isn’t actually set in the 20s, but it’s still a 20s nostalgia picture. It’s based on a novel by Anita Loos that was written, frankly, as a proto-feminist satire poking fun at men for desiring dumb, hot women to bolster their egos. The movie retains this quality—the main characters are throwbacks to the image of flappers no matter how big their boobs are. I would argue that beyond the homoerotic jokes, there’s an arguably feminist subversion at the heart of it. Monroe’s character, Lorilei, has been denied respect and education because she’s a woman that’s not from a good family, but she exacts her revenge by using her sexuality to make herself filthy rich anyway. Of course, true feminism is overturning the system. The character isn’t a feminist. But the book has a feminist quality in that it exists to satirize the patriarchy, and especially to make fun of how privileged men become dull and weak because they’re so shielded from challenge.
If you doubt me, consider that I had yet another reason to think about this movie, and how it retains this satirical edge from the book, when I was asked to contribute to an anthology of writing on Madonna. I wrote about “Vogue”—you’ll have to read the book when it comes out!—but I did think a lot about Madonna paying tribute to Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with the video for “Material Girl”, which replicates the number “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”. So, I watched both videos next to each other, and was unpleasantly reminded that in “Material Girl”, there’s an entire subplot where Madonna dates some guy who just gives her flowers and falls in Twue Wuv, instead of running around with men who shower her with diamonds. Which is all very romantic, but utterly non-subversive, because there’s no challenge there to the restrictions put on women to perform their sexuality but to never cash in on it for themselves.
I like Lorilei better. She’s not smart, but she does outsmart the men around her, and the implication is that’s not hard to do. At the end of the movie, when the father of the rich man she’s marrying accuses her of being a gold-digger, unlike Madonna in “Material Girl”, she doesn’t deny the charge or try to prove that she’s just a humble girl who makes no demands on men in exchange for all the effort she puts into being sexy and giggly and ego-boosting. Instead, she says, “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?” Double standard called out, and the father can’t do anything to stop the marriage, thus the happy ending.
Of course, in real life both then and now, sex kittens don’t actually have a right to call men out on their behavior without bringing a halt to the gravy train. If “Real Housewives” have taught us anything, it’s this—the women who excel at the game of being trophy wives and mistresses are those who believe in the system, not those who approach it with a subversive mindset appropriate to a satirical character like Lorilei. Sex kittens with a subversive bent move more towards direct cash transactions, so they can go home and turn the act off at the end of the day. Or that’s my guess anyway, but what do I know? “Real Housewives” is just as fictional as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, but it isn’t nearly as clever.
You can certainly argue that “Gentlemen” isn’t really that subversive. It’s not. There’s a wedding at the end, we’re boringly led to believe Lorilei does love her doofy husband, etc. But the end of the movie isn’t the point of that movie; it’s all the jokes and setpieces before it. And that stuff is all why I think it was a hit.