Our Rating: ★★★★☆
L Factor: Subtext
Short Take: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a buddy film
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1953
Duration: 91 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: Approved
Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Charles Lederer, Joseph Fields, Anita Loos
Starring: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn

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Gentlemen Prefer BlondesAlthough it may be a challenge to come up with names of mainstream female buddy movies, they do exist. Films like Thelma and Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes, A League of Their Own, The Color Purple, Julia, and 9 to 5 have female friendships at their core. Women in these films support one another, and even though they may be romantically involved with men, they do not subjugate their relationships with women to those with men. Nor do they become catty or go after the other woman’s man.

Most of these films appeared in the 1990s and later. At its heart, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also fits here, a renegade from 1953. It was a successful musical featuring bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, no doubt with an adoring male audience, but it also put the wonderful friendship between the two main characters front and center. Even when each member of the duo is married to a man, they do it together in a double wedding.

Arbuthnot and Seneca (1990, pg. 113) discuss the pleasures of watching this film for feminist viewers. Other early films featured strong female characters and serious actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, but they were often loners or male identified. In contrast, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes includes a focus on women who are connected to one another. Their friendship is something with which female viewers can identify, and even though the plot centers on finding a man, it does not overwhelm the main text of the story. What this means is that the outline of the film clearly identifies Dorothy (Russell) and Lorelei (Monroe) as heterosexual, but it does not consume the characters so much that straight feminists, bisexual women, or lesbians would find it just another film to write off as one that does not appeal to them.

Clearly Lorelei and Dorothy are sexy, wearing tight fitting costumes that amplify hourglass figures, but their attitudes are very female positive, rather than simply objects of desire. They don’t shrink at the male gaze or the female gaze; they return it. This sex appeal makes them both very powerful over the weaker men in the film, allowing them to easily manipulate millionaires, diamond mine owners, or even the entire Olympic team. Almost any female viewer could find some joy in their alliance on this issue! These are women who are very in control of their sexuality, rather than being intimidated or controlled by the male gaze.

But is this more than a female buddy movie? Can we find elements implying that Lorelei and Dorothy are more than friends? Alexander Doty (2000) thinks so, but this is one case in which a queer analysis of a film stretches the imagination. His paper examines scenes, themes, costumes, gestures, musical numbers, etc. and makes a case for reading the characters as bisexual. In particular, the characterization of Dorothy as the brunette, taller, almost butch character in contrast to the very quiet, femme Lorelei rings some bells of recognition.

But the minutiae examined did little to change my perception of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a bisexual film. Sometimes a friend is just a friend. Sometimes a friend is more important than a lover, and Doty did not convince me that these two women were lovers. Nor did he convince that audiences were given enough coded queues to think that the women may be in an erotic entanglement.

Why did he not make the case? Perhaps this is because the arguments rely on a definition of bisexuality in which the characters are women identified, but have sex with men. There are many films in which women marry men and also have relationships with women. What they have in common, though, is usually at least one character who is more female identified than the other, or one character who reads as either a lesbian or very open in her sexuality. Lorelei and Dorothy may be open to alternatives, but we don’t have enough clues to readily see this. As two women from “the wrong side of the tracks,” their class struggle also was part of creating a tremendous bond.

Perhaps my reluctance to believe may be because actresses Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe are such historical icons and sex symbols. When I see them I think sex, heterosexual sex. This does not diminish the pleasure of watching those hourglass figures some sixty years later. It makes the appreciation of the friendship of these very sexually powerful women even greater. (AB)