Howard Hawks is noteworthy in cinema for lots of reasons; he’s infamous for just a few. Among them is Hawks’ history of battling the censors. Before the Hays Code came into official effect, he directed the classic Scarface, that great old violent mobster movie that shook things up long before Brian DePalma and Al Pacino whipped out their little friend and added some ultraviolence. Other films, such as Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp novel The Big Sleep brought a strongly homoerotic element into film noir that added increased anxiety to an already-anxiety-driven genre of American cinema. Once Marilyn Monroe entered the movie world in the late 40s, it was only a matter of time before directors like Hawks and Billy Wilder would take advantage of her voluptuous image to mix things up a little on the screen.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is great for functioning both as classic, textbook Laura Mulvey material and also playing with, or possibly even undermining, the Mulveyan notion of narrative cinema as geared for a male viewing audience. In a quick review, Mulvey’s argument in her seminal “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” sets forth that conventional narrative film form has built into it the assumption of an active male viewer bound by a scopohilic gaze on the passive, objectified woman on screen. Two types of scopophila (the pleasure of looking) are at work: fetishistic scopophilia – in which the woman on screen is fetishized through the male viewer’s castration anxiety – and narcissistic scopophilia – in which the male viewer identifies actively with the on-screen male who is also defined by his gaze upon the passive woman. The purpose of fetishistic scopophilia is to negotiate the male’s fear of the woman (on account of her castration, and therefore the threat of castration to him, too); the purpose of narcissistic scopophilia is to narrow the viewing gap between the male spectator and the woman (who is “to-be-looked-at”) while still keeping her at arm’s length. By narrowing the gap, the male viewer comes under the false impression that the image is mediated neither by the camera filming it nor by the falseness of the image (not the “real thing” but rather bright light projecting stained celluloid). Still, by narcissistically identifying with the diegetic male character, the male viewer’s castration anxiety is slightly alleviated by proxy. As a result of narcissistic scopophilia, the male viewer turns the image of woman into a fetish object, desiring both to punish and to idealize her. As for the female viewer, she is excluded; narrative cinema’s classic form does not take her into account. (Discussions of things like “chick flicks” are not inconsistent with this notion but will have to wait til another day.)
The opening scene of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes features the two women, Lorelei (Marilyn) and Dorothy (Jane Russell), singing and dancing on stage while looking directly at the camera. Interesting, the film’s opening credits interrupt the routine, which then resumes after Howard Hawks’ name gets the directorial credit. It’s only after some time has passed that we finally get a reverse shot of the audience, which focuses on Gus, Lorelei’s decidedly castrated fiancée. This cut comes not a moment too soon. Finally, the viewer can breathe a sigh of relief through the acknowledgment by the cinema screen itself that this is, in fact, cinema. Until the reverse shot takes place, we seem to be watching a filmed stage performance, un-mediated and unadulterated. In Mulveyan terms, castration anxiety is in full effect. Once the reverse shot gives us the image of a rather pathetic looking man, narrative significance is finally given to what was strictly non-narrative before. The song-and-dance routines freeze the narrative from progressing and offer only a one-way gaze by the male viewer of the women on screen. The reverse shot of Gus only hints at the narrative, but it is not the reverse shot with which a male viewer wants to identify; Gus is not the way the male viewer sees himself looking at the ladies, although perhaps Gus is all-too telling of the male viewer’s anxiety.
Once the girls exit the stage, their dialogue offers further evidence of what their lyrics already suggested: they have it all quite figured out. They know what they want, and make no mistake, they want a lot. Their cleverness lies in their clear understanding that the men want them a lot, a fact that they use throughout the film as a bargaining tool. Lorelei obviously is interested in diamonds, classic commodities that, she admits, “are a girl’s best friend.” There’s no surprise here, based on the old cliché. What is a little surprising is how the camera seems to side with Lorelei at a number of points. Perhaps most significantly, there’s the scene when Lorelei discovers that “Piggy” owns a diamond mine in Africa. From her POV, we see Piggy’s head become overlaid with a large diamond, overtly symbolizing all that Lorelei sees in him. While this may not seem terribly significant, it’s the fact that Lorelei, a woman, is not only objectifying a man, but the viewer also does so through her. We are given the point of view of a woman’s desiring gaze, seeing a man not “as he is” but as a means to an end. Lorelei does something similar after their first performance when she remarks provocatively to Dorothy that she saw a large “bulge” in Gus’ pocket, which she can’t wait to get her hands on. She then remarks that it must be a diamond ring.
On a superficial level, Dorothy is seemingly set apart from Lorelei. For one thing, she’s brunette while Lorelei is the titular blonde, already implying that she is less preferable in comparison. On another obvious level, she’s simply not Marilyn Monroe. Already in 1952, Marilyn’s iconic status was becoming firm; nothing wrong with Jane Russell, but Marilyn she was not. On top of this, Dorothy seems to carry herself in a more masculine way than Lorelei. She is less desired by men (as evidenced by Gus’ entrance into their dressing room), and she seems unaffected by the fact. She’s at least as clever as Lorelei, and she knows what she wants just as much, but she’s more willing to go and actively get it. Lorelei, on the other hand, knows how to be passive in just the right way in order to get that one rich man to come knocking on her door. When they prepare to board the ship going to France, Dorothy establishes herself as Lorelei’s chaperone. Dorothy makes it just as clear, however, that the chaperone is the one who’s allowed to have fun. She says this as she discovers that the U.S. Olympic team will be on board for the voyage. The athletes are of no interest to Lorelei, since they certainly don’t own any diamond mines. Dorothy, on the other hand, communicates plenty of interest in the strong-bodied men.
The musical number that follows shortly thereafter is staged at a pool where the men are presumably practicing. Lorelei is absent; this one belongs to Dorothy. She’s dressed in strapless black while all the male athletes surrounding her are clad only in flesh-toned swim shorts. When the men are dancing around Dorothy, at times it’s hard to tell if they’re wearing anything at all. The scene identifies Dorothy as the woman who desires the male body – and not only in the singular. She’s surrounded by strong, male bodies, and she swoons over all of them. Adding a little here and there between lyrics, she says, “Doubles, anyone? This court’s open.” So while Dorothy seems to set herself apart from Lorelei by desiring love from a man rather than riches, it turns out that Dorothy is actually interested in the male body, another means to an end. While the two women appear to be different, they are fundamentally the same. The film turns the tables on traditional males-objectifying-females and allows the opposite to take place. It’s a comedy, of course, so the idea isn’t being taken all that seriously, but it’s still present.
The film comes closest to subverting conventional male-female stereotypes by making it clear toward the end that the women really are the intelligent ones. Gus’ rich father chastises his son for pursuing such a class-less woman and accuses Lorelei of wanting Gus only for his money. Lorelei responds insistently that she actually wants Gus for his father’s money. When the father tries to rebuke Lorelei for such shallow affection, she articulates the film’s most effective point against men. She points out that any man wants his daughter to marry a financially secure man, for her own safety and comfort in life. Furthermore, no man is ever attacked for wanting to marry a beautiful woman, so why can’t a woman want to marry a wealthy man? Each has his/her commodity in the exchange; each has something to offer the other. The point is well made and silences Gus’ father, although it officially removes the notion of “true love” from the film entirely. Lorelei is the proverbial gold digger, and Dorothy is the sex-hungry woman. One is more “female” in traditional terms and the other more “male,” but nothing particularly negative can be said about them that can’t be said at some level about men, too.
In the end, Hawks gives an expected wink to the suggestion present throughout the film of the two women actually desiring one another. In the early dressing room scene, Lorelei tells Dorothy that she and Gus are getting married. Dorothy responds incredulously, “To each other?” Dorothy, who knows Lorelei through and through, find the idea of Lorelei marrying Gus rather ridiculous and possibly hurtful. On the trans-Atlantic cruise, Dorothy is often seen spying on Lorelei and other men – usually Gus or Piggie. Finally, the concluding shot of the film at the double wedding features Dorothy and Lorelei in the middle of the aisle with their grooms on either side of them. The camera zooms in just enough to cut the men out of the frame and ends with the two women smiling at each other. Certainly, the two women have gotten what they set out for. Certainly, it’s a cute way to end the film. But it’s also suggestive that the two women can’t let go of one another, and the fact that it’s suggested front and center at a wedding at least continues Hawks’ pattern of homoerotic hints, if not more than that. In the end it seems unlikely that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actually subverts traditional cinema, at least in Mulveyan terms. The film is set up for the visual pleasure of male viewers, even if it toys with flipping traditional notions on their heads. In a statement about the film, Hawks himself noted that he had the women continue to walk up and down the stairs during dance numbers simply because the men on the set enjoyed watching them do so. The title, in addition, insinuates class elitism, racism, and sexism; as if only “gentleman” have good taste and white “blondes” are the only thing worth tasting. The fact that we’re talking about the 50s, though, means that the film deserves a lot of credit for at the very least pointing out the one-sided nature of conventional cinema and the fact that the tables can be turned.