January 21, 2013

"Get Our War Paint on and Go to Work: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" by Krystal Languell

This semester, the department-wide freshman composition final exam at one of the schools I teach for is about gender performance and expectations in America. We’re all required to teach the same two essays, which, when juxtaposed against one another, seem to do little more than argue whether it’s harder to be a man or a woman: another false dilemma from higher education. In my class, I’ve supplemented the essays with a paragraph out of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, a discussion of the Bechdeltest and an episode of Father Knows Best, assigning new vocabulary words: “performativity,” “representation,” and “patriarchy.”

In my experience, freshmen are wedded to the status quo in all the ways that might make sense for a freshly-minted, terrified adult, but their reluctance to question assumptions remains exasperating. They text while I define the waves of American feminism. They laugh when I say “sex” or “pornography.” They shrug when I scold them for not paying attention.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does not pass the Bechdel test. But, as we discussed in my class, the test measures quantity, not quality. It’s about representation. Films such as Reservoir Dogs and Fight Club are arguably great films though they don’t pass the test for their lack of strong female characters. I wondered, is it possible for a film to fail the test and not only remain great, but feminist? Are there great and feminist films in which women spend all their time talking about men?

“We're just two little girls.”

Immediately, in the first line of the movie, femininity is used as an economic weapon. As Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe open the film with a song and dance that tells a tale of strategic performance: “I was young and determined / to be wined and dined and ermined.” As they perform, the narrative is doubled as the lyrics foreshadow the film’s plot, or at least its thesis statement: “Find a gentleman who’s shy or bold / Or short or tall or young or old / As long as the guy’s a millionaire.” We don’t know much about these women, just that they are stunning and beautiful and, most crucially, they know that men love to look at them. In her book The Female Thing, Laura Kipnis defines this power play as:

creatively transforming female disadvantages into advantages, basically by doing what it [takes] to form strategic alliances with men: enhancing women’s appeal and sexual attractiveness with time-honored stratagems like ritual displays of female incompetence aimed at subtly propping up men’s (occasionally less than secure) sense of masculine prowess.

Dorothy and Lorelei know very well that they are not “just two little girls.” They play the game Kipnis describes. The only accident that occurs in the film is when detective Ernie Malone snaps a compromising photo of Lorelei and Piggy, which actually looks more awkward than sexual. Otherwise, this is what a smart woman looks like in 1953: giggling at things she doesn’t think are funny, flirting with men she’s not attracted to. In short, performing.

The week before I got a tattoo of a diamond across my wrist, I was flipping through a tattoo magazine one of my roommates brought home. Past the soft core pornography spreads of tattooed women, which annoyingly highlighted curves over body art, in the last pages I found a Sailor Jerry style image: a cluster of cartoonish diamonds draped with a text banner that read “girl’s only friend.” Like an old friend’s band sticker that says “How’s My Fucking? Dial 1-800-TREMENDOUS,” this tattoo said fuck you. I was into it, and decided to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to figure out whether I really wanted this particular fuck you on my skin for as long as my skin lasts.

Money may not love you back, but saying fuck you to the patriarchy does. I chose a simple geometric diamond to be a bit more subtle. When people ask what it means, I want to say “it means I paid to have a diamond permanently on my wrist,” but instead I usually say “girl’s best friend.”

“Say, they told me you were stupid. You don't sound stupid to me.”
“I can be smart when it's important. But most men don't like it.”

Kipnis explains how, “shut out of decent employment, gals adopted a  ‘pay-to-play’ strategy—men had to pay for sex, with dinners, rings, and homes. Men are also required to kill spiders. All this took some considerable effort.”

Count the number of raised eyebrows and winks.

Count the number of times Dorothy sends Ernie Malone for cigarettes.

Count the number of men (the gymnastics team!). Count the number of women.

I don’t know if I’m any good at jamming Feminism 101 into the last three weeks of freshman composition, but I suspect and hope that it’s a slow burn, like good teaching always is. When I was a freshman, I too probably would have snickered at my professor talking about a comic called Dykes To Watch Out For. In fact, my version of this involved Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and later Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, both of which I had to grow into. I told my students to look around on the subway and notice the way people look at each other: men looking at women, yes, but also anybody looking at anybody else. I don’t want them to just see what is sinister about gender and performance, but also what might be innocent or anxious, covert or charming.

Krystal Languell teaches writing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and Pratt Institute in New York City. She serves as treasurer and studio coordinator for the Belladonna* Collaborative, and edits the feminist poetry journal Bone Bouquet. Her first book of poetry, Call the Catastrophists, was published by BlazeVox in 2011. Recent creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review and La Fovea. She has published interviews and reviews with Coldfront, NewPages, Sink Review and The Poetry Project Newsletter.

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