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Fashion in American Popular Culture

“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” was imprinted indelibly on the memory of the big screen with Marilyn Monroe’s legendary 1953 performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and has taken on a number of reincarnations and reinventions since, presenting a unique vision of sex and femininity to the viewer, an intriguing combination of desire and commerce. Two of the most notable revisions to date of Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number have been Madonna’s 1985 “Material Girl” music video, and Nicole Kidman’s performance as the courtesan Satine in Baz Luhrman’s 2001 Moulin Rouge! On the big and small screens, the icon of Monroe’s presentation and manipulations of the song itself have become part of common popular culture knowledge, and performances of femininity and sexuality have also taken on new meanings in each version. By examining some cinematic elements of each of these representations, such as how the power of women is presented to the audience, including issues of style, sexuality, and ownership; interaction of the central performer with other women; the composition of the mise-en-scene, including color; and the politics of what Laura Mulvey has called the male gaze, which encourages the audience to identify with the male protagonist and participate in the objectification of the female character, through demystification or fetishism; and the unique aspects of each woman and performance, it becomes possible to assess each representation with a critical eye and address the discourse surrounding femininity and sexuality in each of these versions of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Though each of these revisions are unique, there is also a similarity binding them all together, which is their identity as performers, not only as actresses and musicians in the “real world,” but within the scenes themselves which each plays. Inside the microcosms of these two films and music video, the character each woman embodies is an actress in at least one sense of the word. Monroe, as Lorelei, is a nightclub singer, as well as putting forth the posturing of social graces in an attempt to gain acceptance from the higher classes, seeking specifically the masculine validation of her fiancé and his father. One of the men watching Madonna’s performance within the performance of her music video says of her that “she is a star.” Finally, Kidman, as Satine, is a singer and dancer at the Moulin Rouge, and is also a courtesan, convincing men of her love and desire; as Satine says at one point to Christian, played by Ewan McGregor: “I’m a courtesan. I’m paid to make men believe what they want to believe.” In addition, each of them is embodying a different idea of femininity, negotiating both gender and sexuality as performative.

According to Anthony Summers in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the film in which Monroe reached the status of being “officially, a full-fledged star” in the eyes of the studio and the movie-going public. As Richard Buskin reminds us in Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe, she plays the role of Lorelei Lee, a breathless, “scorching blonde bombshell with a fondness for money,” trying to wed her millionaire fiancé against his father’s wishes. Lorelei and her friend Dorothy, played by Jane Russell, sail for Paris, where Lorelei’s fiancé is to meet and marry her; once they arrive, they find Lorelei’s letter of credit revoked and themselves penniless. Both find work at a nightclub, and it is here that Monroe as Lorelei performs “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” which Buskin calls “the single most identifiable sequence pertaining to the career of Marilyn Monroe.”

One aspect of Monroe’s on and off-screen persona that has proven particularly problematic for historians and biographers, as well as for the woman herself during her too-short life, was her constructed star image of being entirely innocent, and yet sexually knowledgeable and available, simultaneously both the virgin and the whore. Monroe expressed no embarrassment when the Golden Dreams calendar shots, featuring Monroe in the nude, became public; though she did ask for the public’s sympathy, she felt she had nothing to be ashamed of, and spoke openly and candidly of her sexuality. According to Clare Booth Luce in “‘The Love Goddess’ Who Never Found Any Love,” when “asked, years after the shot had been circulated worldwide, what she had on when she posed for it, she replied ‘The radio.’” However, in the films late in Monroe’s life, most notably The Misfits (1961) with Clark Gable, Monroe tried to move away from her sexualized star image, or at least attempted to actively negotiate it, and she never gave up her fierce desire to be taken seriously as an actress, a feat studios, audiences, and the demands of the market would not allow her to achieve. When the associate editor of Life magazine interviewed Monroe in the summer of 1962, shortly before her untimely death, Monroe commented on her sex symbol status, saying “I never quite understood it – this sex symbol – I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some of the other things they’ve got symbols of!”

This dichotomy of sexuality is presented to the viewer in Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” where her attitude of innocence is paired unforgettably with a hard-edged savvy of money and sexual power. Monroe actively uses her body at times throughout the song, engaging in a wiggling, bump and grind style of dance. Monroe’s facial expressions, as well, reflect the complicated negotiation of sexuality she is engaged in, though both her face and body never lose their aura of playfulness. Monroe has the power to say “no,” and does so repeatedly before launching into the body of the musical number, punctuated by Monroe slapping the men surrounding her with her fan. However, the good-natured smile never leaves Monroe’s face, calling up for the critical viewer some of Charlene Y. Senn’s ideas from “The Research on Women and Pornography: The Many Faces of Harm” – a version of the “rape myth” threat, a sense that while she is saying “no,” she could, with manipulation, be read as meaning “yes,” depending upon the perspective. Though Monroe is never explicitly threatened with violence, she is surrounded by men throughout the entirety of her performance, and is at times pulled from place to place upon the stage, from one group of men to another, her movement dictated by the men rather than her own power. In large part, Monroe seems to be catering to male desire, but it is worth noting that at many times throughout “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the men are kneeling before her, obeying her commands, serving as physical props for her dance number, and, at one point, lift Monroe high above them, glorifying her, though they are simultaneously objectifying her.

Issues of ownership are slightly problematic in Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” There is little doubt that Monroe has complete ownership of herself, but her ownership of the diamonds in question is more uncertain. Monroe is wearing many diamonds as she performs this song – a necklace, earrings, and two bracelets, all glittering and nearly larger than life. However, though she pulls on the prop belts of diamonds offered to her by the surrounding men throughout the musical number, she claims only one, which she promptly throws to her fiancé Gus, who is seated in the audience. Monroe’s failure to take the jewels being offered to her is a riddle with many possible answers: Perhaps the dynamics of the stage performance within the larger film required that the diamonds as well as the song and dance number itself be read as artificial. It is possible that Howard Hawks, in his role as director of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes wanted to represent an embodiment of femininity that is polite and proper, waiting to receive rather than taking, a product-driven version of an aware sexuality that waits to be taken rather than manifesting itself in unladylike desire. Or maybe Monroe is presenting “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with a brand of tongue-in-cheek humor future audiences would see more directly with Madonna’s revisiting of the number. It is possible to argue each, and no one answer can be championed over the others, but the fact that Monroe does not take the offered jewels makes an enigmatic statement about power and femininity, which would not be matched in reincarnations of the song. It is worth noting that in a reprisal of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” at the end of the film, Lorelei and Dorothy are walking down the aisle together, matching brides in a double wedding, each claiming a large, diamond engagement ring.

Marilyn’s air of innocence, however complicated, sets her performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” apart from all that would follow. This naiveté is all the more striking in the context of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because the film came so closely after the Golden Dreams calendar scandal, and the studio went to great lengths to foreground the near-childlike aspect of Monroe’s star image, changing at least two aspects of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in order to play down the sexuality of Monroe. According to Buskin, the song “had two verses excised due to lyrics that were then considered too racy for the screen. The first ended with the lines ‘But buyers and sighers / They’re such Goddam liars,’ while the second verse was even more risqué: ‘Some girls find / Some peace of mind / In a trust fund that banks recommend / But if you are busty / Your trustee gets lusty.’” The second change made in the scene centered on Monroe’s costuming. Buskin states that Bill Sarris, designer Bill Travilla’s assistant at the time, said “‘the costume that Bill initially dressed Marilyn in was like a leotard with all of these rhinestones, and it was very nude looking … This was after the calendar had come out, and it didn’t take long before Bill received a call from Zanuck’s office saying, ‘Cover her up.’ So … he [Travilla] designed the shocking pink dress. That used a very heavy fabric and was not fitted; they just belted it in.” In both dress and speech, the studio accentuated the innocence of Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, without entirely subverting the sexuality of her image, again falling back on the virgin/whore dichotomy, both sides of which they demanded the same woman embody simultaneously.

Monroe shares the stage with several other women, though never for an extended period of time, and none of whom come close to matching the brilliance of Monroe’s person or performance. Before the song and dance number begins, Monroe is sitting very demurely with her back to the nightclub audience, while men in black suits dance with women in full pink gowns. When Monroe turns to the audience, the other female dancers fall back to the sides of the stage, becoming almost unnoticed. They return to surround her mid-way through the song, looking up to Monroe as if for advice, which she gladly gives them with an almost matronly demeanor, cautioning them that “there may come a time when a lass needs a lawyer / But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” However, though the women surround Monroe, their arms around one another in visible sisterhood, the politics of touch seem to keep them from extending their arms to surround Monroe. The message is clear: she is not one of them, and no matter how much adoration they may look upon her with, she can never be one of them, nor can they be her. Monroe is friendly and smiling, confiding in these other women, yet she is utterly unattainable, separate, isolated. More troubling in the representation of women during Monroe’s performance are the black-clad women, their bodies bent in various contorted positions to act as human chandeliers. Their faces are frozen in smiles and they never move, entirely objectified, signifying to the critical viewer the danger posed to women, a perspective from which they can be seen not as human beings but simply as things, and the even more horrifying reality of compliance. Indeed, Monroe is allowing this objectification to happen to these women, just as studios and audiences allowed the same objectification to happen to Monroe herself, turning her into the sex symbol of her generation, a fact which she was very uncomfortable with and resentful of, and fought against until the day she died. According to an article by Gloria Steinem, Monroe once responded angrily to a drama coach who commented on her outward sexuality while performing, “‘I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak … a celluloid aphrodisiac.’” Regrettably, in many ways, much of the biographical and historical work on Monroe has continued to objectify her; however, the entering and increasing presence of feminists into the discussion and reading of Monroe’s star image is offering Monroe’s memory a new empathy and respect, focusing on Marilyn Monroe the woman, rather than Marilyn Monroe the pin-up.

The mise-en-scene of Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number is also very reflective upon Monroe’s role within the scene as a performer. The film audience is shown almost the entire scene from the perspective of the traditional male gaze, almost as though the viewer were seated among the nightclub audience watching Monroe onstage. The viewer is ushered rather explicitly into the performance when, just before Monroe begins, the camera shows us a man in the audience, looking at her and smiling, before turning the camera immediately back on Monroe. The composition of camera angles deviates from the traditional male gaze in two places: first, when Monroe looks directly into the camera, delivering the line “But get that ice or else no dice,” seeming to encounter the gaze and stare back, and again when we see Lorelei’s fiancé Gus from her point of view as she tosses him the belt of diamonds. Monroe is clad in Bill Travilla’s now-famous pink gown, with matching three-quarter length gloves, singing and dancing against a background of a darker shade of pink, nearly red. The composition of the set and shots themselves, therefore, created not only one of the most memorable segments in film history, but also framed a fairly traditional, if at times problematic, version of femininity and sexuality for the 1950s, stuck somewhere between the demand for quiet, ladylike conformity and the desire for a more sexualized female identity and expression, locked in indecision between the virgin and the whore.

Over thirty years later, Madonna would revisit the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” concept from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with her “Material Girl” video, putting a new spin on the classic. Madonna had already attracted several comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, to which she replied, “‘I saw it as a compliment … because she was extremely sexy and had blonde hair and so on,’” but much as Monroe had complained about her status as a sex symbol, Madonna confessed, as recorded by Barbara Victor in Goddess: Inside Madonna, “‘It started to annoy me because nobody wants to be continuously compared to someone else.’” Madonna also noted some dramatic differences between herself and Monroe, most importantly that “’Marilyn was a victim, and I’m not.’” For many aware of and grieved by Monroe’s fate, Madonna offered a similar combination of innocence and sexuality; as Dr. Joyce Brothers commented, Madonna is “childlike and innocent but at the same time naughty.” However, along with these qualities, Madonna possessed a strength and shrewdness that had been unmatched by Monroe; as Mark Bego writes, “Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe died at the pinnacle of their fame, but Madonna’s survival instinct is too strong for that.” Much like Monroe’s experience with the Golden Dreams calendar shots, shortly before Madonna’s “Material Girl” video, nude photographs of Madonna appeared in Penthouse. Victor comments upon the similar experience shared by Monroe, Miss America winner Vanessa Williams, and Madonna, writing that “the difference between how Williams and Monroe reacted to the release of nude photographs and how Madonna reacted tells a great deal about the latter’s character. While the former Miss America and Monroe pleaded for sympathy from their adoring fans, Madonna was more concerned that she had neither artistic nor financial control over the photographs,” upset by the vulnerability she experienced in respect to her representation and capital, rather than being at all embarrassed or ashamed. Madonna brought this strength to the screen, reinventing the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” image Monroe had made famous, with a new dimension of power.

Madonna wears a replica of the pink Travilla gown from Monroe’s unforgettable Gentlemen Prefer Blondes performance, with a similar pink background and cadre of male dancers surrounding her. Even some of the choreography echoes that familiar from Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”; for example, in her “Material Girl” video, Madonna is also pulled around and lifted off the ground by the men, though Madonna is clearly in control of the scene playing out, and there is no sense of the vulnerability and danger called up by some moments of Monroe’s performance. Madonna has the power to draw men to her with the smallest gesture and can push them away from her just as easily, even shoving one man to the floor at her feet, and planting a high heel-clad foot in the middle of his chest. Madonna may be an embodiment of male desire, but her performance and the way in which she carries herself make it immediately recognizable that she will not cater or submit herself to those desires, is not automatically available; instead of revisiting the virgin/whore dichotomy, Madonna invents a new category altogether, a space in which she is nothing more nor less than her own woman, perhaps still a sex symbol of sorts, but, according to Kevin Dayle, “a sex symbol who talks back.”

With her “Material Girl” video, Madonna also claims ownership with a far steadier hand than Monroe was able to more than a quarter of a century earlier. Not only is Madonna in full possession of herself, she is also not afraid to take what she wants, and she doesn’t stop at diamonds. Throughout the course of the video, Madonna takes furs, the ring from a man’s finger, and money from a man’s pocket, imposing herself physically upon the men who surround her. She is showered with gifts to the point of annoyance; as she tells a friend over the telephone during the introduction to the song, “yeah, he’s still after me … he thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts.” But when Madonna sees something she truly wants, she doesn’t wait for it to be offered; she simply takes it.

Another new dimension that Madonna brought to the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” concept was a flair for humor and irony, saying or presenting one thing while meaning the exact opposite. A prime example of this is Madonna’s “Boy Toy” nickname and famous matching belt buckle. Madonna chose the nickname for herself, finding it humorous in its double meaning, commenting that “‘I can see how the rest of the world thinks I’m saying, ‘Play with me’ and ‘I’m available to anyone.’ Once again, it’s a tongue-in-cheek statement, the opposite of what it says.’” The “Material Girl” video operates much along the same premise. As Madonna professes with the song’s lyrics: “They can beg and they can plead / But they can’t see the light, that’s right / ‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash / Is always Mister Right, ‘cause we are / Living in a material world / And I am a material girl.” Indeed, she does claim quite a large amount of jewelry and cash throughout the course of the video, but money and gifts do not guarantee a potential suitor her time or attention, as becomes readily apparent at the beginning of the video. In the end, it is the man with the daisies and the pickup truck who is graced with her company. However, the pickup truck is rented, and the man is performing just as much, if not more than Madonna is herself, taking on the role of a man he thinks she will find attractive and acceptable; once again, it is Madonna who is in control in the final scenes of the “Material Girl” music video. Madonna may still be performing a role of femininity, but she is thoroughly enjoying it, and, at the very least, she is not performing alone.

Unlike Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Madonna acted out her reinvention of the image without the company of other women. Not a single other woman appears on screen anywhere close to Madonna; the only other woman in the video at all is fairly far in the background, wearing a pink dress as Madonna, now dressed in white, climbs into the pickup truck. Judging from the importance of color within the entirety of the video, one reading of the second woman’s significance could be that a woman as a performer acts out a certain version of sexuality until the cameras are off, at which point she can be herself, or perhaps simply take on a new role of femininity. In the case of “Material Girl,” at this point, Madonna is off the set as a performer within the video; she has finished the shoot for the day, and can perhaps relax. The second woman dressed in pink, not on-stage or posing before a camera, could serve as a reminder to audiences that gender and sexuality are always at least partially performative, whether the woman herself is a performer by occupation or not.

The mise-en-scene is, in large part, nearly identical to that of Monroe’s scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, though the “Material Girl” video interacts with the male gaze in a slightly different way. The viewer sees Madonna through a couple of different perspectives: that of the quintessential audience, and that of the bearded man pursuing her. From the man’s perspective, the viewer sees Madonna first on film, as he is screening the video, her image projected larger than life. He speaks of her to the man who is watching the video with him, saying “I want to meet her … now.” His smile shows that he is attracted to Madonna, desires her, and from this point he begins following her and gazing at her quite insistently, from outside the door of her dressing room and from a set of stairs looking directly out over the set on which she is performing. In this case, the look follows the voyeuristic pattern of the male gaze, as Mulvey puts it, where “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (emphasis original). In the performance of an actress such as Monroe, where the woman being watched is vulnerable, this perspective would be unsettling and terrifying, a threat of danger. But with Madonna’s edge of hardness and strength, his watching becomes quite comical, because it is Madonna who controls what he sees in her, and it is ultimately she who controls the way he acts towards her. Madonna also has an effect on the way in which the audience views the music video as well, challenging the male gaze by often looking directly into the camera, the sex object looking as well as talking back.

Nicole Kidman, in the role of the courtesan Satine in Moulin Rouge!, brings a style of femininity, sexuality, and commerce unparalleled by either Monroe or Madonna’s earlier versions of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Moulin Rouge!, directed by Baz Luhrman, tells the story of Satine and Christian, the young writer she falls in love with; it is a tragic love story, as the two find themselves separated by Satine’s obligations to the Moulin Rouge and its key investor, the Duke, as well as Satine’s diagnosis and death from consumption. Satine and Christian’s first meeting is on the floor of the Moulin Rouge, with Satine’s performance of the “Diamond Medley,” which lyrically brings together both “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

Kidman possesses a great deal of power in the “Diamond Medley” scene. She begins her performance by dropping from the ceiling in a sparkling swing, surrounded by cascades of glitter, literally above and untouchable to the audience. While both of her predecessors, Monroe and Madonna, began their “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” numbers with their backs to audience and camera, the first shot of Kidman is a side profile, aslant by the line of the black top hat she wears, identical to those of the men staring up at her from the nightclub’s floor, encouraging the film’s audience to an awareness of the power of gender association, as well as aspects of play and performance. Julia M. Klein compares Moulin Rouge! to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a notorious camp classic, the similarity “in its [Moulin Rouge’s] gender-bending, high-camp musical sequences and aggressive in-your-face relationship with the audience, whose expectations it continually and gleefully confounds.”

Kidman plays on the expectations called up by Monroe and Madonna’s earlier performances to her greatest advantage, and then builds upon these; Kidman’s “Diamond Medley” is by far the most sexual, aggressive incarnation of the three. As she reaches the floor, she is quickly surrounded by men, and touches and is touched by them, seeming to delight in her personal control of her representation of sexuality and the control she has over her audience. The most direct sexual content in this sequence occurs during the “Material Girl” sequence of the medley, as the cries of “Tiffany! / Cartier!” segue into Madonna’s familiar refrain: “Cause we are living in a material world / And I am a material girl”; as this point in the number, Kidman is positioned and shimmying over a man laying flat on his back on the floor. Immediately after, she stands, throws him a kiss, turns her back, and calls out “come and get me, boys,” reasserting her control of the personal, artistic, and commercial situations at hand. As Monroe and Madonna before her, Kidman is lifted into the air by her surrounding men, though there is no sense of danger in this revisitation of the theme, with Kidman relaxed, even feigning a yawn as she is carried to the stage.

In Satine’s identity as a courtesan, there is a more direct correlation between sex and commerce in Kidman’s performance than has even been implied in Monroe or Madonna’s earlier performances; in the “Diamond Medley” performance, the experience seems to be rather positive. Satine is using her employment as a courtesan as a stepping stone to becoming a serious actress, a desire the character shares poignantly with Monroe; she has no regrets and makes no apologies for the life she lives. As earlier demonstrated, Kidman wields a great deal of power and is not subjected to the use of, as Aline phrased it in “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” “the word ‘whore’ expressed as an insult, a put down, a cut … a broad floating term used to perpetuate social myths and hatred and fear of women.” Satine is a courtesan of the highest echelon, a public performer, but nowhere near being privately available to the masses; her favors are reserved for the most wealthy and powerful of the Moulin Rouge’s patrons, and she conducts herself, off-stage as well as on, with a grace and elegance that separates her from the working girls who share her stage, and the street prostitutes briefly glimpsed early in the film.

Much like Madonna’s “Material Girl” performance, Kidman has no trouble taking ownership, claiming the offered diamonds, but only the diamonds. Men bearing cash and flowers are brusquely refused; Kidman only has eyes for the gems. However, in Moulin Rouge!, Kidman’s ownership extends far beyond the material offerings of her male audience. She owns her image, her desire, her choices, and her ability to continue choosing for herself, enabled not only by her power, but also by her awareness of herself as a woman, and more specifically, as a courtesan; immediately following the conclusion of her “Diamond Medley” performance, Kidman approaches the young writer Christian, played by Ewan McGregor, for the next dance, announcing to the cadre of men vying for her attentions that the next song is “ladies’ choice,” with a control and ownership that continue with her character throughout the film.

During her “Diamond Medley” performance, Kidman interacts with a fairly large group of other women, though almost always in a peripheral capacity. The rest of the Moulin Rouge’s ladies of the night sing backup from the fringes of the room, never interacting directly with her. Where Monroe sang to surrounding women that “there may come a time when a lass needs a lawyer,” Kidman sings a duet of sorts with Harold Zidler, the proprieter of the Moulin Rouge, played by Jim Broadbent, during which Zidler teases her with diamonds and theatrically pinches her rear. Kidman is surrounded by other can-can dancers during a mid-medley costume change, but their backs are all turned to her as she preens in the center. None of the women look at, acknowledge, or speak to her; instead, the closest person Satine has to a confidante is Zidler, who is aiding her in the costume change, and encouraging her performances for the evening, both on stage and off.

Turning to the mise-en-scene, Moulin Rouge! both adheres to and challenges the male gaze in a manner unmatched by earlier versions of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” In many respects, the audience views Kidman much as the male audience on screen does, eroticizing her body. Kidman is clad in a sparkling silver and black leotard, much like that originally designed, and then scrapped, for Monroe’s performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This costume is paired with three-quarter length black gloves, which Kidman removes during the course of the performance, an act implicitly speaking to the possibility of privileged nudity to come, behind closed doors revealed to those fortunate enough to be chosen to share her company. The male gaze works directly on Satine as well, who is referred to as “the Sparkling Diamond,” her valuation both linguistically and through the politics of the gaze resulting in her being viewed as an object rather than an individual human being, a dramatic example of what Mulvey describes as “fetishistic scopophilia, [which] builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself.”

Kidman also goes to great lengths in playing at feminine roles, seen from the perspective of Zidler, during the isolated costume change; discussing her meeting with the Duke, a possible investor, later that evening, Satine asks Zidler, “What’s his type? Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Or smoldering temptress?” To which Zidler replies, “I’d say … smoldering temptress,” prescribing the role of femininity and sexuality she should play to please the man paying for her favors. However, it is difficult to categorize the “Diamond Medley” scene as adhering strictly to the dynamics of the male gaze. As Douglas Jones writes, “In the movie, the Moulin is defined above all by the selling of illusions. Nothing is as it appears on the surface – hence the play with mirrors and tricks of perspective, as if the movie itself were inviting us, almost taunting us, to read beyond its surface claims,” and Kidman’s playfulness blends well with director Baz Luhrman’s innovative filmmaking style. Much as Madonna’s “Material Girl” lyrics were quite tongue-in-cheek, Kidman is saying one thing, but meaning quite another, redeemed by her ownership of self and the playful nature with which she approaches her own representations of femininity and sexuality, reveling in the extraordinary range of expressions and possibilities, trading seriousness for irreverence, and finding enjoyment. Cinematically speaking, Kidman also counters the male gaze by staring directly into the camera at consistent intervals throughout the “Diamond Medley,” her own gaze aggressive and unflinching, with a power unmatched even by Madonna’s “Material Girl” performance; this returned look not only disrupts the viewer’s comfort and complacency within the familiarity of the male gaze, but also draws attention to constructions of femininity, both expected and unexpected, challenging that which the reader looks for, and reasserting the control Kidman wields of her own representation.

A reprise of the “Diamond Medley” near the end of the film, in the song “Hindu Sad Diamonds” complicates this reading of Kidman’s earlier performance. At this point in the film, Satine has learned that she is dying, has sent Christian away with the lie that she does not love him, and has resigned herself to joining the Duke at the conclusion of the nightclub’s first legitimate theatrical performance, for the good of the Moulin Rouge. Singing a truncated version of the earlier rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” consisting now simply of “kiss, hand / Diamonds best friend … Men, cold / Girls, old / And we all lose our charms in the end,” the playfulness of representation has disappeared altogether, leaving only despair, directing the attention of the viewer to the drastic difference of context and construction of meaning. In this performance, Kidman does not actively claim the diamonds, but rather has them placed around her neck with a sense of one being bound, imprisoned; the diamonds also become a claiming mark of ownership, as on stage Zidler embraces Satine, with the whispered words, “she is mine,” identically echoed by the Duke as he sits in the audience. At two different points in the film, in the performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Kidman both finds and loses herself, claims and is robbed of her agency and power, a situation both intriguing and problematic. Looking at the film in the context of its entirety, it is reasonably safe to say that as Satine dies, she is herself, loving, honest, and still seeking power over her own representation, as she orders Christian to write their story.

Representations of femininity and sexuality have played an integral role in style variations of the musical number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” throughout the last fifty years. Brought to the big screen and made unforgettable by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the concept has been revisited by the popular music superstar Madonna in her “Material Girl” video, and Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge!, among others. United by a playful awareness of the performative nature of femininity and sexuality, these three representations each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but each negotiates and invents new meanings of these representations, changing with the time periods of each performance, the woman performing, and the perspective of the film or video viewing audience, merging the delight of play with the seriousness of feminine and sexual representation.

January 2006

From guest contributor Alissa Burger

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