“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” Is a Feminist Song

Carol ChanningGrowing up, the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Carol Channing were more or less the same thing. I know that Marilyn Monroe performed the song in the filmed version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And Jo Stafford recorded a version of the song three years before that. But Channing originated the role on Broadway. And it has since been her signature song. (Yes, she’s still alive — turning 98 this month.)

There are lots of ways to interpret the song. It is certainly one of the most cynical songs in the history of popular music. But the real question is what we are to make of the singer.

Is the Singer Sympathetic?

In the musical, it is sung by Lorelei Lee. And it is clear that she is meant to be sympathetic. It starts with her boyfriend’s father sending a detective to track her on her trip to France. He’s afraid she is only dating his son for his money. At the end, because this is a musical comedy, the father learns to respect her and gives his consent to marry.

This is all interesting but it is hardly a case for the song being a feminist anthem. In addition to everything else, the lyrics were written by a man, Leo Robin. (The music was written by Jule Styne, which I mention only because he is probably my favorite musical composer of that era.)

Gender Realpolitik

But the truth is that the song is an illustration of a woman accessing the world as it is and then taking control. It’s gender realpolitik.

The song starts:

A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
A kiss may be grand
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat
Or help you at the automat

Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

It’s odd that I never listened to the lyrics all those times I heard Channing perform it. It wasn’t until 1982 when T-Bone Burnett released a subdued version that I was forced to see just how menacing those lyrics were. And hidden beneath them is fear of a society that doesn’t treat girls the same as boys (this is quite explicit in the play).

The following year, Emmylou Harris released Burnett’s arrangement on her album White Shoes, which is great:

Feminist or Anti-Man?

The rest of the song is the same:

There may come a time
When a lass needs a lawyer
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
There may come a time when a hard-boiled employer
Thinks you’re awful nice
But get that ice or else no dice

He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend
That’s when those louses
Go back to their spouses
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

(The full song includes an introduction and a third verse — both of which are wisely omitted by most performers. Channing uses yet another verse after the first that is quite good, but I’m not going to discuss it.)

The second verse could be seen as more anti-man than feminist. But I’m not sure that’s a distinction that matters. As with all relationships, the person with the most power acts the worse. To me, feminism ultimately becomes humanism.

I’ll admit that I’m jaded. A woman who understands that a sexual relationship is ultimately an economic exchange is one that has my respect. But you don’t need to see the song as quite that cynical. This is not a “sex for diamonds” transaction.

The implication is that she’s quite happy to be in the relationship. But since she can’t be a wife, she’s going to see to her retirement.

Modern Feminism?

Obviously, the song is not modern feminism. But for 1949 ethos it does push forward. Instead of telling young women to hold on to their virginity in order to get a husband, this song says, “Go ahead and live your life. But men are awful so protect yourself.”

What’s more, it seems a lot more progressive than Sheryl Sandberg’s ridiculous Lean In philosophy. I would say that Sandberg is pitching the same “wait until you’re married” notion. It is, “Play the rules like a man and they will treat you right.”

They won’t. Get that ice or no dice.

It Is Almost Always Wrong to Use [sic]

It Is Almost Always Wrong to Use SicThere is a time in any nonfiction writer’s life when they get good enough to use [sic]. And do they use it! It’s such a wonderfully passive-aggressive way to attack other writers. Generally, such writers eventually move past that point and never use it as a weapon. But they also learn that it is almost never necessary — especially on the internet.

Based on how most people use [sic], they must think that it means, “This is wrong.” But that is not it at all. Indeed, while it often does highlight errors, that is not its purpose.

What Is [sic]?

[sic] is short for sic erat scriptum. According to Google Translate, this means “thus it is written.” But it is better to think of as “literally” or “as written.”

And that’s all that [sic] means: the words before are meant as written. So I could write, “I’m felling spacd ot toda [sic].” And this is one of its most appropriate uses: to call attention to your bad humor attempts.

Traditionally, [sic] was used to indicate that anything in quoted text that might confuse the reader is there intentionally. So in quoting Shakespeare, I might write, “And all clouds that lowr’d vpon [sic] our houfe [sic].”[1]

Clearly, in this case, the [sic] is alerting to the user to the oddness. But more than that, it is saying, “This is how it is actually printed; I didn’t screw up.” And that’s very important because I’ve seen typos in quotes that writers introduced. I’ve done it myself when transcribing text.

Fix Errors in Quotations

But here’s the thing: [sic] is not meant to call attention to errors. And it is perfectly okay to fix any obvious errors and typos.

I hear people objecting. “What?! How dare you change another writer’s prose! You monster!”

There are several things wrong with this. First, only do this when it is clear. I’m sure you’ve seen things I’ve written here like, “He went to a a store.” Is there any doubt I meant to write, “He went to a store”?

Another issue is that editors and typesetters often put errors into a writer’s work. And that was even truer before writers and publishers had computers.

Only the worst pedants will complain unless you somehow change the quotation in a fundamental way.

But if it bothers you, put the changes inside square brackets.

Never Use [sic] as a Weapon

Fowler’s entry on [sic] is more of a rant condemning the use of it as a weapon. And rightly so! This usage is totally unacceptable.

And in the age of the internet, [sic] is almost never necessary because the reader already knows that any quotes are not transcribed. They are rather copied-and-pasted. So it is exactly what was written.

I suspect we will eventually get to the point were [sic] is primarily used as I first did in this article: to point out something the writer is saying.

But my main point is this: don’t be a jerk. In the end, you will only look small to the people who matter.

Afterword

You should probably be able to guess, given the intensity of this article, that I am a former sinner. So don’t take my hectoring personally. It’s more self-criticism than anything.


[1] I don’t know enough about printing to say if any of this is actually different in substance. But it clearly is typographically, so if you require it, imagine I am writing about changes in printing.