“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.

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

  1. When I was little, my super-religious Dad wouldn’t let me watch any movies where the characters had unmarried sex. I mean, he was bugged by “Rocky,” because Rocky & Adrian had sex. “Rocky”!!!

    So it was quite the trip, as an adult, to revisit all those old movies my Dad considered acceptable, and realize how many of them featured INT: PAN TO FIREPLACE.

    Point being, “Diamonds” is one of those songs you grow up with, but don’t get until you’re older. Then you go, “wait, isn’t this the plot of every other Thomas Hardy novel?” Because it most certainly is.

    People gets their horny on — if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have lasted much longer as a sprecies than coelacanths. (Who are doing reasonably well.) However, for most of our tenure, that urge to merge carried far more risks for one half of the population than the other. Still does, just not to the degree it used to.

    And, oh jeepers, was this a problem! Anthony Comstock, the postmaster General of New York state, banned shipment through the mail of anything involving birth control advice. This soon became national law.

    You can pretty much go through the world, now, and assess the level of womens’ rights via the birthrate. If it’s in the 2s, it’s probably not too awfully a hideous situation. If it’s in the 3s, Trump has investments there.

    Here’s a story, this one’s good. So me & Mrs. James are hanging out at some lake cabins with visiting Danish friends. Minnesota, 10,000 lakes, that’s the deal.

    Adult beverages were in play, and much laughter was had, and it came up that everybody wanted to do the deed with our respective partners in the privacy of our own rooms. The Danes asked us if we had extra condoms. We did not.

    I dunno why we didn’t bring extra condoms. Probably because “you think our friends from Denmark might need condoms” is not generally a question that comes up.

    So, there’s this grocery store right nearby, and we hit it. Mind you, I’ve got all the condoms I need; I’m shopping, drunk, in rural Minnesota for two drunk guests speaking heavily Danish-accented “can you please to provide the thing which makes my husband’s semen not give me a baby?”

    Turned out, the store owner had some religious issue with selling rubbers. The Danish wife said, quite loudly, “then you shouldn’t sell diapers or baby food.” No condoms were purchased, as none were available.

    And, nine months later…

    That’s one of those things where you run into the kid and they go “I’m super good at drawing unicorns!” and your take is, “you wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gotten your parents completely blitzed.” But you hold your tongue in such situations. It’s for the best.

    Another song people didn’t realize has rather iffy subtext is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s quite rape-y; for shit’s sakes, Dean Martin did a cover. For some reason, people are just now realizing how problematic that song is? Maybe because the overlapping vocals are cool. Here’s my favorite version, which totally ignores the rape-y subtext and just treats it as a jazz standard:

    • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is rapey? Nonsense, and insulting, ahistorical, nonsense at that. The song was written by a husband & wife team who used to perform it to entertain their friends. It’s very deliberately about consensual sex, and is meant to be romantic, if a bit naughty. Hence all the emphasis on what the neighbors/family will think if the woman allows herself to be “persuaded”. The man’s job is to help her save face by doing the persuading and suggesting a suitable pretext.

      Penning an essay about the in’s and outs of mid-century social conventions and the purposes they served would be tedious and of course I wouldn’t want to return to them. I’ll just point out though, that those social games weren’t so very different from pursuit/capture mating rituals found in a variety of times and places, one aspect of which is usually to preserve the self-regard and status of the woman involved.

      For instance, in Ye Olde Timey Caucasus a full fledged wedding involved the ritual “capture” of the bride from her relatives, including some semi-serious fighting with the traditional axes that men commonly carried. These affairs came in two varieties, Red and White, depending on whether the bride was a virgin or had been previously married. The wedding party would celebrate while the bride and groom retired to a bed-chamber and afterward the sheets were displayed to the congregants. So “Red Wedding” or “White Wedding”. Now if the bride wasn’t technically an actual virgin but still wanted a Red Wedding, the couple would take a chicken into the chamber with them… and an axe.

      As for “Diamonds”, of course it has nothing to do with Modern, ie third wave feminism which categorically opposes the notion that women have ever had any power or agency in male/female relations. I for one am extremely weary of that particular con game.

      [Note: I fixed a formatting problem. I’m not sure if the commenter meant for only those words to be bold. -FM]

      • @ paintedjaguar — That’s great about the husband & wife team writing it together! I do really enjoy some versions of that song. All depends on the performers, and the listener, too. (As liberals, we are required to acknowledge that different people have different perspectives; it’s what we do.)

        Some old guy at the Minnesota Zoo used to do a radio show years ago, where he played old songs, and he noted that this was kind of a change in the rock era. Songwriters used to write music primarily for other people to record; Mick Jagger didn’t write “Satisfaction” for Frank Sinatra to do it.

        That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but there’s truth to it. A Pogues song is a Pogues song. “Too Darn Hot,” that can be done lotsa different ways. Closeted gay song, definitely. The Ann Miller version in the movie, that’s more “I am way too sexy for you to handle,” which is fantastic. Or it could just be about how the singer is kinda horny, but it’s also gross & humid outside.

        Every Christmas, Democracy Now runs an old interview with Yip Harburg’s son, which is a hoot. How many times have you heard “Over The Rainbow” played at funerals, as some kind of afterlife song? It’s practically a funeral cliche. Well, it’s not an afterlife song! Harburg was an atheist! It’s a socialist song! But it’s taken on a life of its own, and Harburg was cool with that. Hell, a royalty check is a royalty check, and it’s not like grieving people at funerals are exactly pissing all over liberalism because the sound of Judy Garland or Harry Nilsson brings them comfort.

        • In those days, there was more publishing support for writers. That’s pretty much all gone away. Country music and Broadway are the main areas where non-performing songwriters still exist.

          But even these songwriters were/are performers — just not successful ones. I know, for example, Stephen Sondheim performs at friends’ parties and such. I think most writers would like to perform their work, even if they know they are totally unsuitable.

      • Just a quick correction: I believe that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written by Frank Loesser alone. He was a well-established songwriter. He did, however, perform it with his wife.

        • You may be right. I’m assuming because it was their party trick that the wife probably had some input regardless of writing credit.

    • I’m not sure how I feel about shopkeepers like that. On the one hand, they make plenty of ideological choices of what items to carry that we never even think about because we are so used to them. On the other hand, they are assholes. And not carrying condoms comes from an ideology based on lies. I could certainly make the case that the shopkeeper should owe child support.

      I think the song is meant to be about seduction. But my feelings on the subject don’t make it much better. To me, a woman either wants to have sex with a guy or she doesn’t. Putting her under intense pressure is not right. But maybe in the 1940s women needed an excuse? I really don’t know.

      Anything Dean Martin sings sounds rapey to me. I’ve never liked him. The only crooner I’ve ever really liked is Frank Sinatra because of his incredible phrasing (which he stole from Billie Holiday — by his own admission).

      • Oh joy. The war over Baby, It’s Cold Outside has arrived on these shores.

        Let’s break it down shall we?

        I really can’t stay (but baby, it’s cold outside)
        I’ve got to go away (but baby, it’s cold outside)
        This evening has been (been hoping that you’d drop in)
        So very nice (i’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice)
        My mother will start to worry (beautiful what’s your hurry?)
        My father will be pacing the floor (listen to the fireplace roar)
        So really I’d better scurry (beautiful please don’t hurry)
        But maybe just a half a drink more (put some records on while I pour)

        This is definitely the thing PaintedJaguar is referring to. Lighthearted attempt by the man to convince the woman (who apparently is young enough to have parents at home rather than say a husband?) Since the social norms up until about 1968 were that women could not have sex outside of marriage at all or be ruined forever. So she would need to be convinced to stay. All perfectly normal.

        The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
        Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

        *sound of record scratching to a stop* Wait a second. What? This is where the song goes from “oh look, dude trying to seduce” to “dude is planning a rape.” Women are taught repeatedly from their parents to the culture at large to watch their drink constantly or not even drink at all:

        Tinder’s Rules Of Not Getting Raped
        Never go to someone’s house
        Meet in a public place
        Don’t drink
        Let someone know where you’re going
        Never go into someone’s car

        That article came out in 2018. It doesn’t tell men to not rape. Instead it tells us women to police our own behavior. But hey, we feminists are being un-fun meanies for pointing out that this lyric is the reason we have started to have a problem with this song. Because it goes from being a seduction that a woman is being convinced of doing something she knows is socially unacceptable but wanted anyway to a woman no longer has a choice. She will be having sex that night regardless of what she wants.

        A lot of women forgot that advice to police their drink and even now believe 100% that it was their fault they were raped. Not the rapist’s but theirs. Despite the fact that rapists use drugs and alcohol in most of their crimes precisely because society expects women to not drink to excess, to keep their hand over their cup, to watch it be poured or make it themselves. Once a woman fails at any of these, why even bother going to the police? She knows she wouldn’t be believed or be told “well what did you expect?”

        That is why the rest of the lyrics for women turn dark:

        I wish I knew how (your eyes are like starlight now)
        To break this spell (i’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
        I ought to say, no, no, no sir (mind if I move in closer?)
        At least…
        I really can’t stay (oh baby don’t hold out)
        But baby, it’s cold outside
        I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
        The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)
        Your welcome has been(how lucky that you dropped in)
        So nice and warm (look out the window at this dawn)
        My sister will be suspicious (gosh your lips look delicious)
        My brother will be there at the door (waves upon the tropical shore)
        My maiden aunts mind is vicious (gosh your lips are delicious)
        But maybe just a cigarette more (never such a blizzard before)
        I’ve gotta get home(but baby, you’d freeze out there)
        Say lend me a coat(it’s up to your knees out there)
        You’ve really been grand (i thrill when you touch my hand)
        But don’t you see? (how can you do this thing to me?)
        There’s bound to be talk tomorrow (think of my lifelong sorrow)
        At least there will be plenty implied (if you got pnuemonia and died)
        I really can’t stay (get over that old out)
        Baby, it’s cold
        Baby, it’s cold outside

        Yet for men it is simply still a tale of seduction. For women it has become a reminder that we won’t be believed even when we have said no. And yes, I bet the wife of that husband and wife duo knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote this. Including the attempt to deflect to “hey now, think of what will be said” after she says no and he moves closer. This scenario has become for the man a sexual conquest. For the woman? Trying to come up with any reason she can to get out of this guy’s house without him hurting her while keeping him calm so he doesn’t attack her until she can escape.

        It’s something women have to think about every day of their lives. Even someone like me who is usually pretty tough and intimidates most men. So, no, the fact that a woman co-wrote this song with her husband doesn’t stop the dual meaning, it tells us that even when we are talking about the same situation, men don’t see the danger we women have to.

        • Okay, for the second time: his wife did not write the lyrics or music or anything. I was being nice before. It was written by Frank Loesser. He did perform the song with his wife for friends.

          I do think this is a valid reading of the song. But it isn’t necessarily the only reading. When dealing with cocktails, I have asked this same question. But it does tend to be a question asked when someone is drunk because drinks taste better the drunker you are. “This is delicious! What’s in it? Rum and brandy and vodka, you say? No wonder!”

          But I don’t think intent really matters. It is perfectly possible for works of art to be acceptable at one time and not at a later time. And this song is at least problematic. Is it good for a society to normalize the combination of young people, alcohol, and sex? Regardless, in an age of Bill Cosby, it’s creepy.

        • @ Elizabeth: I think that’s a fair way of looking at the song when it was written. But again, someone could certainly perform it differently now. I’ve had Mrs. James envoy a new brand of beverage and go “that’s stronger than I expected!” But when that happens it definitely does not put her in the mood.

        • “That is why the rest of the lyrics for women turn dark”

          I’m thankful that you don’t actually speak for all women. OK, here comes the tedium:
          It wasn’t so uncommon at the time this song was written for unmarried women to still be living with their family well into their twenties. Some men too, for that matter. I’ve been told that in Hispanic, Italian, or Asian families this might be true in more recent decades as well. I had a cousin my mother’s age who lived with her folks her entire life, in between a couple of
          failed marriages.

          Second, “What’s in this drink?” (aka “It wasn’t me, it was the demon rum.”) was a very common joke back then, and not gender specific. Never watched any old movies? “Slipping someone a mickey” (aka “knock-out drops”) was also a common trope in fiction of the time. Despite this, most people weren’t paranoid most of the time, outside of the occasional moral panic.

      • I never liked any of the Rat Pack guys – they always struck me as egotistic asswipes who didn’t respect either women or “weaker” men and they weren’t alone in that of course. Doesn’t mean that everyone was like them or that we were living in a “rape culture”.

        Yes Frank, right up through the 60’s some women wanted an excuse. And “No” did NOT always mean No – that’s just a fact, plus any interaction that usually relies heavily on assumptions and non-verbal cues can get dicey. A personal anecdote: one young woman who did spend the night in my bed but had told me she wasn’t in the mood later asked me why I hadn’t just started fondling her while she was asleep. This was in the 80’s, not the 60’s and isn’t my only experience with the ambiguous “No” either, not by a long shot.

        I don’t think the song is about seduction at all, unless you mean mutual seduction. More like flirtation. Or perhaps a pro wrestling performance where the outcome is subject to improvisation.

        • I’m with you on the Rat Pack guys. They seemed like bullies. They do, however, sum up what I don’t like about “male culture.”

          The “no always means no” claim is metaphorical, as far as I can tell. I’ve never been told no by a woman in the flirty way of “no means yes.” So I’m not inclined to get into a discussion about it because I think it is all pointless. In their desperation, however, guys very often miss subtle and explicit signals. And I’m a whole lot more concerned about that than I am that someone is going to miss out on sex because they take a flirty line as serious.

          I do think the song is about seduction. Indeed, this strikes as very much a high pressure situation. Compare that to “Barcelona”:

      • Mm. I think Redbone sounds like a combo of Dean Martin and Mel Torme. My favourite rendition of this song is probably the brief shower scene in the movie “Elf”, with Zooey and Will Ferrel. Did you know she’s actually a natural blonde?

        • @ paintedjaguar— What’s great about that clip is Buddy the Elf doesn’t have a clue how spooky it is to lurk outside somebody’s shower. Why would he? At the North Pole, nobody goes full Hitchcock on anyone else. It’s candy-canes and lollipops.

          So when she gets that Ferrell is just spookily sitting there, he gets to go full Ferrell. Which is like Full John Cleese. You’re a tall man, that’s inherently funny. Bang your head all over the place.

  2. OK, now that we’ve masticated “Diamonds” and “Baby It’s Cold”, can we move on to “Santa, Baby”? Plenty of meat to gum on that one.

    • Gladly! Top-notch sexual innuendo for a soulless 1950s middle class! “Hurry down [my] chimney tonight!” Similar to Shakespeare’s “He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber.”

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