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  • drannouchkabayley

Diamonds are Never Kenough

The 2024 Oscars saw the 'surprise' reprise of Ryan Gosling's hit song 'I'm Just Ken' from the Barbie movie. There are so many things to say and say again about the Barbie movie. But what I want to focus on here is not so much that film, but what Gosling's Oscars performance did that has been done so many times before and yet is in truth never enough in terms of creating truly radical adaptation. Let me start by saying i loved this and it made me belly laugh. And as a piece of comedy at the Oscars it was perfect. But what I want to do here is really focus in on what the performance does and how it does it. Because in his shiny pink and diamond suit, in several of his poses and postures,and in the moves and the stripes worn by 'the Kens', Gosling (and his directors) were 'diffracting' another movie: 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'.

'Diffraction' is a term that comes from quantum physics but was coined by feminist new materialist scholar Karen Barad to talk about difference-making or the way differences are made. Not difference-making in the sense of this is different from that (categorisation). Nor in the sense of 'difference' is opposite to 'the same' (binary thinking or even 'dialectic'). Not even in the sense of a sliding scale of differences or differences between other differences, each more different than the other (categorisation again but on a spectrum). Barad's 'diffraction' is about the processes of difference-making as they differ from each other. So basically Barad is not looking at individual differences at all, but at the way differences are made, and made again, and made again, and again and so on, to infinity. So, in brief tracing difference-making patterns tell us everything we need to know about how we come to know something (rather than focussing on what we know and that being enough). Focussing on how we know means we can really see how knowledge structures dictate the way we understand and build our world(s).

So, what does the Oscars performance of 'I'm Just Ken' have to do with all this quantum theory / philosophy? Well, to my mind, the interesting thing is that the show doesn't just reference 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', it diffracts it. It aims to difference it.

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953) is at least in this day and age, phenomenally disturbing. But what I want to draw attention to is the one iconic musical number in it that has been diffracted time and time again: Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. What is it about this unsettling hit - that shows Marilyn Monroe refusing the advances of a literal gang of men, whilst groups of women are trussed up in what might be described as 1950s soft bondage, reduced to being literal objects, whilst the song suggests Monroe's character (Lorelei) is just in it for the money. When I read that line back it seems rhetorical and sarcastic, but let's not forget that this movie has been reviewed time and time again as one of the greatest movie musicals in history. So let's go to that scene again.

The idea that Monroe/Lorelei has any power of refusal here is laughable. Though she smacks the gang members on the nose with her fan, she is so clearly utterly powerless, part of an unfolding sadomasochistic game of cat and mouse where she is the only cat and yet is surrounded by an seemingly ever growing army of mice. The scene has gone down in history and is in some ways rather indicative of Monroe's own life struggles with powerlessness. But why reprise it now in 2024 in the form of 'I'm Just Ken'? In order to really see the difference-making patterns let's look at a few other of this scene's diffractions.

Flash forward from 1953 to 1985. Madonna is a huge hit and in January of that year releases Material Girl. The diffraction here shows Madonna playing herself, but unlike Monroe/Lorelei, now the message is that in order to impress her the rich studio boss has to throw away his diamond gift and instead pay a man to give him his beat up old truck to take her out on a date. Of course, this is just a ruse, he is the 'big cheese' and is shown right at the beginning of the music video ordering an underling to get Madonna to meet him 'now!' Clearly not much has actually changed. Madonna hasn't subverted or upturned the power relations here, the trappings are simply different: here the man lies about who he is, but it all still upholds the trope of being desired by the rich, top dog 'prince'. Women aren't literally bound up and turned into objects to adorn the homes of wealthy men, but perhaps the echo of it all still haunts the space in and around Material Girl as if to say, one day you too can be a discovered, desired, diffracted Monroe.

Flash forward again from 1953, to 1985 to 2001. Moulin Rouge has just come out. Now it's Baz Luhrmann's turn to have go. Nicole Kidman plays 'the Spakling Diamond', a Parisian prostitute who aims to get the attention of the richest man in Paris not just to pay to sleep with her, but to pay for the whole theatre she works in to be renovated. Her theatre director assures her that with the Duke funding her she will become 'a real actress', suggestive that what is being diffracted is not just Madonna and Lorelei, but Monroe's own biograohy.

In the scene from Moulin Rouge, this time the mistaken identity game is different to the one in Material Girl. This time Kidman/Satine mistakes McGregor/Christian for the Duke and they start a love affair. The scene doesn't use the iconic pink colour in Monroe or Madonna's versions, but the trope remains, the woman rebuffs the men in their formal top and tails in order to turn them on more. She has no real power at all. My favourite part of the film challenges the trope - Christian says 'a life without love that's terrible'. Satine responds 'no, being on the street that's terrible'. Christian rebuffs, 'no, love is like oxygen. All you need is love'. She scoffs at his (and the Beatles' who's song lyrics he uses) idealism. But this is what's perhaps most interesting in this diffraction. It is not the grand scene itself, but the response the characters and perhaps by extension, us the audience, has. When a trope is played again and again and again and it's challenged it does perhaps seem scoffable. It seems against common sense. And that's the power of tropes and fables and stories. They create our so-called common sense. Sometimes that common sense could do with a bit of challenging. Not in the sense that we don't need oxygen, but that the story-atmosphere has had all its creative oxygen drained out of it. So how? How can we find some fresh air?

Flash forward again from 1953 to 1985 to 2001 to 2020. This time Margot Robbie directed by Cathy Yan, plays Harley Quinn. Again, like Moulin Rouge which diffracts loads of hit songs from the 60s onwards to make a film, Birds of Prey: The Emancipation of One Harley Quinn diffracts the DC comics' character Harley Quinn. DC and Marvel characters have been going for decades reprised and diffracted themselves for as many years. So in a sense we have diffractions of Monroe, diffracting diffractions of DC characters. Believe me, once you go down the diffraction rabbit-hole you can really see how these stories form an almost lattice around our imaginations. I say this in disagreement with Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell who proposed that there are a finite number of stories in the world. I've argued elsewhere, along with greater scholars like de la Cadena and Blaser and Savransky, that stories are multiple and where they are not, where it seems that there are only a few tropes, it means the strangehold on our imaginations to dream other worlds, other myths, other values and therefore other possible futures, is too tight. Or perhaps in the spirit of Moulin Rouge's way of diffracting famous songs to make a point, I might chime with Hendrix that 'there must be some kinda way outta here'.

Bird's of Prey diffracts Monroe, but also self-consciously diffracts Moulin Rouge on account of the fact that Ewan McGregor, who also starred in Moulin Rouge, is no longer the idealist championing that love is more important that oxygen, but is in this film the dark misogynist Black Mask, Harley Quinn's abductor. This time the Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend scene is diffracted differently. It is shown for what it arguably is: a fantasy that is in fact a creepy tale of the sadomaschocistic objectifcation of women. As Harley is punched hard in the face she drifts off into another world where she's playing Marilyn/Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . Here, the gang of suitors is transformed into Black Mask's gang of thugs and Harley is trying to dance around them whilst one lets off a machine gun. Instead of kissing her, McGregor/Black Mask punches her in the face again, which brings her to. He's asking about the location of his big diamond. (Interestingly, the diamond itself is featured as an object in its own right but also containing at the molecular level, a code that will reveal the account number of an even bigger fortune. This is rather like our story-tropes. The diamond stands up on its own but is latticed all the way down to the atomic level with tinier and tinier versions of the trope. The trope here: money.) Harley looks straight to camera, her face bloody and bleeding, perhaps almost disappointed at being brought out of the fantasy (which was little better than the reality) and says to the audience 'call me crazy but I thought the guy was meant to get the girl the diamond.' Harley/Robbie here draws our attention to the fact that the story appears to have been subverted, but in reality it's all still the subjucation of women.

Flash forward from 1953, to 1985, to 2001, to 2020, to the oscars of 2024. Here again we get the now familiar signatures of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but this time it's no longer a pretty blonde woman, but a pretty blonde man in the pink clothing. Gosling/Ken's costume is sewn through with diamonds and the gang of suitors in other diffractions are now all 'The Ken's' who do still flirt and 'suit' in those unmistakable stripes, but who are also all still versions of Ken, whilst Ken himself is now finally the star of the show. Now he diffracts Barbie, diffracting Harley (who is actually the same actress as played Barbie), diffracting Satine, diffracting Madonna, diffracting Lorelei.

I loved the Barbie movie, but herein lies the issue of 'diffracting' the iconic 1950s film through it in this performance. As hilarious and delightful as I found it, I feel like we missed a step. Whereas Harley drew attention to the sadomaschocistic objectification of women, and whereas indeed the Oscars performance does have some mock-slapping / violence depicted as he sings 'will she see the man behind the 10 and fight for me', I am left wondering whether - once again - the trope has actually been changed. And indeed, in the Oscars the performance uses the song as a means for Ken to claim his power. Does Ken need to claim his power in order for Barbie to be liberated? There's something 'a little murky' here.

Putting a man in a woman's shoes as it were, does not necessarily change the trope itself, it simply reverses the power roles of the players. The game is still the same. Power and domination remains unquestionable, unsubvertable, unthinkable. It seems like the way the world works. Like 'common sense'. And that argument gets wheeled out time and time again to justify all sorts of things. It often gets paired down to something called 'human nature', which as posthumanists and new materialists alike argue is a fantasy that has had very real and very bloody consequences in the world. As zoologist and new materialist Donna Haraway argues, how can we start to create tropes that are more "response-able". Is it time we left the weird, Enlightenment legacy of an irrefutable split between 'nature' and 'culture' behind? Enter again the potential of Barad's idea of diffraction that moves beyond the binary splitting, gendering, and categorisations of 'things' and instead focusses on processes of difference-making rather than units of difference.

I think the Barbie movie aimed to address this by storying Ken to understand that he was "Kenough' without having to dominate a woman to instrincally feel that. It also had Robbie/Barbie declaring that she wanted to 'do the imagining'.

This speaks deeply to third wave and posthuman feminisms that arguably focus more on performativity and worldingg, changing the instrinsic structures of stories not just who 'wears the crown' in them. So, indeed some re-storying was made, but there was still a lot of focus on who ruled Barbie-land. Again, it's a lot to do in one movie, and it could be argued that Barbie-land represented the storied world of Western women's imaginations so who rules it is key. But I am left wondering if we are still in need of a new radical diffractive storying of Diamonds that questions the trope of a somehow irrefutable need to play out sadomashocistic gendering or if, after four attempts now, Kenough is Kenough.


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