In a pivotal sequence in Birds of Prey, Roman Sionis (Ewan MacGregor) threatensHarley Quinn (Margot Robbie) with torture after he learns she’s no longer in a relationship with the Joker. Having overheard Sionis’s problems with the loss of a diamond, Harley proposes that she locate the diamond for him, rescuing herself (for the moment) from his threats. When Sionis hits her to stop her speaking, Harley descends into a hallucinatory sequence of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” that references both Marilyn Monroe’s original performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Madonna’s “Material Girl” video riff on the song. The trajectory of the three performances draws into relief a complex dialogue of female power, autonomy, and exploitation, with Harley’s eventual emancipation providing the image of female liberation from male dominance that Marilyn and Madonna try, and fail, to obtain.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the song is preceded by a scene between Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and her fiancé, Gus (Tommy Noonan), in which Lorelei remarks that “it’s men like you who have made me the way I am.” While this is initially played off as a joke, there’s a kernel of truth within it – Lorelei’s source of income and power is her body and the way in which men value it (or don’t). Her power and her oppression are located within her physical being, and she’s very aware that her beauty will not last forever. She then performs “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” a song which rejects overtures of love and desire for material wealth, because love cannot provide power, safety, or shelter.
Lorelei addresses her song to a third party—a you whom she encourages to get what she can out of men before they abandon her. The narrative of the number is about monetary and power exchange—women are dependent on powerful men for their livelihoods, and should not give up sex or love until they obtain something for it (“get that ice/or else no dice”). Nearing the end of the number, she directly advises group of young women: “He’s your guy when stocks are high/But beware when they start to descend/It’s then that those louses/Go back to their spouses/Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” This is the film’s starkest recognition of the position of women like Lorelei in a patriarchal world, that men will use women and then abandon them at a moment’s notice, so women must obtain what they can, while they can, simply for survival (to pay rent and buy food).
In the “Material Girl” video, Madonna, by contrast, celebrates her own materialism—her lyrics are addressed to herself, an explanation (though not a justification) for her behavior that states that she has no time or men who can’t offer her anything material in exchange. In this case, Madonna takes a degree of power unto herself—like Lorelei, she can offer her beauty, her body, and sex, but only at a price that she sets. She’s fine with romance, but the ultimate goal is always material, not based on any sort of affectionate interest in a man. She even expresses a degree of regret that this is the way things are: “Some boys romance/Some boys slow dance
That’s all right with me/If they can’t raise my interest then I/Have to let them be.” But, like Lorelei, a material girl has to live, and material possessions are the only way to survive.
In Lorelei’s case, the number takes place within a film about material exchange for sex and the way that women can control that exchange by withholding it. The men suspect Lorelei of being a gold-digger while still attempting to take what she offers, and she continuously tries to get as much out of men (without giving anything) as she can. The commodification of the female body becomes a kind of liberation—within the strictures of her society, and as a beautiful, talented woman, Lorelei markets what she has and obtains a degree of power. Madonna does something similar in “Material Girl”—she is selling her image and her physical body because that is the nature of the world (“we are living in a material world/And I am a material girl”) and her body is one thing that she can control. But both are ultimately trying to function in a world shaped by and for men—they can find a limited emancipation through exploiting male desires, but they are still dependent on men for their survival.
Which brings us to Harley Quinn and her delirious performance of a version of “Diamonds” in Birds of Prey. She envisions herself as the Marilyn/Madonna figure, surrounded by grasping, masked, largely faceless men who grab her and pull her. The song, choreography, and the scene’s contents and context are inversions of the Marilyn/Madonna ones. Harley is being told to get a diamond for a man, not receive one from him; she has no power, not even limited, over her physical body (at the time she is tied up and has already been hit once); she has nothing to offer in exchange except a very tenuous ability as a “finder of lost things.” She is, in effect, powerless beyond her capacity for speech, which Sionis has taken by hitting her and threatening her. Within the number, Harley is not offering anything to the men—they are trying to take from her.
But her fantasy image is also not a passive figure engaging in a dance with them; she’s expressing her anger, pushing the men away as they grab her, aggressively altering her movements to evade their hands, and physically knocking them aside. Her physical movements are another inversion of Marilyn and Madonna—she’s not flirting, but rejecting, her actions exposing the violence of an exchange in which all a woman has is her body, which a man can claim power over.
Up to this point, Harley has entirely lacked autonomy. Although she announces her “emancipation” from the Joker, much of the film centers around her relative lack of freedom. She cannot go anywhere or do anything without being associated with a man or, in his absence, being scrutinized, manhandled, or abused. The “Diamonds” sequence explicitly associates her with women whose control—their primary control, in fact—is over their bodies, something which Harley does not have. As the men in the choreography reach out for her, she bashes, kicks, and twists them away, announcing her anger at being objectified by men and being in male power while fantasizing about breaking free from it.
Like Marilyn’s Lorelei, Harley has been dependent on men her entire life. Her breakup with the Joker is not just the dissolution of a relationship—it renders her vulnerable to attack; she has no job, no means of earning money, and no friends. Her existence has been predicated on him, and once he’s gone, she is faced with physical, emotional, and psychological danger, isolation, and loneliness. During the “Diamonds” sequence, Sionis shifts from physical and psychological abuse to a tentative offer of protection if she obtains the diamond for him. But his protection is much like the Joker’s, coming with the consistent threat of violence and abandonment if she displeases him (or if he feels like it). Male violence is here couched as a means of possession—Sionis explicitly states that Harley belongs to him because she no longer belongs to the Joker, a frank disavowal of her autonomy by not even imagining that it exists. He later tells her that he’s going to kill her “because I can.” She is, in other words, a possession to be exchanged between men, for them to use, abuse, and discard at will. And like Lorelei, her value is measured in diamonds.
When Harley recovers and snaps out of her hallucination, she also changes visually. Where she has been attempting to talk her way around Sionis, she no longer conceals her hatred for him. She will agree to the exchange he demands for her survival, but her capitulation is not final—it carries its own threat within it, one which Sionis does not see because he cannot understand the concept of female autonomy. Harley does, though, and the rest of the film develops her liberation from male predetermination.
Harley’s experience of “Diamonds,” then, goes beyond a mere inversion of either Marilyn or Madonna’s performance. It is both the logical extension of what it means to be bought by men – if they can purchase you with a diamond, then they can also sell you – and expresses Harley’s desire for autonomy. In rejecting the faceless men who surround her, and Sionis and Zsaz in particular, she declares her liberation from their offers of power or protection. This scene prefigures Harley’s emancipation as she rejects male prerogative and finds her liberation in embodying two iconic images of dichotomous power and subjugation. Harley symbolically emancipates Marilyn and Madonna from their material, patriarchal confines—by the end of the film, she will possess her body and have no need to exchange or exploit it. She declares that, fuck you, women can get their own goddamn diamonds.