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The Gold Digger Trope, Explained

The word “gold digger” conjures images of a young, beautiful woman using her feminine wiles to seduce a rich, older man, hoping to reap the rewards of a divorce settlement or inheritance. Gold diggers onscreen are regarded as predators. They’re derided as underhanded—if they’re not being dismissed as spoiled and ditzy. But from a certain point of view, the gold digger can appear savvy and shrewd—and sometimes, they can even be heroes. Here’s our Take on how the Gold Digger Trope has evolved from hero to villain to back again, and what her portrayal says about our society’s own love affair with money.

TRANSCRIPT

The word ‘gold digger’ conjures images of a young, beautiful woman using her feminine wiles to seduce a rich, older man, hoping to reap the rewards of a divorce settlement or inheritance.

Gold diggers are regarded as predators. They’re derided as underhanded—if they’re not being dismissed as spoiled and ditzy. But from a certain point of view, the gold digger can appear savvy and shrewd—and sometimes, they can even be heroes.

On-screen, there are certain traits we associate with the gold digger. She’s usually female—often a glamorous young woman. While men can be gold diggers too, they’re much more likely to be the one who’s being exploited. She’s shallow, with few interests and little ambition to make any success of her own. The gold digger’s natural habitat is lounging around the pool, enjoying her life of idle luxury. But she’s also calculating. The gold digger is fully aware that she’s exploiting her lover for his finances. Finally, she’s combative. Gold diggers are often set in opposition to some other more virtuous character, like a concerned child or an ex-wife. And they’re prepared to fight for what they’ve taken.

While the gold digger’s portrayal is typically negative, it wasn’t always like this. Here’s our take on how the gold digger trope has evolved from hero to villain to back again, and what her portrayal says about our society’s own love affair with money.

The Original Gold Diggers

We think of gold diggers almost exclusively as women, but the phrase didn’t start out that way. In his 1911 novel The Ne’er-Do-Well, author Rex Beach used it to refer to anyone who was “money mad.” And historically, men were just as guilty of conflating romance with finance. They set their sights on the daughters of wealthy families, expecting huge dowries in return.

The archetype of the gold-digging woman first became popularized with David Belasco’s 1919 play The Gold Diggers, where it was intrinsically linked to women’s lack of employment rights. Beginning in the 1880s, states and businesses banned married women from working, firing single women as soon as they found a husband. A woman’s financial stability and social mobility depended entirely on finding a man to take care of her.

Amy March: “As a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money.” - Little Women (2019)

Because she rejected those prescribed gender roles, the gold digger—the woman who married rich and found her ticket out—became an icon. She was someone who made the most of her limited opportunities. As writer, Clarence R. Slavens said, “The world-wise women who appear in gold digger texts of the period have known hardship, and are therefore socially and morally justified in their attempts to raise their status while exposing flaws in a system that forces them to circumvent acceptable avenues in order to survive.” Like the gangsters who dominated movie screens at the same time, the gold digger appealed to a population that saw their own hard work going unrewarded while the rich got richer. The gold-digger offered women an escapist fantasy about grabbing their piece of the American dream.

The hit Busby Berkeley musical The Gold Diggers of 1933 was among the first to cement this idea of the gold digger as a sort of folk hero. Polly, Carol, and Trixie are out-of-work chorus girls who are forced to share a bedroom and steal from their neighbors in order to eat. The film empathizes with their struggles: They’re gold diggers more out of desperation than greed. They’re also exceptionally clever, which is contrasted against the wealthy buffoons they seduce.

The three unemployed women in 1932’s Three Broadway Girls adopt a similar fake-it-til-you-make-it strategy, pooling their money and renting a luxurious apartment to pretend that they’re already millionaires, in hopes of snagging one themselves. Both this film and The Gold Diggers of 1933 showed how navigable class divides could be if you were smart enough to convincingly adopt the right signifiers: fancy clothes, a refined accent, a nice apartment. And this message wasn’t just aspirational to those Depression-era audiences. It showed just how flimsy those facades of wealth and class really are, and how the inequality they create is something that can be easily challenged and overcome—if you only have the guts.

Polaire: “It’s the three of us.”

Jean Lawrence: “Against the men!” - Three Broadway Girls

Of course, it was this more heroic aspect of the gold digger that was eventually her downfall. With the introduction of the Hays Code in 1934, gold digger characters were deemed immoral by studio censors, something akin to grifters and criminals, and they were soon all but outlawed. Those who remained schemers were punished for it—like Joan Crawford in 1939’s The Women, a vampish gold digger who’s hellbent on splitting up a marriage, but who ends the film working at a perfume counter.

This shift set the template for the kinds of silly, ditzy gold diggers played by Marilyn Monroe in movies like How To Marry A Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—women who were equally clear in their intentions to marry rich, but largely sympathetic and harmless. As The Rake’s James Medd writes of Monroe’s characters, “it was no more surprising that a girl like her would be after a rich man than it would be that a silly, boorish, old man would be after a girl like her.” This type of gold digger may have been more lovable, but as women gained more independence, she began to seem less rebellious than regressive.

The Villainous Gold Digger

The gold digger’s natural role is as the antagonist. She plots to ensnare a rich husband not because society is holding her back, but because she’s selfish, greedy, lazy, or maybe just evil, and inevitably she’s exposed. Meredith Blake in The Parent Trap is the quintessential idea of the villainous gold digger, someone who won’t let anyone get in the way of marrying wealthy vintner Nick Parker—not even his 11-year-old daughter.

Meredith Blake: “Hate to break it to you angel, but you are no longer the only girl in Nick Parker’s life.” - The Parent Trap (1998)

Meredith is presented as a sultry femme fatale, a manipulative, child-hating vamp who’s the opposite of everything a wife and mother should be. And it’s suggested that she’s conned Nick into loving her. The actress Elaine Hendrix has defended her character against any accusations of gold-digging, pointing out that Meredith already had a successful career. But the film makes her out to be the bad guy anyway because she poses a threat to the traditional family through her own, selfish aims.

When the gold digger is pitted against her husband’s adult children, she’s usually portrayed as someone who’s after their inheritance. Bo Derek’s Beverly in Tommy Boy not only denies Chris Farley’s character his place as rightful heir when his father dies, but she also threatens to dismantle and sell off his family’s business—because, like her marriage, it means nothing to her. The cold, villainous gold digger only sees men as a means to an end—a callous attitude that takes on an especially morbid expression in the gold-digging black widow. This character’s pursuit of rich, older men involves not just conning them but killing them.

Debbie Jellinsky: “Would you do anything for me?”

Uncle Fester: “Anything!”

Debbie Jellinsky: “Would you die for me?”

Uncle Fester: “Yes!”

Debbie Jellinsky: “Promise?” - Addams Family Values

The gold digger may not always be a killer, but her perceived threat is the same: Her love is a lie. We can see that much of this fear around gold diggers is rooted in male insecurity. As psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert says, “[Men] actually fear that they will go broke and they’ll be liked not for who they are, but for where they might take their date or how much they spend.” This insecurity then finds its expression in the misogynistic suspicion that women are not who they say they are—that their affections are insincere, and their sexuality can and will be weaponized against men.

But of course, most men aren’t unwitting victims of gold diggers. And rather than their being swindled by a pretty face, psychologist Gary Lewandowski puts this phenomenon down to what men and women instinctively look for in a partner, saying, “For men, it comes from money, status, and power, and for women, it comes from youth and physical appearance.”

Perhaps the reason this image of the duplicitous gold digger has been so cemented in the popular imagination lies with a few more infamous real-world examples. Arguably no one in recent decades has embodied the gold-digger stereotype like the late Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate who married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall then engaged in a messy, public legal battle over his estate.

Anna Nicole Smith: “He always promised me once we’re married, you know, half of everything is mine, that was his promise to me.” - ABC News

2000s reality show The Girls Next Door and showed us the lavish lifestyles that were enjoyed by the Playboy-bunny young girlfriends of octogenarian Hugh Hefner, helping to solidify in our minds the idea of the gold digger as someone who’s getting incredibly rich by shamelessly pretending to be attracted to older men.

But again, this point of view paints men as entirely blameless—and it ignores the fact that these relationships are not only two-sided but often mutually beneficial.

Our understanding of the gold digger has only been further complicated by the recent rise of sugar daddies and sugar babies, who enter into romances built on promises of financial support and largesse, but with far more informed consent between parties. Today there are websites and reality shows dedicated to pairing wealthy men with attractive single women, all of them laying bare the transactional subtext of these kinds of romances. As Sabrina Maddeaux argues in The National Post, these days the gold-digger relationship “seems more pragmatic than it does evil; even more so when we consider social mobility remains significantly less attainable for women than men.” With women still being paid less than men, and still far less likely to be self-made millionaires, the gold-digger continues to fight for what’s hers within a system that is set up to keep her down.

Respecting the Hustle

Sabrina Maddeaux argues that the gold-diggers of the Great Depression “were the era’s Robin Hoods, redistributing income and bridging inequality.” And that same spirit has infused our 21st-century depictions of the trope.

Penny Rust: “Men see that quality in us and exploit us, so all I’m doing is like, put that thing down, flip it and reverse it, and then I’m now exploiting them.” - The Hustle

Many of our modern gold-diggers are celebrated as hustlers, just settling the score against the kind of rich, entitled men who lord themselves over women. We can see one illustration of this in Heartbreakers, where a mother-daughter con artist team runs a scam that sees the mother luring wealthy men into marriage before the daughter seduces them into infidelity. Their con only works because these men are such easy marks—unable or unwilling to resist temptation. And it falls apart once they finally meet a man who’s genuinely a good guy.

The exotic dancers in 2019’s Hustlers set their sights on sleazy stockbrokers and CEOs—foregoing the pretense of love, and instead drugging these men and stealing from them. But against the backdrop of an America that’s plagued by recession, and filled with these crooked, lecherous men who work to maintain that inequality, their criminal acts seem almost justified—even darkly heroic.

Ramona: “We gotta start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hardworking people lost everything.” - Hustlers

Like those Depression-era showgirls, these are smart, self-reliant women, doing what it takes to survive in a time of economic instability and limited opportunity.

The modern gold-digger exploits men’s low opinions of her, ensuring they never see it coming. Kendall Casablancas in Veronica Mars, for example, seems like a typical trophy wife—a former Laker Girl who married a real estate tycoon for money, and a woman whom no one takes seriously. Yet we eventually learn that Kendall is actually a shrewd con artist living under an assumed identity, using her naive, dimwitted exterior as a cover. The modern gold-digger plays on all the stereotypes of the trope that we’ve come to accept, using not only her sexuality but men’s sexist assumptions about her.

This is why the gold-digger is not only something of a post-feminist hero—she’s also just plain fun to watch. Marylin Rexroth, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty, is a classic gold-digger villain, a woman who marries wealthy men expressly for the purpose of divorcing them. Marylin targets rich, foolish men who are bound to be unfaithful, which gives her some moral justification. But like George Clooney’s character, we’re mostly just in awe of how good she is at what she does.

Miles: “It’s the prenup! Brilliant!” - Intolerable Cruelty

CONCLUSION

While we like to believe in the purity of love, the fact is that romance and money have always gone hand in hand. For centuries, marriage was primarily a business arrangement.

Elizabeth Bennet: “With father’s estate entailed away from the female line, we have little but our charms to recommend us. One of us at least will have to marry very well.” - Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Even today, most people would be lying if they said money didn’t factor into their relationships in some way or another or play an unspoken yet important role in whom they choose to settle down with. This is the reality that the gold-digger makes explicit—with all the inequality between men and women that goes with it. And while we may mock her as vacuous, or fear her as duplicitous, we also find her honesty refreshing—maybe even liberating. The gold-digger knows what she wants and how to get it, and it’s little wonder we find that seductive.

Schatze Page: “That’s the beautiful thing about a bear trap. You don’t have to catch a whole herd of them. All you need is one nice big fat one.” - How to Marry a Millionaire

SOURCES

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