Revisiting The Myth Of Marilyn Monroe
By Dipsikha Thakur
I don’t even remember when Marilyn Monroe crept into my imagination. Maybe when I first saw the iconic upskirt photo — it would have been in grainy black-and-white on the newspaper, blazoned across a feature with a salacious headline.
Or maybe I first found her on that Andy Warhol silkscreen print, her face copied to the point of stale meaninglessness. Kitsch-prop Monroe. The thickest, soupiest version of how everything else has been treated her since her death. Or maybe her face had been stolen the way so many iconic faces have been — appearing, rather incredibly, on the banners above the proudly grubby beauty salons in Calcutta, where I grew up.
Her face would have conferred both the idea that one could (in their dreams, at least) come out looking like Monroe after a session at the salon, and the slightly more elusive, implicit air of class. After all, if the owner is familiar with the face, hair, and aesthetic outlines of Marilyn Monroe, how bad could their haircuts really be?
In any case, I really cannot be sure.
However, I can tell you with absolute certainty when exactly it was that she rose out of that miasma of public, back-of-the-head knowing and entered into the regions of definite fascination. It happened thanks to a sequence of films and a podcast by feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose.
The films are easy to guess: Some Like It Hot, which was naturally about her being fuckable and stupid (necessarily in that order, because the male imagination only finds lack of intellect, or for that matter, intelligence, cute when it’s framed by sexual naiveté and capitulation). Of course when I watched it, all I noticed was her fluttering eyelids, the polished, pliant limbs, and the “vintage” charm of the film. She was, in that movie, the very epitome of desirable femininity: sexually available and as clueless as a little child.
My response surprised me: I felt disdain (because I was so obviously smarter than this so-called icon) but also a stab of jealousy. Why jealousy? Because by 19, I knew better than my own name that while intelligence could make me feel endlessly superior about myself, what the world wants, likes, and needs is a woman whose hair is impossibly luscious and curves always perfect. Thus began my adult relationship with Marilyn: the “dumb blonde” who was nonetheless a looming threat in the same way so many other beautiful women I have never met or spoken to were. The competition of a dead face staring down from a poster.
So last year, I was listening to the London Review podcast by Jacqueline Rose. She was speaking about what Marilyn Monroe thought of Some Like It Hot:
“Monroe more or less consistently hated the roles she was assigned, most of all Some Like It Hot, her best-loved film. No woman on earth, she complained, would be so dumb as not to see that the two drag artists, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, were men (the director, Billy Wilder, clearly agreed with her, filming in black and white: color would have been a giveaway).”
Later I found a sequence of photos that show Monroe watching the film with Arthur Miller. At one point, you can see her covering her eyes in embarrassment.
And so my relationship with her changed.
This was a practitioner continually dissatisfied with her work. Someone so nervous about her performance that her anxiety was regularly read as tantrums and entitlement. And perhaps there were tantrums and entitlement too. Who knows? She was always late to the shoot for the Prince and the Showgirl, and there’s plenty of record of her co-stars, especially Laurence Olivier, being livid at her unreliability. But not as many people know that Olivier also told her that her contribution to the film was to “just look sexy.” Was she irresponsible, or perpetually uncomfortable?
This was also a woman dismissed by men, her colleagues, as a pretty face. Her own husband, Arthur Miller, refused to accept her as an equal in intellect. Posterity agrees: he is a “serious playwright,” textbook Ph.D. seminar material, while she is a vintage pin-up and inspiration for makeovers. But they were both craftsmen, both thinkers. Both perfectionists. Then again, the word is “craftsmen” — the odds were always stacked against her.
The 2011 film My Week With Marilyn gets the dismissal right. And it is certainly one of the more sensitive works on Marilyn in any medium. But it, too, is a film from the perspective of a man — filmmaker Colin Clark, a man who, in spite of his protestations, decided to remember seeing her for the first time in amazingly sexist terms: “Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.” Obviously the best way to analyze a woman constantly objectified by everyone is to objectify her even more.
These days Marilyn Monroe mostly pops up in memes about women’s empowerment: her face and body, paired with some you-go-girl platitude. I am skeptical about these memes. For perhaps the only time in my life so far, I am willing to use the word “appropriation” in regard to a feminist enterprise. Why? Well, because these memes capitalize on the same quotient of fuckability and stylishness and the aura of celebrity that her previous appropriations have.
The hairdresser with the Marilyn banner can also give YOU her hair. A Marilyn summer dress is going to confer her stardom upon you. And the Facebook feminist Marilyn tells us that her pout, wink, and moue are merely incidental, because she is a “BOSS BITCH” (caps inevitable). What it leaves unsaid is that by some homeopathic magic, the reader — presumably a boss bitch in the making — will get the face and body of Marilyn too. That’s what we all want, right? That’s what she stands for.
But so many of the stories behind the face — stories that could have been a triumphant fable of feminism, of sisterhood — have been shoved into obscurity.
Ella Fitzgerald, the black jazz legend, spoke of Marilyn Monroe with a very different kind of admiration:
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt . . . it was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him — and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status — that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Why is it that we cannot forget her? And why is our remembrance so firmly focused on what is essentially a magician’s trick? She was a superb illusionist. Born to poverty, abuse, and obscurity, she transformed herself from red-haired Norma Jeane Mortenson into a platinum blond myth called Marilyn Monroe. And that myth went to work — in film after film — until Norma Jeane had receded into unreality. The facade created out of cameras, the male gaze, ill-paying movie contracts, and misquotations became a “star.” But are most of us are still so blinded by the luminous force of that illusion that it is impossible to critically, soberly appreciate the enormous effort that went into the process behind it.
In 1986, Gloria Steinem found herself just as drawn to the puzzle. Why was Marilyn still peeking out of record shops and titles of new documentaries? Why was Madonna copying her style? She attributed it to Monroe’s early death. “When the past dies there is mourning, but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”
Steinem’s judgment has the right ring of solemnity, but I honestly don’t think that’s it. Like Madhubala in India, Marilyn’s premature death merely enabled and catapulted the tendency to consume her as a trick of the eye. She didn’t stick around to correct or chastise our mistake. But it does not explain why we are compelled to do so.
The more pragmatic (and depressing) explanation is that we like to possess her, the way we like to possess our velvet dresses and shoes and memories. Brilliant men like Arthur Miller get to write the stories that other people consume and appreciate. Brilliant women like Marilyn Monroe get to be the story — the story and the poster and the name of a summer dress. And so, men will forever stick her up against the back of the door, and women will see her as an enviable body that promises immortality. But she will never be envied for her grit. Nor her courage for speaking up about sexual abuse. Nor the mental health horrors that she survived for many years.
And that’s the tragedy.