marilyn monroe was a badass
“Persons of genius with mysterious gifts: in many cases a wound has been inflicted early in life, which impels the person to strive harder or makes him or her extra-sensitive. The talent, the genius, is the scab on the wound, there to protect a weak place, an opening to death. Men and women who come successfully out of misfortune, they have strength that is extraordinary.”
— Elia Kazan
I was standing in Barnes + Noble checking out Lois Banner’s biography of Marilyn Monroe when I came across this line:
“….she exudes sexuality and transcends it; poses for the male gaze and confronts it.”
That sentence intrigued me enough to buy the book. It reminded me of this post I wrote over a year ago, in which I reference the painting OLYMPIA. A naked courtesan reclines on the bed and stares shamelessly out at the viewer. The painting created a scandal, not because of the nudity (nude women being rather a popular subject in Western art) but because of that stare. Because she wasn’t looking away.
Neither did Marilyn.
Marilyn started out as Norma Jeane Baker, and Norma Jeane didn’t start out with much.
She grew up in a series of foster homes and an orphanage. Her mother was mentally ill. Her father was gone (she used to fantasize that Clark Gable was her father). She was dyslexic. She stuttered. She was sexually abused and could – as traumatized children learn to do — dissociate from reality. She was bipolar.
What she did have, starting from the time she first put on a too-small sweater and noticed the influx of male attention, was her ability to exude sensuality. Whenever her name came up in class, the boys would say “mmmm”. Norma Jeane even signed off in her yearbook as “the mmmm girl” (ostensibly referring to the way she stuttered over the ‘m’ sound, but c’mon).
What strikes me is how her sexuality and her tragedy are linked. We live in a culture where girls are taught to be hot like Marilyn — and valued accordingly– but Marilyn’s ability wasn’t just because she had the body.
When you’re a kid, you unconsciously develop strategies — based on how the adults in your life react to you — for getting the attention you need to survive. You carry those strategies into adulthood. Attention = love = life. When that attention happens to be sexualized, the child-brain lays down deep neural pathways that conflate it with love, and starts developing the ability to attract that attention.
By the time Norma Jeane hit her teenage years, she was already practicing how to be special.
Norma Jeane actively constructed and perfected her sex goddess persona over years. As Banner put it, she
“exhibited a rare genius.
Publicists marveled at her ability to generate publicity; makeup artists saluted her skill at their craft; photographers rated her one of the greatest models of their age. She studied with top acting, singing and movement teachers to create her era’s greatest dumb-blonde clown….[she] exemplified 1950s femininity. Yet she mocked it with her wiggling walk, jiggling breasts, and puckered mouth. She could tone her blonde bombshell image down, project sadness in her eyes, and, like all great clowns, play her figure on the edge between comedy and tragedy.”
She didn’t start out playing the blonde bombshell; Norma Jeane Baker was the lush and lovely girl next door. She had some success with cheesecake, ‘glamour’ modeling, building her initial fanbase among the military men stationed abroad. (This would eventually force a reluctant Hollywood studio head to put her in films because she was a “moneymaker”.) But she had to fight to become an actress. She was hired by the studios – and fired — and hired — and fired.
The girl next door slot was taken.
But there was an opening for the next Jean Harlow, who
“electrified the nation in 1929 by wearing no underwear, flaunting her body, and bleaching her hair white blonde, a color that indicated perverse desire.”
Marilyn also did these things, and more. Banner points to the ways that Marilyn deliberately
“mixed elements from high culture and low, from the legitimate stage…as well as from burlesque and striptease.”
Banner also admits to being impressed by Marilyn’s
“deep historical imagination. She knew the history of Hollywood, and it fascinated her…When she came to create herself as Marilyn Monroe, those images were in her mind.”
But Marilyn’s ultimate goal was to be a dramatic actress. At the height of her career she surprised people by uprooting from LA and moving to New York, where she started her own production company and studied under the greatest acting teachers of the day. One of them stated that she was the
“most constantly exciting actress I had ever worked with, and that excitement was not related to her celebrity but her humanness, to the way she saw life around her.”
When criticized for this stance, the teacher replied that the problem wasn’t Marilyn, but “rather that most people don’t think beautiful women have any brains”.
You can be the smart one. Or the pretty one.
‘Both’ is not so much an option.
Marilyn’s story exposes the ugly underside of Hollywood, the boys’ club mentality, its misogynistic and dismissive attitudes toward women. This group intersected with Jack and Bobby Kennedy who, Banner says,
“…sometimes acted like randy boys…chased women and openly groped them. The Kennedy women didn’t make a fuss; they’d been schooled in their family to find women for their brothers. As powerful men, they claimed the spoils of success, including women.”
This was not a world where women had much of a voice. Mia Farrow describes them as “appendages” who sat, smiled, listened, laughed when necessary, and said little to nothing.
Marilyn — who, Banner points out, was not subservient but would often turn herself into what her companion wanted her to be — was among them. From the beginning of her career, she was an easy mark:
“…she was regarded as sexually awakened and eager for sex, and she couldn’t claim that she was saving her virginity for a husband – a common goal for young unmarried women in the 1950s. The sexual abuse she had endured as a child had programmed her to please men. And she didn’t have an assertive mother to protect her, or an upper-class background or Broadway acting experience to impress studio executives [that would keep] her off the ‘casting couch’.”
Up until her death, despite her iconic status, the Hollywood powers-that-be never regarded Marilyn as anything more than a “slut they could use with impunity.”
They “passed her around”.
In her book LIVING DOLLS, British writer Natasha Walter points out that the young women who go into “glamour modeling” – cheesecake modeling, tits-and-ass modeling – do it of their own free will. It’s their choice. She also points out how that sense of choice is limited: these are mostly working-class women who “may have few other routes in front of them which they feel will lead to any equivalent success”.
These “so-called choices are often fueled more by desperation than liberation”.
She describes a conversation with Dave Read, head of a talent agency who has been in the business for over fifteen years:
“…there are so many girls coming through….You don’t even have to pay those girls. They come down to London on the strength of one shoot, with stars in their eyes, and they end up to their ears in debt, pulling pints, lap dancing, prostitution, you name it.”
And yet glamour modeling and soft porn have gone mainstream. A very, very few of these girls become stars. What was born of desperation then gets held up as a celebrated model of female sexuality:
“…many young women now seem to believe that….sexual confidence can only be gained if a young woman is ready to conform to the soft-porn image of a tanned, waxed young girl with large breasts ready to strip and pole-dance.”
In other words, women who do have choices are encouraged to model themselves after women who cater to a specific kind of heterosexual male fantasy because they don’t have that same range of choice. Going into academia or politics or business isn’t really an option for them.
After reading Banner’s book, I see Marilyn as one of those women, exceptional for her rare genius at using the only thing she really had – the male gaze – to propel her out of limited circumstances. She transcended her sexuality in that she created an astonishing career and a multi-dimensional life rich with friendships; she achieved financial independence; she stood up to the studios when they tried to bully or discard her, and won; she developed her mind and talent as well as her appearance.
At the same time, she couldn’t escape being what one friend described as “the quintessential victim of the male”.
She was beautiful, sexy, mysterious, complex and famous – and regarded as a disposable plaything by many of the powerful men in her life.
And when we think about her now, it’s usually in terms of her sex appeal, that compelling mix of innocence and sensuality. But this turns out to have been one of the least interesting things about her character — edged with the darkness of exploitation and abuse.
“Many of us,” points out Lisa Bloom, an attorney and writer,
spend more time looking in the mirror than looking out at our planet…because there can be a bigger payoff for being sexy than brainy. Young women have little motivation to think because the rewards for being hot are so powerful.”
But you only have to consider a story like Marilyn’s – she who was the hottest of them all – to wonder at the cost, and if it’s worth it.
(Love you, Norma Jeane. You were badass.)