The Unheralded Marilyn Monroe

Over at The Hairpin, Anne Helen Peterson writes an insightful analysis of Marilyn, considering both her film roles and the way her persona was depicted in the fan magazines of the day:

“The gossip industry’s other tactic was to explain Monroe in terms of battling images. The Saturday Evening Post divided Monroe into three parts: ‘the sexpot Monroe’ of the early 1950s; ‘the frightened Marilyn Monroe,’ from the tales of her childhood; and ‘the New Marilyn Monroe,’ a ‘composed and studied performer.’ Photoplay distinguished between Monroe ‘The Legend’ and Monroe ‘The Woman.’ ‘The Legend’ was draped in furs and jewels, responsible for ‘Monroe-isms,’ and ‘robbed The Woman of friends, love, and peace of mind,’ while The Woman was ‘shy, hesitant, removed, and terribly lonely.’ Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller offered ‘The Woman’ a third chance at happiness, but only if she could put the ‘Frankenstein-like Legend’ to rest. And ‘The Woman also becomes a mother.’

The bifurcation of Monroe’s image served a distinct ideological purpose: sexuality and intelligence, sexuality and happiness — those can’t co-exist! Only dumb girls are sexual; sexual girls all end up miserable. In order to make Monroe (and liking Monroe) less transgressive, the magazines had to siphon off and condemn the sexual components of her image, at least within their pages.

We all know how Marilyn Monroe’s story ends. She collapsed under the weight of her image — her thing-ness, a feeling she despised. This ending is tragic, but it’s important to recall that Monroe challenged the status quo for appropriate female behavior, and made sex visible after a long history of sublimation on the screen. She also confronted, even flaunted, the rules that had theretofore governed acceptable behavior for a star contracted by a studio. At the same time, she proved an immensely lucrative asset to a struggling studio, and leveraged the resultant power against the studio to her artistic and financial advantage. In other words, she was one savvy lady, and much, much more than the sum of her beautiful parts.”

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