Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Britt Peterson looks at how feminist perspectives on Marilyn have developed over the years, from viewing her as a victim of men (Joan Mellen, Gloria Steinem), to hailing the power of her sexuality (Sarah Churchwell, Lois Banner, Jacqueline Rose.)
“Over the 1970s and 1980s, the new lens of feminist theory complicated but didn’t at first do much to improve this perception, critics treating Monroe as at best a victim and at worst a collaborator in her own destruction and the objectification of other women.
But soon the critical viewpoint on Monroe began to catch up to some of those complexities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the academic mainstream became more welcoming to pop-culture scholarship, critics started paying more attention to the postmodern aspects of Monroe, the ways in which she represented a truly fragmented subject. Decades removed from Monroe-as-person, perhaps without even the connecting experience of having seen her movies while she was still living, these critics began to focus on the accumulation of imagery surrounding her, while also lamenting the lost human at the heart of it.
Around the same time, the very aspects of Monroe’s biography that had proved so alienating to second-wave feminists—her frank, often exhibitionist sexuality; the fact that she slept with producers and photographers early on in her career to get work—began to seem more of a piece with a third-wave, sexually empowered story about her.
The paradox of Banner’s book is that it’s a portrait of a third-wave feminist written for traditionally second-wave goals. Banner says that she has been laughed at by male colleagues who see Monroe as ‘a dumb blonde, a stupid woman, who only engaged in a kind of raunchy sex.’ Her book is meant as a corrective, a defense of Monroe as an intelligent, warm-hearted artist…Like the British critic Jacqueline Rose, who wrote a long paean to Monroe in the London Review of Books this April, Banner highlights Monroe’s radical leftist leanings, her racial sensitivities, her interest in psychoanalysis, and other ways in which she prefigured various social and political movements of the 1960s. She doesn’t gloss over the uglier aspects of Monroe’s character…
Banner’s version is more complete, more sensitive, more entrenched in archival data than any before, and yet the ‘real Marilyn’ remains elusive, as she always will. ‘I can be anything they want me to be,’ she told a friend. ‘There are a lot of cards in my deck, so to speak.'”