Marilyn: A Sex Symbol’s Anger

A scene from ‘The Misfits’

In an intriguing article for the feminist magazine, Bust, author Dana Burnell suggests that Marilyn’s reputation for ‘difficult’ behaviour  was a manifestation of her suppressed anger at the Hollywood system’s exploitation and disregard of her talent.

“The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.”

Marilyn’s Secret Career Genius

Marilyn in Manhattan author Elizabeth Winder has written an excellent article for Marie-Claire about Marilyn’s escape to New York and triumphant battle with Hollywood. It’s well worth reading, and a great preview of the book. (However, as MM: A Day in the Life author April VeVea points out, Marilyn wasn’t, as is sometimes claimed, the first woman in Hollywood to start her own production company – the Talmadge Sisters, Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino all preceded her.)

“Years ahead of her time, and dead at the age of 36 in 1962, Monroe wouldn’t live to see the changes she made possible. But her reach went far beyond the machinations of Hollywood and shifted the way women around the world viewed themselves: Bra-less and never in girdles, Monroe didn’t apologize for her raw sensuality and frankly admitted to posing nude in the past; she’d been a penniless starlet and whose business was it anyway? At the same time, she wasn’t afraid to appear ‘unsexy.’ She loved being photographed in grimy boas and ripped fishnets, or puffy-eyed and makeup free, hair tangled from hours of fitful sleep. Monroe wanted to express herself, no matter the risk.”

Marilyn and the Ladies of the Press

Marilyn with columnist Kendis Rochlen, 1956
‘Is this a new Marilyn?’ With columnist Kendis Rochlen, 1956

In her lifetime, Marilyn was considered a ‘man’s woman’. However, even then she had several champions among the fairer sex, and since her death, female appreciation of her has only grown.

Kate Cameron, film critic for New York’s Daily News, often praised Marilyn’s acting and wrote this sensitive tribute after her passing.

“The Marilyn Monroe I knew was a blithe spirit of the screen. I never met her in the flesh and had no desire for a rapprochement other than her communication to me as an actress.

I was an enthusiastic viewer of the various characters she presented on the screen. I had a definite picture of her as a real person in my mind and didn’t want that image of her changed in any way, although I’m inclined to believe that I would have found her as enchanting off screen as she was on.”

Columnist Liz Smith has held the title of ‘grand dame of dish’ ever since she first glimpsed Marilyn at the 1961 premiere of The Misfits. At 93, Liz is still on top, and found time to remember Marilyn’s birthday this week.

“Had she lived, the white hot of that fame would have inevitably passed by. But in a cooler climate, she might well have found all she desired. We would not talk of her as we do now, as an almost mythological figure, a repository of endless fantasy and speculation. She would speak for herself. And her work, which mattered to her more than people realized, would speak as well.”

Film scholar Lucy Bolton, who took part in a panel discussion at the BFI last year as part of their MM retrospective, took a closer look at Marilyn’s writings in a recent article for BBC Culture.

“The fragments which she wrote on bits of paper reveal a woman constantly striving to ground herself, help herself, and keep on top of her demons. They also show Monroe’s determination and strong will: whether it is in the planning of dinner parties or the preparation of a performance, Monroe was meticulous and dedicated to doing her best.”

Ashley Davies offers a personal take on ‘Why I Love MM’ in a heartfelt – and often funny – piece for Standard Issue.

“In public, she dealt with some of the undermining shit thrown at her with class. During one press conference, a female reporter asked her: ‘You’re wearing a high-necked dress. Is this a new Marilyn? A new style?’

Her response, delivered with total sweetness, a pinch of faux surprise and not a hint of sarcasm: ‘No, I’m the same person, but it’s a different suit.'”

And finally, Sophie Atkinson argues that Marilyn is more relevant than ever ‘because she predicted the struggles of modern fame’, over at Bustle.com.

“When it comes to being a star, too much publicity will always be difficult for celebrities to shoulder., and the emergence of social media gives a new urgency to these issues of press intrusion that have existed for decades. Now celebrities don’t just field encounters with the journalists, and with fans, on the street, but in the privacy of their own homes as soon as they log onto Twitter. Monroe was right when she quoted Goethe: the highest form of acting or music requires that a person doesn’t just exist as a public figure, but has private reserves they can draw from.”

Celebrity ‘Marilyn Moments’ in the News

kate middleton mm moment
Photo by Fraser Penney

Paparazzi shots of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, having a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ moment during a trip to India have made front pages across the globe today, as her dress blew up while laying a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. A bit like that ‘subway scene’ in The Seven Year Itch, except that was staged with MM’s full consent.

Similar ‘Marilyn moments’ featuring numerous female celebrities are constantly reported in the media, but few inspire the protective feeling and deference reserved for royalty –  with many on social media condemning the coverage as sexist, as Suresh Matthew reports for The Quint.

While it’s fun to see Marilyn’s name in the news, there’s something rather tacky about potentially embarrassing moments being exploited in this way – and after all, Kate was simply paying her respects to the dead when the incident occurred.

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Meanwhile, Ariana Grande has paid tribute to Marilyn at the 2016 MTV Movie Awards, with her performance of new single ‘Dangerous Woman’ while wearing a white fur stole and strapless pink satin gown, reminiscent of Marilyn’s attire in her iconic ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Ariana has made no secret of her admiration for Marilyn, wishing her a happy birthday on Twitter back in 2014, and offering a spirited defence of MM. However, her look may also be inspired by another of her idols, Madonna, who famously recreated the ‘Diamonds’ setpiece for her ‘Material Girl’ video back in 1985.

As Christopher Rosa reports for VH1, Ariana’s performance was also reminiscent of Madonna’s ‘Sooner or Later’ number at the Oscars in 1991, when La Ciccone once again paid homage to Monroe.

Revisiting ‘The Seven Year Itch’

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In ‘A Case for the Classics’, a movie column for Georgetown Voice, Amy Guay takes a look back at The Seven Year Itch from a 21st century perspective.

“The premise is simple — and startlingly sexist from a 21st century perspective: with their wives and children safely away to the country, working Manhattan men obliged to summer in the city can have a heyday smoking, drinking and ogling pretty young things….

As the object of Sherman’s infatuation, Marilyn justifies her title as a timeless bombshell. Her girlish, lilting voice, slow-mo swagger and alluring vulnerability elevate the film. With so much attention paid to her looks, it is easy to forget that Marilyn was a good actress; it’s hard to picture anyone else saying ‘I think you’re just elegant’ with the perfect balance of earnestness and sultriness as she does. She simultaneously exudes sweetness and seductiveness, naïveté and power. In other words, The Girl was the part Marilyn was born to play, and it is a treat to watch her slide effortlessly between contradictions.

While The Girl is certainly a major character, the story belongs to Ewell’s unsure, goofy Sherman whose rampant daydreams score almost as much screen time as does reality … Despite moments that probably set feminism back a good year or so, The Seven Year Itch  is still essential viewing for any comedy buff or Marilyn fan. You may even be tempted to linger by a subway grate on a hot summer day.”

Marilyn and the ‘Playboy’ Brand

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In an article for the Women Who Write About Comics website, Ginnis Tonik asks, ‘What is Playboy Without Naked Women? Or, What is Sex Positivity for Men?’ Responding to the recent announcement that the iconic magazine will no longer publish nudes, Tonik considers how Marilyn’s name (and body) helped to build the Playboy brand.

“Sex sells is the old adage, but in particular for Playboy, a particular kind of sex sells, the kind of sex that has distinguished the magazine from its competition. Hefner banked his idea of the gentleman and the gentleman’s idealized woman on the archetype of the girl next door, but with a twist. Playboy‘s girl next door’s sexuality is playful, Lolita-esque, malleable. She’s as American as apple pie, and who was more emblematic of this notion of sexuality than the woman that made Hefner a millionaire? Marilyn Monroe.

The photos that launched the inaugural issue of Playboy into the American cultural stratosphere in 1953 featured formerly unpublished nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. Taken in 1949 when Monroe needed some cash, she was paid $50 for the images that were for a calendar company. In 1950, Hefner bought the negatives for $500, then went on to publish them in his the inaugural issue. As scholar and Monroe biographer, Sarah Churchwell, puts it:

‘Hefner became a millionaire by selling the picture, which never made Monroe more than the $50 she received in 1949.’ –The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

Monroe handled this scandal by refusing to be ashamed, which in retrospect, is a very sex-positive move during a time when this sort of scandal could have ended an emerging starlet’s career. With her blonde curls and coy demeanor, Monroe epitomized the Playboy gentleman’s ideal—a playful sex kitten, young and carefree, and not particularly deep. And, despite Monroe’s attempts to distance herself from this image, America’s Sweetheart via the Playboy brand haunted the rest of her short life.”

Jack Kerouac, Marilyn and ‘Marylou’

kerouacWe can now add beat novelist Jack Kerouac to the list of male authors hopelessly infatuated by Marilyn, as described by Dave Krajicek in an article for Salon. Kerouac never met Marilyn, though she owned a copy of his classic 1957 novel, On the Road.

Kerouac made a rather crass remark about Marilyn’s passing, saying she was “f—– to death.” He also nurtured a rescue fantasy towards MM, and made similarly puerile remarks about the tragic deaths of Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard.

“Sir, I would have given [MM] love,” he told his friend Lucien Carr. “By telling her that she was an Angel of Light and that Clifford Odets and Lee Strasberg and all the others were the Angels of Darkness and to stay away from them and come with me to a quiet valley in the Yuma desert, to grow old together like ‘an old stone man and an old stone woman’…to tell her she really, is really, Marylou.”

Here is an extract from Krajicek’s article:

“‘Marylou’ refers to another character in On the Road, a ‘beautiful little chick’ based on Luanne Henderson, Neal Cassady’s real-life adolescent bride. Kerouac wrote, ‘Marylou was a pretty blonde…But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.’ It seems absurd that Kerouac conflated or equated Monroe, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, with Cassady’s child-wife, who was fifteen when they married. But it’s also a telling detail that Kerouac imagined – saw himself as – Monroe’s protector, her superhero.

Kerouac’s misogyny already has inspired a cottage industry of commentary. One contemporary writer calls the Beats ‘immature dicks.’ Another suggests it is unrealistic to consider Kerouac (or any writer) outside the context of his or her times.

So Kerouac was ‘of his time,’ to use a tired phrase. And some use the same excuse for the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1962, the inaugural edition of Ms. Magazine was still a decade away. But Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was in the publishing pipeline that year, and the English-language edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been available since 1953.

Kerouac’s Monroe letter must be regarded as exceptionally repulsive. And the passage of time adds context that makes its content even more significant. Marilyn Monroe has advanced in stature from a sex symbol to a cultural icon to an influential proto-feminist figure. She has transcended mere sexuality—for those able to see beyond her exterior.”

Krajicek’s outraged response is, perhaps, another kind of rescue fantasy. Contrary to myth, Marilyn was a strong woman, who didn’t need a man to save her. She doesn’t need one now, either – despite all the mud that has been slung her way, the ‘angel of light’ will never be forgotten.

But Krajicek is right to condemn Kerouac’s creeping misogyny. Norman Mailer, who wrote a ‘factoid biography’ of Marilyn, was also fixated by her sexuality – but at least Mailer credited her with some strength and intelligence, too.

“In fact, Jack, you don’t deserve her—never did, never will,” Krajicek concludes: and it’s hard to disagree.

‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?’

Photo by Ben Ross
Photo by Ben Ross

‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?’ was the title of a panel discussion held at the BFI in June as part of their MM retrospective. Film programmer Jemma Desai chaired a wide-ranging debate that encompassed acting methods, body image and feminism. Film scholar Lucy Bolton, writer Jacqueline Rose (Women in Dark Times) and playwright/novelist/critic Bonnie Greer (Marilyn and Ella) share their perspectives on why Monroe’s life and work continue to fascinate – with Greer even suggesting that “Marilyn was a hundred times more radical than Arthur Miller could even begin to dream of being.” You can watch the discussion in full here.

The Biographile’s Marilyn

Marilyn with Eileen Heckart in 'Bus Stop'
Marilyn with Eileen Heckart in ‘Bus Stop’

In honour of International Women’s Day, Flavorwire’s Emily Temple placed Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography 23rd on her list of 50 Great Books About 50 Inspiring Women. (While Spoto’s book is a good choice, I would nominate Michelle Morgan’s Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed as the best biography of Marilyn written by a woman.)

Over at Papermag, Michael Musto shares his choices for The 10 Best Celebrity Memoirs, including Marilyn’s own My Story. “Far from a giddy bombshell, Monroe was a keenly perceptive observer of the human condition,” Musto comments. “In this unfinished book — released years after her death — the sex symbol talks about her unhappy childhood and her adult stardom, revealing a mind full of illumination and curves. Who knew she was an intellectual, in her own way?”

Musto’s list also includes two other books in which Marilyn features prominently: Susan Strasberg’s Bittersweet, and Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up With Eileen Heckart, a tribute to Marilyn’s Bus Stop co-star penned by her son, Luke Yankee.