Tag Archives: Feminism

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photos that launched the inaugural issue of Playboy into the American cultural stratosphere in 1953 featured formerly unpublished nude photos of Marilyn Monroe.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.

Girls Do Film: Marilyn as Harriet

'As Young As You Feel' (1951)
‘As Young As You Feel’ (1951)

Writing for the excellent Girls Do Film blog, Victoria Loomes takes a welcome look back at one of Marilyn’s lesser-known early roles, as secretary Harriet in 1951’s As Young As You Feel. (While you’re visiting the site, check out related posts on The Misfits and Some Like it Hot.)

“Monroe’s part is small but impactful: in one great scene she becomes so frustrated at her boss she sticks her tongue out. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about her performance is her voice: it lacks the breathy whispery tones for which she would become synonymous, instead it’s warm (almost husky) with a matter-of-fact edge. Although she might be a ditzy secretary, Monroe is actually a lot less ditzy that in some of her other roles, but the studio were keen to play up her bombshell role.

There’s a lot of characters and sub-plots in As Young As You Feel, but Marilyn’s wardrobe ensured that she stood out from the noise. Marilyn might have been ‘window dressing’ but Renié, the film’s costume designer, made sure she looked the part. Harriet’s wardrobe doesn’t exactly match her lowly secretary status…there’s no disguising Marilyn herself was a movie star in the making – it’s finished with rhinestone pins, stacked bangles and showy earrings.”

Women In Dark Times

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Author and critic Jacqueline Rose will publish a new book, Women In Dark Times, in September. It will include material on Marilyn, who was also the subject of a 2012 lecture by Rose, also published in the London Review of Books.

“Through compelling portraits of women as diverse as revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, film icon Marilyn Monroe, and contemporary painter, Thérèse Oulton, Jacqueline Rose provides a new template for the struggles of women today. Descending into some of the bleakest realities of our time, such as honour killing, she argues that the work of feminism is far from done. Women in Dark Times is both a tribute and a challenge.

The women presented here are visionary, enraged by injustice while also in touch with what is most painful about being human. Returning to the terrain of her prize-winning study of Sylvia Plath, Jacqueline Rose shows us why all these women are vital to feminism in its ongoing project to transform the iniquities of the modern world.”

 

Lois Banner’s ‘Proto-Feminist’ Marilyn

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Dr Lois Banner, author of MM – Personal and Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, has written an article for Miss Millennia about re-interpreting Marilyn from a feminist perspective.

“It’s hard to apply the term ‘feminism’ to Marilyn, since the movement didn’t really exist during her lifetime.  In its modern incarnation, it can be dated to the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique in 1963.  (Marilyn died in 1962). Yet I was surprised to find that Marilyn was always egalitarian…regarding Marilyn as a tough career woman, I call her a ‘proto-feminist.’  But the real tragedy of her life was that she had no ideology with which to understand her condition, no way of putting the oppression she experienced into a framework that would enable her to name it…Without a feminist point of view, she kept recycling old solutions that didn’t work–an overdependence on men, an addiction to drugs, and a continuation of presenting herself as a sex object to the point that she herself felt degraded by it.”

Behind the Scenes With Marilyn

Gabriella Apicella has written a great article about Marilyn, celebrating her lesser-known performances as part of a ‘Great Actresses’ series at Bitch Flicks.

“Unfortunately, Marilyn Monroe was seldom cast in a truly excellent role… Rather it is her presence that lifts otherwise mediocre fare into essential viewing.  Her leading men were frequently unable to match her charisma onscreen…Despite this, even from her earliest roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, she delivers nuanced and sensitive performances of rather bland parts, making a forgettable supporting role into a highlight of both iconic films.”

‘Blonde’ and the Lonesome Reader

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Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde is not one of my own favourite novels (nor one of my favourite books about Marilyn), although to be fair I haven’t revisited it since it was first published in 2000. After that first reading, I felt that Oates – a writer I had admired – distorted aspects of MM’s life, and portrayed her as a rather one-dimensional victim.

Since then, I’ve spoken to many fans who feel the same. Obviously, I’m not impartial here, having written my own fictional take on Marilyn. Six years after completing The Mmm Girl, I’d like to read Blonde again, mainly out of curiosity – and especially if it was reissued on Kindle, as it’s rather a weighty tome!

However, I was pleased to discover the positive experience that Blonde has been for some others, leading them to impart their knowledge and challenge misconceptions – as posted recently on the Lonesome Reader blog.

“I wanted to highlight this novel specifically because I had a strange conversation with a colleague once. Somehow we started talking about Marilyn Monroe and he instantly said ‘Oh, that slut.’ I flinched in shock that he’d be so disdainful and answered him angrily. He tried to justify himself by saying that she basically slept with everyone and that’s the only reason she had a career. I have no doubt his opinion is shared by many people. It’s this sort of casual dismissal and thinking about women in only simplistic misogynistic terms which is the reason why feminism and the promotion of women’s writing is especially important.”

Amy Greene on Marilyn

Amy Greene, widow of Milton Greene, was interviewed recently by Gotham magazine:

“What was it like to live with Marilyn Monroe?
AMY GREENE: I’m a very secure woman, so she was fine. She never got out of line, and I never got out of line, and we became girlfriends. As Sinatra said, ‘She was a good broad.’ I love that statement. You young people don’t know what that means, but it is the highest compliment that a man like Sinatra could say about anybody.

Did she teach you anything?
AG: No, well, makeup! She did teach me one thing, how to brighten the areas around your eyes with a lightener . . . She and I would practice endlessly on making each other over. She would make me over, I would make her over, I mean, what else do you have to do, you’re husband’s working in New York, and you’re in Connecticut.

Would you say Marilyn’s public persona today reflects who she was as a woman?
AG: The interesting thing, and I was thinking about this yesterday, was in the ’50s she was strictly candy for men, but since the feminist movement—which started around my dining room table, thank you very much—women have accepted her, they no longer make fun of her. So in the end, she’s earned respect, which is what she wanted.”