Jacqueline Rose, a feminist and psychoanalytic critic, is perhaps best known for her 1991 book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Interviewed in today’s Guardian, Rose talks about her work in progress, which will feature MM:
‘In her living room is something unexpected – a box of Marilyn Monroe DVDs. Rose has been boning up on Monroe for a lecture, which will eventually form part of a book provisionally entitled Women in Dark Times: From Rosa Luxembourg to Marilyn Monroe. It will be her return to feminist theorising. How do Rosa and Marilyn connect? “They both straddle the divide between political and inner life. I read Rosa’s letters and the relationship between her political concept of spontaneity and the unknownness of revolutionary life and the unknownness and intimacy of personal life. It seemed her notion of revolutionary and personal lives were inextricably linked.”
Why is Monroe interesting? “There’s been so much written about her as a screen on to which everybody projects their fantasies. I think that’s complicit with her victimisation. I think she knew exactly what was happening to her. I think she was casting herself as a sort of lead in the detritus of postwar American culture. Everything from the commodity to the sexualisation of women to the crass materialism to McCarthyism.” Classic Jacqueline Rose feminism: woman as more than victim, implicated in and maybe even conniving at her own oppression.’
“Of course, part of what makes Marilyn an interesting person to study is the ambiguity of her life and her death. As anyone who studies history might know, it is the women who died mysteriously, committed suicide or led interesting sexual lives who are most remembered (think Plath, Sexton, Cleopatra). It’s unfortunate that Marilyn and these other greats are not first and foremost remembered for their work.
Especially for her time, she was a woman who stood her ground. I couldn’t help but respect her for that.
If taken at face value, this book provides surprising insight into her world. I think it’s always important to hear the genuine voice of famous women like Marilyn Monroe, especially because these are the ones whom biographers most often tend to exploit.”
Over at Bad Reputation, a light-hearted look at women, glasses and the movies of MM:
“In The Seven Year Itch, the protagonist imagines his secretary throwing off her (tailored) jacket, throwing out her hair and losing the glasses, to reveal ‘I’m a woman! I’m flesh and blood!’
The weakness myopia is seen to connote in men is generally considered more attractive than the dowdiness it suggests in women – ‘You don’t think they make me look like an old maid?’ worries Marilyn-Pola, through her Dame Ednas, in How to Marry a Millionaire – and millionaire-seeking once again in Some Like It Hot, Marilyn hopes ‘her’ man will have glasses. ‘Men who wear glasses are so much more gentle, sweet and helpless’, she says. Indeed, there’s even a sense here that a man with glasses becomes less frightening or powerful, less brashly ‘male’. The only disadvantage for Marilyn is that when she kisses the one she finds, his glasses steam up.
But perhaps she has something when, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes she asserts to her (bespectacled) groom’s disapproving father – who sees right through her gold-digging tricks – ‘Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a woman being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a woman just because she’s pretty but, my goodness, doesn’t it help?!’. If a woman’s face is her fortune, best not to cover it with glasses, eh?
But actually, I think the time has come to take that as exactly the nonsense it is. Seeing is sexy. Wear your glasses with pride.”
Marilyn Monroe was celebrated for her ‘hourglass figure’ and was defiantly curvy in an era when most women didn’t consider gym membership a necessity.
While I’m glad that women feel empowered by Marilyn’s body confidence, there is a danger in turning her into something she wasn’t. Monroe watched what she ate and exercised, like actresses today.
This is one reason why I don’t much care for the internet memes which proclaim Marilyn’s body type as ‘hotter’ than other slimmer women, often contrasting her healthy shape with unflattering paparazzi shots of modern celebrities, some of whom may suffer from eating disorders.
I find it cruel to champion one woman’s body while mocking another. It is true that many women feel pressure to be thin, but this does not justify picking on slimmer women as unattractive.
‘The Marilyn Meme’ is now the subject of an article by Heather Cromarty, published at Shameless, a feminist magazine aimed at young women.
For the most part, I agreed with Cromarty’s argument, but she let herself down in the last paragraph with her one-sided, ill-informed view of Marilyn:
“The Monroe Meme seems about the furthest thing from healthy. This is a woman who abused alcohol and sleeping pills later in her life, this is a woman who (probably) died due to depression. But, hey, as long as someone thinks she looks good, I guess that’s what matters.”
I’m not saying that Marilyn didn’t have her issues with addiction and depression, but she also had many positive qualities and achieved a great deal in her life.
By condemning her because of the personal problems she faced, Cromarty under-estimates Monroe and the many women who admire her – not just for how she looked, but for all that she was.
Over at the Huffington Post, Jill Lynne – who once spent a night at the Amagansett beachhouse where Marilyn and Arthur Miller stayed during the summer of 1957 – reveals her mixed feelings towards the icon:
“I didn’t want to allure men — or anyone — by my curvaceous torso, ample ‘girls,’ tiny waist, large baby blues or naturally platinum blonde hair. I wanted to be appreciated for who I was, what I knew, what I might contribute, my intellect, my spirituality and my God-granted talents — my visual art, my writing and my serious aspirations to make the world a better place.
Marilyn made it tough for women like me. It was an ongoing struggle — especially with men — to be taken seriously. I would attempt to engage in deep vis-à-vis, eye-contact conversation, only to notice meandering eyes no longer fixed on mine but having drop-down to boob-level.”
I have cross-posted my comment on the article here:
“Marilyn’s legacy to women is certainly complex. However, there was a strong side to her that is being missed here. During the repressive 1950s, MM luxuriated in her sexuality; she was outspoken about her experience of child abuse, at a time when the subject was still taboo; she was one of Hollywood’s first women to head her own production company; she stood up for her beliefs, whether political freedom (see Arthur Miller) or racial equality (see Ella Fitzgerald); she never relied on a man to make her living; and, despite little formal education, she pursued a lifelong quest for self-improvement.”
Over at Huffington Post, Emily Brooks offers a feminist critique of My Week With Marilyn:
“It is a shame that Williams’ Monroe appears primarily as a backdrop for this coming of age story. She is more intriguing than Clark’s character, and could have been attributed more depth. Williams’ character articulates her role in the film best when, in response to Clark’s encouragement that she ‘see the sights,’ she responds, ‘I am the sights.’ Marilyn Monroe will never be a feminist icon, yet she was a full person, and an actor in her own story, rather than just scenery in the stories of those around her. A movie that acknowledged this and attempted to explore it, would perhaps be a new Marilyn Monroe movie worth seeing.”
Meanwhile, Queertly editor Oscar Raymundo argues that Lindsay Lohan needs to get over her Marilyn fixation:
“Lindsay, of course, looks full-bodied and beautiful, but overall the pictorial comes off uninspired — a sense that we have all seen it before even for a tribute…If Lindsay wants to be remembered as a sex symbol, she must embrace her own sex appeal and stop trying to recapture Marilyn’s.”
It’s hard to imagine two women more different than Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn, but Sarah Churchwell argues in today’s Guardianthat they each represent different strands of blonde ambition:
‘If Thatcher was the “iron lady”, Marilyn was also likened to iron, which some may find surprising. We are far more accustomed to a despairing, damaged Marilyn than a tough one. Her longtime acting coach and companion, Paula Strasberg, much mocked in My Week with Marilyn, offered a memorable description of the woman she saw as a surrogate daughter: “Marilyn has the fragility of a female but the constitution of an ox. She is a beautiful hummingbird made of iron.” A journalist who interviewed Marilyn said that “all actresses are made of steel,” but “Monroe was cast in an even mightier mould than most of them.” The writer Karen Blixen met Monroe and remarked: “I shall never forget the almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed. I had all the wild nature of Africa amicably gazing at me with mighty playfulness.” We don’t associate Marilyn with might anymore, but we should: people who knew her recognised her power. Monroe and Thatcher were both iron ladies.’
Over at Joan’s Digest today, an article by Sheila O’Malley about Marilyn’s sexuality – the image, the reality, and how other women relate to her.
I have a lot of time for O’Malley, who has made many interesting posts about Marilyn – especially her acting – on her own website, The Sheila Variations. And I also think the subject of Marilyn’s sexuality is fascinating.
Unfortunately, the article got off to a bad start for me by quoting John Miner’s disputed transcript of tapes supposedly made for her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson (in which Monroe claimed not to have had an orgasm until her 30s.)
These tapes have never surfaced, and while I wouldn’t discount them entirely, there is something a little ‘off’ about the text. (Melinda Mason wrote in depth about this in her article, ‘Songs Marilyn Never Sang.’)
There is also an anecdote from Orson Welles about Marilyn’s supposed promiscuity which I’m not entirely sure of (Welles had his own peccadilloes, and thus was hardly a disinterested witness), as well as a quote by photographer Lazlo Willinger which is mistakenly attributed to Ernest Cunningham, who wrote a book about Monroe a few years ago, but never actually met her.
Nonetheless, O’Malley is right to note the disparity between Monroe’s ‘Sex Goddess’ image and her turbulent private life, and ‘The Anatomy of Marilyn Monroe’ is a thoughtful piece, especially towards the end:
“When working on a film, Monroe kept directors and crews waiting for hours while she holed up in her dressing room, staring at herself in the mirror. What was she looking for? Marilyn Monroe was second to none in crafting and perfecting her persona. Every element of her ‘look’, her hair, her makeup, her clothes, she engineered with a specificity and a cold eye towards what ‘worked’. John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s acting mentor, made the insightful observation: ‘It was clear that she was aware that she had created a female character in the tradition of the sad sack tramps of Chaplin and Keaton.’ It is not always easy to step into your fantasy of yourself, to take on the persona you have created. Monroe’s looks were so startlingly beautiful and sexy, that on days when she felt low or panicked, it took an act of sheer will to step into that ‘sad sack tramp’ comedienne she had courageously created for herself. The exterior was what was valued in Monroe. Staring at herself in the mirror for hours, while keeping entire crews waiting, was not vanity. It took time to get the interior and the exterior in alignment.
Marilyn Monroe’s movie magic was in her ability to take her emotional interior and make it palpably visible to audiences. In so doing, her actual interior was ignored, for years. Staring at herself in the mirror was an act of searching, perhaps, an act of anxious exploration. What is it that they see in me? And can I see it in myself? Can I actually feel, in myself, what it is that others see in me? But where to even begin?’
‘Last year J. Randy Taraborrelli wrote a bestselling book entitled The Secret Life of Marilyn. His is the most recent of dozens written since Marilyn’s death in August of 1962 and yet the appetite for information about Marilyn is insatiable. No matter whether sensational or flawed, as most of these biographies have been, the fans always come out, in best-selling numbers.
This time, with Lois Banner’s Revelations, Marilyn’s fans won’t be disappointed. This is no re-tread of recycled material. As one of the founders of the field of women’s history, Lois Banner reveals Marilyn Monroe in the way that only a top-notch historian and biographer could. Banner appreciates the complexities of Monroe’s personal life in the context of her achievements as an actor, singer, dancer, comedian, model and courtesan. And the new information she unearths is revelatory. Banner’s credentials opened doors and she has access to material no one else has seen, from the so called ‘Rosetta stones’ of Monroe research (two large file cabinets filled with a trove of personal papers), to an interview with a member of the Kennedy secret service detail who shared what he witnessed for the first time, to facts and anecdotes about her childhood and her death and every stage of her life in between that were either missed or ignored or misinterpreted.
Like her art, Marilyn’s self was rooted in paradox: she was a powerful star and a child-like waif, a joyful, irreverent party girl with a deeply spiritual side; a superb friend and a narcisist; a dumb blonde and an intellectual. No biographer before has attempted to analyze–much less realized–most of these aspects of her personality. Lois Banner has.’
Writing in the Financial Times, Carola Long has investigated why Marilyn’s unique style is so popular right now…
‘ “People aren’t trying to be shocking, now they are trying to be elegant,” explains Elizabeth Saltzman of Vanity Fair. “I dress a lot of women and more and more they don’t want to wear … nothing.”
There’s an irony here: while Monroe’s capri trousers, polo necks or pencil skirts might be demure by today’s standards, in the 1950s many of her red carpet and film costumes were deemed highly risqué.
“Her longevity depends on the duality of her image: child-woman and sex goddess, dumb blonde and aspiring intellectual, adored star and exploited victim,” says the feminist critic Elaine Showalter. “Monroe’s look itself emphasised strong contrast, with pale skin, white-blond hair and bright red lips. That combination spells glamour.” Even mixed-up, pastiched and homaged by everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga, it still does.’