Anatomy of a Sex Symbol

Marilyn by George Barris, 1962

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?’


Lois Banner’s ‘Revelations’

Dr Lois Banner‘s highly anticipated, scholarly biography, Revelations: The Passion and Paradox of Marilyn Monroe, will be published by Bloomsbury in July 2012. It is now available for pre-order from online stores, including The Book Depository.

‘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.’

Why Marilyn’s Back in Fashion

Sketch by Miss Led

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.’

The Unheralded Marilyn Monroe

Over at The Hairpin, Anne Helen Petersen 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.”

Eva Wiseman on ‘The Myth of Marilyn’

In today’s Observer, columnist Eva Wiseman casts a critical eye on Marilyn mania:

‘The myth of Marilyn washes over our culture like a Hipstamatic app – this bleached, beached tragedy; a woman too feminine to live; a wiggle-hipped symbol of objectification – but it’s one that has been raked over so many times it ceases to have any impact. Is our continued obsession with Monroe (yet another biopic comes out next year featuring Naomi Watts) simply a glossy form of suicide porn, a dark attraction to the idea of a woman who gave in to her emotions? Partly, too, it must be nostalgia – not just for those acceptable curves and lipstick, but for her assumed naivety…She died just before modern feminism took hold – is part of Hollywood’s Marilyn obsession a hungriness for that pre-liberated age? Or an elevation of her to martyr status? A symbol that when you let the world turn you into a sex object, you cease to exist. It’s a “She died so we could live.” ‘

I prefer to remember Marilyn in a more positive way – for her brilliance as an actress and model; her confidence in her sexuality; her intellectual curiosity and determination to forge an independent life; her generosity towards friends; and her courage in speaking out about her difficult childhood, and defending her personal beliefs and those of others.


The Legend and the Tragedy

In her blog at the Jewish Daily Forward, Elisa Strauss responds to a recent New York Times piece, ‘The Marilyn Obsession’ by Austin Considine, on the current boom in nostalgia and ABG’s plans to capitalise on Marilyn’s image.

Interestingly, Strauss also shares with us a poignant anecdote about Monroe’s 1957 trip to Washington with husband Arthur Miller.

Stating that ‘sexy wins over tragedy’, Strauss suggests that Marilyn is being remembered in a superficial way, and that the lessons of her tragic life have still not been learned.

“Monroe’s allure is as powerful as it is ineffable, so much so that even I start to view her sad beginning and even sadder end as something otherworldly rather than gritty and tragic. Her fate easily becomes elevated above cause and effect, and she morphs into a saint of her own circumstances. Or, in short, an icon.

But the problem with this iconic lens on Monroe is that it conveniently blurs the very destructive pressure she felt as the preeminent sex symbol. A relative of mine hosted Monroe in Washington D.C. when she came to the city with then-husband Arthur Miller during his House Unamerican Activities Committee hearing.

Monroe spent a few weeks sleeping on a blue velvet couch in their study, and, as described by my relative, was incredibly insecure about nearly everything. She dreaded leaving the house unless physically immaculate, and she once decided to stay home at the last minute when she realized that there was a hairline chip in her nail polish. In intellectual matters, Monroe deferred to Miller on everything. My relative said Monroe spent the majority of her time reading, mostly self-help books.

Considering all the gains women have made politically, economically and socially since her heyday, this Monroe revival seems anachronistic. Monroe was the ultimate creation of male fantasy, the archetype of the blond bombshell – all bosom, golden curls and kittenish purrs – a fantasy women have since worked hard to deconstruct and redefine. And while the boundaries of what is considered attractive in Hollywood are still fairly narrow, they have still been expanded enough to include a far more diverse bunch than ever before.

Well, I’d like to ask the PR maven what he thinks about glamorizing and marketing the ‘Monroe style’ that she herself found quite destructive. Am I the only one who, when swiping a Marilyn gloss across my lips or stepping into some Marilyn high heels, would think about the ways in which the use of such objects was ultimately an oppressive act for her? That remaining desirable was not effortless for her, but rather all-consuming to the point of obsession?”

While I support Strauss’s feminist perspective, I would also argue that our focus on glamour is not entirely misguided. Marilyn’s unashamed pride in her own sexuality has inspired many women.

Though it may seem that Marilyn fever is everywhere now, in truth it never really went away. Monroe has fascinated us for over sixty years now and probably will for decades, even centuries to come.

Her beauty, intelligence, and yes, her tragedy are all part of the legend and we cannot, and should not, ever try to separate them. Like any woman, Marilyn deserves to be appreciated for all that she was.

Opening Shots: Bus Stop

A further extract from Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies, considering Marilyn’s first scene in Bus Stop. Screencaps by likeabalalaika

“The first shot of Monroe, as so often in her films, is a point-of-view shot. But it is not Beau, the hero’s, point of view but Virgil, his mentor’s. Indeed, as the latter looks out of the hotel bedroom window, the film cuts to her (Virgil’s point-of-view) and then back to Beau shaving, underlining the fact that he does not see her (and will not until the saloon scene.) This means that the shots of her that follow can articulate more than Monroe as an object of desire, because they have not been set up as contained by desire in the first place.

Virgil’s point-of-view shot is a long shot, and it is followed by a mid-shot (at the same looking-down-at-her angle), then a return to the long shot. In this way, we get to see her better than Virgil does. In one sense, this satisfies our voyeurism – both sexual (we have a better view than Virgil) and in terms of narrative, character and star (we want to know who she is, what Monroe looks like in this part, and so on.)

In the second long shot, a group of men enter the room, crowding around her as she tries to fend them off.  They are broken up by the saloon owner who clears them out and then yells at her to get back to work. The image very clearly sets out the dimensions of male power (of the male audience/clients, of the male employer) within which Cherie/Monroe is caught. She is also caught in our/the camera/Virgil’s gaze, but what we see articulates something of what it is like to be gazed at. We gaze at an image that hints at the politics of gazing.

The scene that follows takes place inside the dressing room, no longer seen by Virgil. It allows us to see Cherie/Monroe close to, and to observe what we could not in the opening shots, which preserve something of the magic and beauty of the half-dressed woman glimpsed from a hotel window. Her hair looks as if it has been peroxided (it would not convince us that she was a natural blonde); her face looks deathly white; her stockings have holes in them. This deglamourising continues in the ungainly way she gets into her green sateen leotard. Scenes in showgirls’ dressing rooms are usually voyeuristic – ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ plays with our expectations of ‘seeing something we shouldn’t’ by teasing camera movements and set-ups, delaying our actually seeing Elsie/Monroe till she has just finished dressing. The treatment in ‘Bus Stop’ is, by contrast, head-on. There is nothing we don’t see (within the conventions of the period), but there is no sense of our being there just to see something, no tease to lead us on as in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. We are there to see it, it is true, and the fact that we are seeing Marilyn Monroe getting into a leotard must lend itself to the pleasure of voyeurism, but the ungainliness, the matter-of fact conversation with a woman who isn’t a showgirl, the tacky setting, none encourages this way of looking. Moreover, the movement shows us the showgirl setting up her act and the conversation stresses wanting to get beyond doing this kind of thing, so that within an image that is traditionally set up for the pleasure of gazing, we are again getting some explorations of what it means to be someone who lives by being gazed at.”

What a Girl Wants…

Another extract from film critic Richard Dyer’s essay, ‘Monroe and Sexuality’, published in his 1986 book, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, focuses on Cherie’s speech to Elma (Hope Lange) in Bus Stop (1956), and also her performance in The Misfits (1961.)

“Time and again, Monroe seems to buy into the ‘progressive’ view of sex, a refusal of its dirtiness – but that means buying into the traps of the sexual discourses discussed above: the playboy discourse, with women as the vehicle for male sexual freedom, and the psycho discourse, with its evocation of the ineffable unknowability of sexuality for women. The choice of roles from ‘Bus Stop’ on indicates the conundrums the image is caught up in. Only ‘The Misfits’ begins to hint at a for-itself female sexuality, and then casts it utterly within the discourse of female sexuality as formlessness. The men in the film look on, unable to comprehend her sensuality; grasping a tree she looks out at them/us with a hollow expression of beatitude, straining to express what is already defined as inexpressible.

Yet some of her later films do contain hints of the struggle, traps and conundrums of the fifties discourses of sexuality. ‘Bus Stop’ is probably the most extended example. It is possible, without straining too much against the drift of the film, to read Cherie/Monroe not just as the object of male desire but as someone who has to live being a sex object.

Cherie/Monroe’s longest dialogue comes in scenes with other women characters, and has thereby the quality of unburdening herself rather than putting on an act or standing up to men. With the waitress Vera (Eileen Heckart), she expresses her ambition to be a singer and Hollywood actress, referring to the lack of respect she has had up to now. With the young woman on the bus, Elma (Hope Lange), she speaks of the ideal man she is looking for, a notion of a man who combines traditionally masculine and feminine qualities:

‘I want a guy I can look up to and admire – but I don’t want him to browbeat me…I want a guy who’s sweet to me, but I don’t want him to baby me…I want a guy who has some real regard for me, aside from all that loving stuff.’

None of this is desperately radical or progressive; the ambition is mainstream individualism (‘I’m trying to be somebody’), the ideal man is a sentimental fantasy. But both are located in the consciousness of a dumb showgirl type, and given a legitimate voice by the seriousness of the performance, of the way in which they are filmed, and, especially, by virtue of the fact that they are spoken to another woman. The ambition and fantasy are not in the slightest ridiculed, and they have the effect of throwing into relief the showgirl role that Cherie/Monroe is playing.”

The monologue in Bus Stop is rightly considered one of the high points of Marilyn’s acting career. Unfortunately, it was heavily cut – which, Monroe believed, robbed her of an Oscar nomination.

In her 2007 book, Platinum Fox, Cindy De La Hoz revealed the text of Marilyn’s speech in its entirety. The edited parts are emboldened here.

Cherie: I don’t know why I keep expecting myself to fall in love, but I do.

Elma: I know I expect to, some day.

Cherie: I’m seriously beginning to wonder if there’s a kind of love I have in mind…naturally, I’d like to get married and have a family and all them things but…

Elma: But you’ve never been in love?

Cherie: I don’t know. Maybe I have and I didn’t know it. Maybe I’m expecting it to be something it ain’t. I just feel that, regardless how crazy you are about some guy, you’ve got to feel…and it’s hard to put into words, but…you’ve got to feel he respects you. Yes, that’s what I mean…I’ve just got to feel that whoever I marry has some real regard for me, aside from all that loving stuff. You know what I mean?

Elma: I think so. What will you do when you get to Los Angeles?

Cherie: I don’t know. Maybe if I don’t get discovered right away, I could get me a job on one of the radio stations there. Even singing hillbilly if I have to. Or else, I can go to work in Liggett’s or Walgreen’s. Then after a while I’ll probably marry some guy, whether I think I love him or not. Who am I to keep insisting I should fall in love? You hear all about love when you’re a kid and just take it for granted that such a thing really exists. Maybe you have to find out for yourself it don’t. Maybe everyone’s afraid to tell you.

Marilyn and the Pin-Up Grrrls

This 1952 shot of Marilyn exercising at home, taken by Philippe Halsman, is discussed in Is the Pin-Up Feminist?, a blog post by Rebel Grrrl Italiana.

“The Marilyn Monroe poster exudes sexuality, which was threatening during the time period (and some may argue, still is), as well as a resiliency/strength (lifting weights) rarely displayed in typical images of women.”

Ms. Magazine Cover Essay Contest

Ms. Magazine, co-founded by the American feminist author, Gloria Steinem, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Marilyn graced their cover in August 1972, ten years after her death. Steinem’s essay, ‘The Woman Who Died Too Soon’, would later form the basis of a full-length book, Marilyn: Norma Jeane. (Her introduction was entitled ‘The Woman Who Will Not Die’.)

In conjunction with Ms., Stanford University invite you to write a 150-word essay on how one of their covers inspired you. More details here