Mailer, Siegel and the ‘Angel of Sex’

Marilyn by Bert Stern, 1962

Over at In These Times, Lindsay Beyerstein eloquently responds to the literary critic Lee Siegel’s curious assertion that Marilyn’s legacy has been ‘de-sexualised’, and in particular, his bizarre attack on Norman Mailer (who, if anything, was even more fixated by Monroe’s sex appeal than Siegel seems to be.)

‘Was it all an act? Monroe biographers have wondered ever since. It must have been to some extent, because, as we all know, angels of sex aren’t real…

Mailer wisely refuses to create a false dichotomy between the image and the woman. He’s not impressed by the Norma Jeane Baker vs. Marilyn Monroe cliches. She could be open, playful, and lusty. But she was a person with needs, ambitions, and limits of her own.

Mailer is equally upfront about the fact that Monroe enjoyed sex and romance for their own sake and defied many of the restrictive sexual mores of her era…

Siegel conflates Monroe’s sexual allure and her sexuality, as if it were a foregone conclusion that those were the same thing. My Week With Marilyn is all about Monroe’s sexual allure. Almost every scene shows someone gaping at her. Most of the laughs come from seeing Monroe vamping and men slobbering.’

Lee Siegel: Unsexing Marilyn

Marilyn by Milton Greene, 1956

On the New York Review of Books blog, the critic Lee Siegel argues that while Marilyn is America’s most famous sex symbol, her sexuality is often swept under the carpet. While Siegel makes some interesting points, this ‘oversexed’ portrayal of Marilyn is ultimately as limiting as the sanitised representations he criticises, and adds little to our understanding of her true sexual identity.

“She was in thrall to her sexual nature. As she once said: ‘We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it. Everything.’ Yet this ‘gift’ had another, punitive dimension. Her preternaturally powerful sexual instincts were her first, her primal addiction. She turned to drugs—just about every imaginable type of drug—and to alcohol in hopes of replacing one type of dependency with another. But the orphan’s need for love seemed too powerful, and sexual gratification was perhaps the only way it could—fleetingly—be appeased.’