Biographers’ Q & A: Lois Banner

Biographile has interviewed Dr Lois Banner, author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. Asked which celebrity today reminded her most of Marilyn, Banner replied, ‘I’m thinking. Angelina Jolie, maybe, because she’s smart and she’s tough. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, they’re sort of dumb. Marilyn was never dumb.’

You can read the interview in full here.

Shape-Shifting: Norma Jeane to Marilyn

Writing about Marilyn for the Los Angeles Times, Dr Lois Banner argues that ‘we make her into an icon because we can also make her into whatever we want her to be.’

“In the end, Monroe is one of the most complex female public figures in American history, and that real complexity plays a role in her continuing ability to fascinate us. We admire her beauty, puzzle over her mysteries and see her as a reflection of the quixotic, multifaceted, always striving and often contradictory American character.”

 

‘Marilyn Still Bewitches Biographers’

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Britt Peterson looks at how feminist perspectives on Marilyn have developed over the years, from viewing her as a victim of men (Joan Mellen, Gloria Steinem), to hailing the power of her sexuality (Sarah Churchwell, Lois Banner, Jacqueline Rose.)

“Over the 1970s and 1980s, the new lens of feminist theory complicated but didn’t at first do much to improve this perception, critics treating Monroe as at best a victim and at worst a collaborator in her own destruction and the objectification of other women.

But soon the critical viewpoint on Monroe began to catch up to some of those complexities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the academic mainstream became more welcoming to pop-culture scholarship, critics started paying more attention to the postmodern aspects of Monroe, the ways in which she represented a truly fragmented subject. Decades removed from Monroe-as-person, perhaps without even the connecting experience of having seen her movies while she was still living, these critics began to focus on the accumulation of imagery surrounding her, while also lamenting the lost human at the heart of it.

Around the same time, the very aspects of Monroe’s biography that had proved so alienating to second-wave feminists—her frank, often exhibitionist sexuality; the fact that she slept with producers and photographers early on in her career to get work—began to seem more of a piece with a third-wave, sexually empowered story about her.

The paradox of Banner’s book is that it’s a portrait of a third-wave feminist written for traditionally second-wave goals. Banner says that she has been laughed at by male colleagues who see Monroe as ‘a dumb blonde, a stupid woman, who only engaged in a kind of raunchy sex.’ Her book is meant as a corrective, a defense of Monroe as an intelligent, warm-hearted artist…Like the British critic Jacqueline Rose, who wrote a long paean to Monroe in the London Review of Books this April, Banner highlights Monroe’s radical leftist leanings, her racial sensitivities, her interest in psychoanalysis, and other ways in which she prefigured various social and political movements of the 1960s. She doesn’t gloss over the uglier aspects of Monroe’s character…

Banner’s version is more complete, more sensitive, more entrenched in archival data than any before, and yet the ‘real Marilyn’ remains elusive, as she always will. ‘I can be anything they want me to be,’ she told a friend. ‘There are a lot of cards in my deck, so to speak.'”

The Girl in the Red Sweater

An extract from Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is published in today’s Mail on Sunday, detailing how Marilyn’s image evolved from girl next door to goddess.

“It all started with a red cardigan. The ‘sweater girl’ look, launched by Lana Turner in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget, was coming into vogue across America. But it hadn’t reached Emerson Junior High School, Los Angeles – until Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Marilyn Monroe as she was later to be known, found her own distinctive way.

Teenage girls in that era often wore a front-buttoned cardigan over a white blouse with a prim collar. Norma Jeane eliminated  the blouse as well as the bra and camisole worn under it. She then took a red cardigan, turned it around, and buttoned it up the back. The sweater clung to her breasts; she called it her ‘magic sweater’. 

And so began one of the most remarkable transformations in the history of Hollywood – a time-consuming and often quite inspired campaign to turn an abandoned girl, mocked by her classmates, into the sexual icon of the age.”

 

Marilyn: The Smart Dumb Blonde

Tonight at 8pm (GMT) on BBC Radio 4, Maureen Dowd will present a programme about Marilyn, The Smart Dumb Blonde. As a taster, you can also listen to a recent discussion of MM on Woman’s Hour, featuring Dr Lois Banner and Dame Ann Leslie.

“Pulitzer prize winning journalist Maureen Dowd argues that the so-called ‘dumb blonde’ of 1950s Hollywood was in fact smarter than she seemed. Marilyn Monroe and her ilk aspired to be brilliant in conversation as well as on camera; they wanted to pose with books as well as blonde hair; they understood the value of their sexual currency and they had enough sense to take advantage of their assets.

In this programme, Maureen Dowd brings together some of her most eminent friends and colleagues (amongst them, Harvey Weinstein and Mike Nichols) to travel back to a time when glamour and brains were not mutually exclusive. With the help of archive, film and music and some brilliant personal anecdotes, they’ll debate why the figureheads of the 50s believed in education as a mark of status and success.

Jump forward to today and American popular culture and politics has lost the drive which Marilyn’s era possessed. Maureen Dowd argues that aspirations and originality are no longer valued; instead we live in a cookie-cutter world of reality tv, banal cinema and inane politicians. And, despite the seeming triumph of feminism, some of the world’s most powerful and desirable women – from Sarah Palin to Kim Kardashian – are leading this trend. In the words of John Hamm, ‘stupidity is certainly celebrated’.”

Marilyn’s Eternal Beauty

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at Marilyn’s enduring appeal.

“Hippie chicks and their flower power came and went, and the sunken cheeks of heroin chic had their moment, but a half-century later it’s Monroe’s recipe for reinvention — since followed by the likes of Madonna, Anna Nicole Smith, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga and others — that perseveres.

That resonance is one reason why the stiletto-clad footfalls of Marilyn Monroe seem to be growing ever louder. One can hardly swing a white mink wrap without hitting a Marilyn-branded product or project, such as a CGI appearance in a Dior fragrance ad with Charlize Theron or her estate’s @MarilynMonroe Twitter feed, which has more than 52,000 followers.

And there’s more: If all goes according to plan, Marilyn fans will be able to end 2012 being able to wrap their bodies in Marilyn Monroe bathing suits, accessorize with Marilyn Monroe jewelry, paint their faces with Marilyn Monroe makeup, get their nails done at a Marilyn Monroe salon, slip into a pair of Marilyn Monroe stilettos and sip skinny lattes at a Marilyn Monroe Café.

There are other factors feeding the current Marilyn frenzy, of course, including the 50th anniversary of her death, by barbiturate overdose, on Aug. 5, 1962, and the current trend toward anything that smacks of retro-nostalgia (i.e. the Mad Men effect). But the fascination has been on the upswing longer than that, says Lois Banner, an author and USC history professor whose second book about the late actress, Marilyn Monroe: The Passion and the Paradox, was published earlier this month.

‘There started to be articles about the ongoing fascination with Marilyn Monroe as far back as the mid-’70s,’ says Banner, ‘after Norman Mailer published his biography. But … it’s really increased in the last 12 years.'”

‘Was Marilyn a Proto-Feminist?’

 An extract from Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox was published in The Observer on Sunday.

“I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me –an academic, a feminist biographer, and a historian of gender –had studied her. As a founder of ‘second-wave feminism’ and the new women’s history, I had dismissed Marilyn for many years as a sex object for men. By the 1990s, however, a generation of “third-wave feminists” contended that sexualising women was liberating, not demeaning, for it gave them self-knowledge and power. The students I taught were swayed by this. Had I dismissed Marilyn too easily? Was she a precursor of 1960s feminism? Was Marilyn in actual fact a feminist? Is she one of the women who changed the world’s attitude toward women?

She certainly took actions that could be called feminist. Her entire life was a process of self-formation. She was a genius at self-creation and made herself into an actress and a star. She formed her own production company, she fought the moguls to a standstill, and she publicly named the sexual abuse visited on her as a child: a major – and unacknowledged – feminist act. She refused to keep quiet in an age that believed such abuse rarely happened and when it did, the victimised girl was responsible. Such self-disclosure would become important to the feminist movement in the 1970s.

She never called herself a feminist but the term wasn’t yet in widespread use during her life, and the movement wouldn’t appear until a number of years after her death. Hedda Rosten, her secretary and close friend, identified her as ‘the quintessential victim of the male.’ Norman Rosten, Hedda’s husband, who was equally close to Marilyn, saw her relationship to feminism differently. He contended that Marilyn would have quarrelled with her ‘sisters’ on the issue of sexual liberation. She had achieved the financial and legal gains they sought. And she enjoyed her femininity, recognising its power over men. Marilyn’s stance in his eyes sounds like a post- feminist position, which privileges power over oppression and emphasises the power women possess through their femininity and sexuality.

On the other hand, one could argue that it was her fixation with her femininity – and her attitude towards it, sometimes regal and sometimes tormented – that caused her victimisation in the end. No matter how hard she tried, Hollywood and its men refused to consider her as anything more than a party girl and in the end they treated her like a slut they could use with impunity.

She commented that ‘black men don’t like to be called boys, but women accept being called girls, ‘ as though she were offended by the latter term. And she didn’t like male violence. That is apparent in the dispute she had with journalist WJ Weatherby over Ernest Hemingway. Weatherby liked Hemingway for his understanding of human nature. Marilyn didn’t like his masculine heroes. ‘Those big tough guys are so sick. They aren’t even all that tough! They’re afraid of kindness and gentleness and beauty. They always want to kill something to prove themselves!’ She praised the young people who were beginning to rebel against social conventions. In her best moments, she saw herself as part of that movement. Yet Marilyn had no gender framework to support her stance, no way of conceptualising her situation beyond her individual self, to encompass all women, whose rights were limited in the 1950s. Had she lived a few years longer, into the mid-1960s, the feminist movement could have offered the concept of sexism as a way to understand her oppression and the idea of sisterhood as a support.”

 

Banner, Schiller and the Many Sides of Marilyn

Jeff Simon’s review of Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox – due out in the US later this month – suggests that this will be a controversial book.

(Now personally, I’m all in favour of opening up the debate – and books which make me re-evaluate my preconceptions, whether or not I agree. So I won’t be adding my own opinions here until I’ve read the book in full.)

What interested me most in this review was the contrast between Banner’s portrayal of Marilyn and Lawrence Schiller’s in his recent book, Marilyn & Me.

“While Banner’s guess is that Monroe might have gone on to have a career like Barbara Loden’s – the actress who was married to Elia Kazan and who portrayed the Monroe figure in Arthur Miller’s ‘After the Fall’ – it is also more than possible that the rebel generation coming up in Hollywood would have seen a sympathetic soul at the very least and might have figured out whole new masterpieces for her and whole new ways of filming her quite different than the routine humiliations of even some of her greatest films. (Think of what Scorsese or Altman or Hal Ashby or Francis Ford Coppola might have invented for Monroe in her 40s as feminism changed completely the savage spotlight that followed her – and demeaned her – everywhere.)

…Lawrence Schiller took the famous, unique late-period nudes in which she revealed herself to be the greatest genius of all in the art of exploiting Marilyn Monroe. Quite possibly she was cognizant even then of what would become her true immortality – not completely as a film actress, where she was erotic and radiantly beautiful but often painful to watch in a post-feminist era, but a photographer’s model. It’s there where she can be captured to perfection – frozen in time, all exterior, a flesh and blood masterpiece of white on white, suitable for any and all gallery walls.”

Read the review in full at Buffalo News