Since 1962, the year of Monroe’s death, we have nervously experienced the outcomes of the Cold War, silently witnessed atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda and Serbia and eagerly enjoyed the advent of the internet that has spawned new spheres of discussion and international exchange. However, the actress, the image, the phenomenon that was and is Marilyn Monroe has remained. Despite the dynamism of an ever-changing political, environmental and cultural landscape, her now wordless presence is with us still.
She haunts girls’ bedroom walls on black and white posters, looms on billboards and her thoughts have been immortalised on flesh, in films and on Facebook: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure”, “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it” and “imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” What is most unsettling is not our collective attachment to her cultural memory, but rather the remnants of what Monroe represented: Monroe was a self-created myth, a male illusion or, as she conceded in her own words, “a fantasy.”
Monroe claimed that she had “too many fantasies to be a housewife” before bitterly adding “I guess I am a fantasy.” Although somewhat stagnant debates still rage about her tenuous status as a proto-feminist and theories continue to point to her natural intelligence in spite of her very minimal education, I feel that such ideas neglect the crux of what Marilyn Monroe was and still is: a sex symbol. This is not to say that sexual attractiveness and feminist beliefs are mutual incompatible. Nonetheless, what made her a sex symbol was a naïve embodiment of an ideal.
Despite occasionally voicing frustration, she once commented that “a sex symbol becomes a thing; I just hate to be a thing”, Monroe soared to staggering heights of success after films in which she was type cast as the archetypal dumb blonde. Her popularity skyrocketed following a string of roles in the early 1950s, during which she appeared in the annual “Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars”, but she failed to attract attention for more serious roles. Monroe told The New York Times that her dramatic coach, Natasha Lytess, told “everybody that I have a great soul, but so far nobody’s interested in it.”
Despite clamouring for more significant acting roles, Monroe’s main contribution to cultural memory has been her relationships with notable men, such as JFK and Arthur Miller, her most prominent film roles have been in The Seven Year Itch, in which she shot that iconic skirt-blowing scene on Lexington Avenue, and in Some Like it Hot in which she is the love object of two men on the run. Her sexuality is her superpower, it serves as a central vehicle to the plot; it is both her tool and her singular agency in what she describes as a “man’s world” in which she is very much “a woman in it” and sadly, little else.
Much as we should not personally condemn Marilyn Monroe for her use of her body as currency, we should not hail her as an icon, an inspiration and most disturbingly, a female idol. Monroe did not challenge the status quo: she participated in it and upheld it. Although this should not be used to vilify her in a self-righteous display of condemnation, should we really plaster our walls with her image and reproduce her words without interrogating their context? Do we really want to be little more than women in “a man’s world”?
What is further problematic about Monroe is how she is held to be a bastion of bygone femininity; images of Monroe are disseminated daily, sometimes even in feminist circles, hailing her figure as a true example of a “real woman.” Yet instead of liberating women from a rigid framework of aesthetic expectation, this further tightens the bondage of beauty, forcing women to stay within the ever-constricting straightjacket of femininity.
What underpins the whole argument of what is visually means to be a “real woman”, whatever that is, is the assumption that being female relies on image; the idealisation of Monroe has merely altered the focus from extreme thinness to the need for curves. However, this continued emphasis on appearance is unsurprising given that a recent poll suggested that contemporary women would prefer to be attractive rather than intelligent due to the presumed social value of beauty.
So why do girls still aspire to be like Marilyn Monroe and why aren’t girls’ rooms lined with images of female astronauts, or inspiring activists such as Aung San Suu Kyi or writers like Alice Walker or Margaret Atwood? Sadly cultural conventions have led us to assess women on aesthetic criteria, rather than ideas, innovation or intellect and Monroe is no exception to this rule. Undeniably she was a talented actress but as to whether she was a feminist icon, or a mythical figure bent into adherence to male fantasy and conventional notions of sex appeal, we should ask ourselves whether she is more remembered for her IQ of 163 or for huskily performing ‘Happy Birthday’ for J F Kennedy, or for her skirt blowing up on the set of The Seven Year Itch.