Andy Warhol, Capitalism, Essay, Eve Arnold, femnism, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gloria Steinem, I Was a Playboy Bunny, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Who Died Too Soon, Mass consumerism, Reading, Sense of Self, Sexual Rhetoric, Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis, Ulysses
I always felt like a pedophile walking into Icing at Claire’s, but my wife wanted to look at ear rings, and when wife talks, husband listens. The reason for my discomfort is apparent to any fully grown man that enters this store. From wall to wall the mass produced, over priced, cheap jewelry is designed to adorn the body of a young girl between the ages of six to sixteen. Between the Tween bop music that blares ad nauseum, to the wall to wall mirrors that reflect back a figure of human sadness to be caught in this space, the souls mourns and the “Y” chromosome tries desperately to rip itself from your body.
This is hyperbole, but the sad fact is there’s a nugget of truth to it.
What really bothered me about the store, and numerous other retail establishments, is the proliferation of Marilyn Monroe. Since Andy Warhol diminished art, and made us realize how hollow the mass produced object is, while at the same time lifting up its mundane to sacred meaning, corporations have coupled with ad men to sell us a rhetoric that matches our understanding of our minds, hearts, desires, and dreams. What little girl doesn’t want to be Marilyn Monroe? She was gorgeous. She was famous. She was the queen of Hollywood staring in such movies as…well, okay you don’t actually know any of the movies she starred in, but you for sure know she was a movie star. She was also a model and an icon. We’re not sure what she was an icon for, but dammit she looks great on your cell phone cover, and your purse, and your t-shirt that tells us to “keep calm,” and your backpack, you school spiral, your three ring binder, your earrings, your wrist band, your tote bags, your hanging wall clock, the poster on your wall that says “Star!”, your…well, I’m sure we can find something to put her face on. Her beautiful, unbothered face, that reminds you you’re a Marilyn Monroe, and you’re gorgeous, and you’re saying something wearing her beautiful face so close to your person.
If my sarcasm isn’t apparent, I apologize, it’s the weakness of the medium. Maybe a Meme will help.
There we are. Tommy Boy always helps.
Having the parents I did, I knew who Marilyn Monroe was. I’d watched her often as a kid when my parents put on the movie Some Like it Hot. If you’ve never seen the movie, two jazz players (Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon when they young studs) see a hit by the mob and disguise themselves as women to hide in an all girl band. Tony Curtis falls in love with the leader singer, a blonde named Sugar whose desperate to fall in love with a rich millionaire and escape her troubles in life. My initial impression of the woman then, was of a gorgeous blonde who was trying to make something of herself, who was tired of being screwed by life. The tragedy of this part was, as I was to find out later, that Marilyn wasn’t really acting in that film, she was behaving.
Thus I lead into Gloria Steinem.
One of my prized possessions is signed, hardback copy of her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. True it was somebody else’s copy, so the autograph reads “To Dee,” but you’re missing the point. I had become aware of her work through my little sister. Taking an Honors freshman course, her teachers assigned the students Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and to follow that up they read Steinem’s stunningly hilarious essay What if Freud were Phyllis: Or, The Watergate of the Western World. I won’t lie, I was interested, I had become more and more aware of Steinem because of her essay I Was a Playboy Bunny, and so I loved the chance to actually read the woman. I remember laughing so hard I actually had to put the essay down a few dozen times just to catch my breath. So when the chance to buy a hardback book came my way, you bet your ass I snatched it up.
Out of many of the wonderful essays, there was one I most recently read entitled Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Who Died Too Soon that struck me as being tremendously important for those of us living in the age where most of us are so tired of the icon, the fetish that we wouldn’t mind the woman dying again. Steinem reflects upon her experience of Marilyn as a young woman:
But I walked out on Marilyn Monroe. I remember her on the screen, huge as a colossal doll, mincing and whispering and simply hoping her way into casual vulnerability. Watching her, I felt angry, even humiliated, but I didn’t understand why. (233).
Though she does come to a kind of conclusion later when she writes:
Perhaps it was the uncertainty in the eyes of this big, blonde child-woman; the terrible desire for approval that made her different from Jane Russell. How dare she expose the neediness that so many women feel, but try so hard to hide? How dare she, a movie star, be just as unconfident as I was? (233).
This might be misconstrued by some as some mild form of Jealousy, but the only people who would honestly believe that are morons, the kind of people that protest that the Zune is a viable form of media interface and that the cubs honestly have a chance of winning a game next season. It’s difficult for a man to truly appreciate the level of confidence that women are expected to possess and manifest on a day by day basis given all the shit we put them through. It’s difficult enough for many women just to try and find a satisfying acceptance of their own body type, given the constant media pressure as well as by men whose desire remains fixated on the glamorous deceptions sold by Victoria’s Secret and Hollywood films. Yet here it is in just a few sentences. Few tween girls would probably understand Steinem’s confession however, because, as was noted before, the image of Marilyn many receive on a day by day basis is one of constant glamour and confidence.
Marilyn was a sex symbol, she was, after all, the very first woman to pose for Playboy. Now I suppose the reader understands what comes next. We get it, there’s something creepy about little girls wanting to be a sex symbol.
The answer of course is no.
HOWEVER, there is something creepy about men wanting little girls to idolize a sex symbol. Steinem notes how this status managed to limit Marilyn in her life when she writes:
By the time I saw her again, I was a respectful student watching the celebrated members of the Actors Studio do scenes from what seemed to me very impressive and highbrow plays. […] She was a student, too, a pupil of Lee Strasburg, leader of the Actor’s Studio and American guru of the Stanislavski method, but her status as a movie star and sex symbol seemed to keep her from being taken seriously even there. She was allowed to observe, but not to do scenes. (234).
Very few women escape the status of sex-pot goddess, because men tend to be the ones handling the strings and organizations that could change their image into something more. They don’t want to let go of that sex-symbol, because as long as they can keep a woman in their minds as such, they control her rhetoric, her meaning to the world. Steinem notes the tragedies in her life and seems to come to a final summation:
Most of all, we wonder if the support and friendship of other women could have helped. Her early experiences of men were not good. She was the illegitimate daughter of a man who would not even contribute for her baby clothes; her mother’s earliest memory of her own father, Marilyn’s grandfather, was his smashing a pet kitten against the fireplace in a fit of anger; Marilyn herself said she was sexually attacked by a foster father while still a child; and she was married off at sixteen because another foster family could not take care of her. Yet she was forced always to depend for her security on the goodwill and recognition of men; even to be interpreted by them in writing because she feared that sexual competition made women dislike her. Even if they had wanted to, the women in her lie did not have the power to protect her. In films, photographs, and books, even after her death as well as before, she has been mainly seen through men’s eyes. (238).
This is what always bothered me, and still continues to bother me about the mass production of Marilyn Monroe in bulk products. The image, the identity of a woman conflicted with her struggle between her body and mind is completely wiped away, as little girls frolic to a man made image of glamorous female selfhood.
This leads me to my final point, and two important pictures.
On my wall for years was a page ripped out of a magazine from Architectural digest that I still own and will never part with. It was an old rerun of a special Celebrity homes edition that covered celebrities from Sinatra, John Wayne, to even, and I bet you didn’t see this coming but I know in fact that you did, Marilyn Monroe. I’ve provided the image here. You’ll note Marilyn does not face the camera, she’s not wearing an expensive gown, she’s not even smiling. Instead she’s sitting on her bed reading a book, while behind her is a shelf filled with books, one of which is Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot by the way, and on her walls are works of art, several of which are selections from Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and private drawings.
Why have you never seen this photo before? Because it’s not glamorous, and reading is dull as dirt. At least that’s what people tell me.
The second image is one I have heard of but only recently discovered. Many of the “glamorous” photos that have solidified the archetype of Marilyn Monroe were done by a photographer by the name of Eve Arnold. Over the course of her career she made many beautiful portraits of the woman, but one stands not only myself but also for Arnold as well. Like the first I have provided it here. You’ll note that this image of Marilyn is not sexy, or glamorous, or even exciting, but it does still you for a moment because it is the image of a figure you don’t recognize for its pensive nature. Arnold herself describes the picture, and the meaning it had to her own life:
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet…. I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it — but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned — but almost more her input.
I can’t imagine there are many tween-age girls in existence that would admire Marilyn for reading Ulysses since many wouldn’t even know what Ulysses is. And even if they learned they probably wouldn’t care, they’d wonder why the girl on their purse and bedazzled cell phone cover would read a boring almost unreadable book.
But here’s my question, and I don’t give a good goddamn if I sound pretentious, pompous, or feminist when I ask it: why shouldn’t young women idolize intelligent women? Or at least those that try to better themselves by reading?
These two images seem of profound importance in my mind, because they are images of a woman that aren’t slapped on the cover of purses, cell phone covers, tote bags, lipsticks bodies, etc. That may be due to the fact that these images disrupt the glamorous dream many people are trying to sell. Looking at Marilyn reading a book disrupts the identification. You don’t read books, because the people who read books aren’t famous or pretty. They don’t live the life you think you’re going to have or want to live. Beneath all the glitter and smiles, Marilyn shines through in these two images, that many women will live their entire lives and never see.
And there I suppose leads me back to that feeling of discomfort. There so much flash to the world of identity and selfhood that we’re selling to young women. That men are selling to young women. How can we expect young girls to grow up past the glamour of sex and fame, if we never show them that once the flash and cash has diminished, all they’ve really bought is a cheap coin purse made in Taiwan, with a picture of a woman on the cover they don’t even really know.
Below I’ve included a few links to articles that describe the life of Marilyn Monroe and her cultural impact. One of them is the Arnold piece I cited before, the second is a piece from Vanity Fair, and the third and final one is another essay written by Gloria Steinem. I hope you enjoy.