‘Forever Marilyn’ Sparks Fresh Controversy in Palm Springs

‘Forever Marilyn’ in Palm Springs: photo by Marilyn Chung, 2016

Palm Springs City Council has granted permission for a temporary, 3-year home for Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn’ on Museum Way, the Desert Sun reports. However, not everyone supports their decision – to put it mildly!

‘You come out of the museum and the first thing you’re going to see is a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe with her entire backside and underwear exposed,’ Louis Grachos, director of Palm Springs Art Museum, told the meeting. ‘We serve over 100,000 school-age children that come to our museum every single year. What message does that send to our young people, our visitors and community to present a statue that objectifies women, is sexually charged and disrespectful?’

He worries the statue would send the wrong message at a time when cultural institutions across the country are being challenged to achieve equity, diversity and gender equality in their staff and collections. ‘Can you imagine when #MeToo gets a hold of this?’ he told council. ‘It’s not just going to hurt the museum, but it’s going to hurt our whole community.’

Following the council decision, a letter of objection to ‘Forever Marilyn’ was published in the Desert Sun, signed by 24 people including local artists and museum employees, describing the sculpture as ‘blatantly sexist’ and complaining that it will block views of the museum’s distinctive architecture and the surrounding landscape of Mount San Jacinto. However, local business leaders have defended the placement, arguing in their response that ‘Forever Marilyn’ will generate much-needed tourist income for Palm Springs in 2021.

The original ‘Forever Marilyn’: photographed by Bruno Bernard for The Seven Year Itch in 1954

Personally, I am not a big fan of ‘Forever Marilyn’ either – I find it somewhat kitschy and not a great likeness of Marilyn. However, I can appreciate Johnson’s technical skill even if it isn’t ‘high art,’ and the sculpture has attracted many spectators worldwide, encouraging the public to engage with art (although not always respectfully!) Whatever you may think of Johnson’s artistry and how he has objectified the female body, Marilyn herself does not deserve to be pilloried.

Perhaps the final word should go to actor and director Joshua John Miller, grandson of photographer Bruno Bernard, whose photograph of Marilyn filming the ‘subway scene from The Seven Year Itch inspired Johnson’s sculpture.

“The true new meaning of glamour is something aspirational. It’s about female empowerment and it’s about possibility. Remember, Marilyn came from nothing. She grew up in an orphanage and reinvented herself to be this creation she brought to the world, which has inspired men, women and many of my gay friends for decades to feel empowered they could be and become anything they dream.”