‘Forever Marilyn’ in the Age of Pride

The formal installation of Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn,’ in Palm Springs last week didn’t so much put the controversy to rest as fan the flames. Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, has followed up his previous denouncement of the statue as misogynistic (see here), by proclaiming it an insult to the LGBTQ+ community during Pride month.

“The Palm Springs controversy has fostered lots of distractions, most of them fixated on the life of the iconic movie star, who died in 1962. But Monroe’s story is barely relevant here. The 21st century part is what matters most. The statue is only 10 years old. The art is contemporary. It speaks in and for the present. And what it says loud and clear out there on a concrete pedestal in the middle of a public street in 2021 is, ‘Let’s have some fun and look up this babe’s dress!’

Misogyny is a symptom of self-loathing — internalized hate externalized, in desperate search of someone presumably worse to look down on. Gay men get reviled for the erotic and romantic attachments to men that women commonly express. Gay women get reviled for their indifference to those attachments. And trans people get reviled for the fluidity with which they refuse the static gender hierarchy on which misogyny depends.

For queer people, repairing the deep harm caused by internalized homophobia and transphobia is the reason Pride Month exists. It’s not rocket science: Self-respect — pride — is the opposite of self-loathing … Not all publicity is good publicity. Palm Springs is now the only city I know that has erected a 21st century monument to misogyny in the center of town, complete with a tone-deaf Pride Month party to celebrate the deed.

Civic support for this fiasco is hugely disappointing. That it’s happening in Palm Springs shows how blindly entrenched misogyny is. Some estimates put the number of queer residents at more than one-third in a population of roughly 48,000, while the entire City Council, including the mayor, is LGBTQ.

Progress in American women’s pursuit of parity certainly persists — ask the new vice president of the United States — but social change always produces anxiety. #MeTooMarilyn drives publicity because it galvanizes constant debates over equality in American life … The Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which charts LGBTQ inclusivity in municipal laws, policies and services across the country, rates Palm Springs at 100%. For as long as Johnson’s foul colossus stands tall, HRC might want to consider knocking off a couple points.”

Nonetheless, ‘Forever Marilyn’ still enjoys considerable support within the Palm Springs LGBTQ+ community, if this reader’s response is anything to go by.

“Marilyn Monroe’s story is not ‘barely relevant’ as art critic Christopher Knight writes in his online commentary about the ‘Forever Marilyn’ installation. It is in fact central to our appreciation of the sculpture.

In the scene from The Seven Year Itch that’s been so lovingly and skilfully immortalized by sculptor John Seward Johnson, Marilyn has just come out of a movie theater on a hot summer’s night. She’s chatting with her neighbor on a largely empty street when she hears a subway car drawing near. ‘Oooh! You feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?’

She’s a joyful, confident woman in that scene who simply wants to enjoy the cool breeze afforded by a passing subway car. She doesn’t care if someone might ogle her or if they might deem her behavior inappropriate. She’s in charge of her body and her pleasure and doesn’t give a damn if those around her may be offended or titillated by it.

She refuses to be shamed.

That affirmation of an outsider’s freedom and power is what the sculpture represents for us.

The theater Marilyn was walking out of just before her iconic subway moment was showing The Creature From the Black Lagoon and her last line of dialogue before that subway car passed was, ‘I felt sorry for the creature. I think it just craved a little affection — you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.’

Our community welcomes Marilyn with pride. As outsiders ourselves, we share those feelings.”

Steven J. Scott