Christina Newland: Why Women Still Love Marilyn

Film critic Christina Newland, who will appear on the new docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, has penned an op-ed for CNN ahead of the US premiere tomorrow, January 16th, headlined ‘I’d Like to Introduce You to the Real Marilyn Monroe’ (and you can read more of Christina’s writing on Marilyn here.)

“Given her tragic barbiturate overdose in 1962, it’s easy to dismiss Monroe as a victim without the coping mechanisms for success. But these are only partial truths at best, aided by decades of rumor, mythmaking and assumption about the woman herself.

Monroe was consistently typecast as vain and stupid for using her looks to her best advantage. She suffered sexual assault and wrote about it, though it fell more or less on deaf ears. She lived a life that was singular and extraordinary, but women continue to identify with her. While I was being interviewed for the making of this documentary, I at one point found myself unexpectedly wiping tears from my eyes as I spoke about Monroe. The feeling of kinship we feel with Monroe is, in part, what I suspect has led so many people to find her a source of continuing fascination.

Monroe’s body, face and hair are cultural objects and commercial vehicles. She knew it back then, too. Today, they are also vessels of ideology about feminism, sex, Hollywood and #MeToo. With all of that baggage, her actual life can sometimes feel blotted out, overpowered by the force of her own star power. Even her films — and many of them are truly great, including Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Misfits — are sometimes sidelined in favor of the screen goddess image.

When she broke her contract with Darryl F. Zanuck and absconded to New York at the height of her popularity, she had grown fed up with the ‘dumb blonde’ roles he’d been saddling her with. Actors had rebelled against top-down studio system control before — Bette Davis had rebelled against the system and Olivia de Havilland won a suit against Warner Brothers in 1943, extending her contract with them continually. But taking a stand against a powerful studio was still a huge gamble, and often a tough one to win. The moguls tended to take it personally.

Monroe’s appeal was often referred to in the press with phrases that revealed the writers were usually men: things about her ‘three-dimensional’ assets and her ‘chassis.’ Male journalists fawned over and belittled her in equal turn, seemingly incapable of understanding her intelligence and her looks might not be mutually exclusive. It would be decades before women journalists and writers began to truly examine Marilyn and the phenomenon around her … Maybe the turning point in our understanding of Monroe was best explained by Gloria Steinem, second-wave feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine. In a 1986 essay called ‘The Woman Who Will Not Die.’

For many women, Monroe represents a wound that never quite heals, and her quests to carve out her own identity and to be ‘taken seriously’ are still a nagging thought in so many of our heads … In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter much to me whether we slap the label of ‘feminist’ or ‘proto-feminist’ on someone of her era. She did unquestionably pioneering things, and she was equally victimized and forced to tolerate shameless misogyny. What matters is her story and her work stand in proud monument to a deeper cultural understanding and embrace of women’s agency and desire. Marilyn Monroe held great power, and in admiring her, so do we.”