What Marilyn Means to Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham, the multi-talented (and often controversial) creator of HBO’s Girls, has paid tribute to Marilyn in an essay for Vogue.

“It wasn’t until my 33rd birthday that I really understood Marilyn Monroe, in all her beautiful and pained glory. It wasn’t, as these things go, a very happy birthday. The year 2018 had already yielded three humiliations: a stint in rehab, the loss of my fertility, and a breakup that everyone expected (hard to know if that’s the better or worse kind). Unlike the reticent Marilyn—whose early 30s produced her own 50-car pileup of public humiliation, but who rarely spoke about any of it—I never shut up … In the stack of presents from friends—a tie-dye sweatshirt, a pearlescent locket with my dog’s photo in it, a pair of shoes with cat ears on the toe—was a book from my friend Alissa [Bennett], who has made it her business in life to catalog, with rare empathy, the humiliations of women exposed to public attention … Alissa handed me her gift, that fat white coffee-table book, its corners tugged at by wear—Norman Mailer’s ode to (and thesis on) Marilyn, titled simply with her first name. On the inner cover, Alissa had inscribed: ‘For Lena—who, like Marilyn, has something for everybody.’ In that moment, when I felt I had nothing for nobody, I clung to it: a bible and a life raft.

As a young woman, I didn’t much care about her. I was obsessed with those I perceived as shifting the cultural landscape toward something more like…weirdness—Gilda Radner, Grace Jones, and, later, Tina Fey. I thought that girls who cited Monroe as an inspiration were at best trite and at worst boring. I did pose as Marilyn for a magazine—with bleached hair, sucking on a whipped-cream-dotted cherry—but only after convincing myself it was a kitschy commentary on the kind of woman we deem worthy of attention.

It was, finally, reading about her private life that showed me the triumph and tragedy of her arc. Marilyn’s public presence was playful, seductive, and purposeful. She posed like she was living in an ecstasy of eternal summer, her breathy voice conveying an appealing lack of need—but her private life was marked by pain. Abuse, addiction, and abandonment defined her until, at 36, she died and became forever encased in the amber of our all-American fantasies. Thirty-six—an age that seemed, when I first learned her story, to be without defining factors. But now that I’m here—36 and a half, to be exact—I understand the unique set of fears that set in once you’ve moved past your prodigious 20s. To be 36 is to understand that, while a lot more life can be expected, there are certain things that cannot. If you are childless, you have either made that decision, or you’ve entered a phase of hoping that has the bitter tinge of panic. If you are not yet seen as the thing you believe you are—you feel people don’t know quite how serious or powerful or sexy you can be—you have realized it will be a Herculean struggle to change this. Thirty-six is an age where, without the proper support structures and self-belief in place, it would be easy to roll over, say ‘Fuck it,’ and go back to sleep. It seems, based on the all too readily available photo of the bed where she was found dead, that this is what Marilyn did.

In private, Marilyn suffered—not just from unceasing anxiety and depression, which doctors were happy to medicate (and here I can relate, having relied on a readily available chemical shield to navigate the terrors of my late 20s). She also dealt with severe endometriosis, a disorder of the reproductive system that remains woefully misunderstood and is the reason I had my own uterus ousted at age 31. Marilyn was obsessed with becoming a mother, convinced it would cure the loneliness that plagued her … Without her wished-for baby, Marilyn was just another lonely starlet with a few broken marriages under her belt—of the ‘we told you so’ variety—and a raft of people she paid to look out for her interests but continued to treat her as a disposable resource.

Marilyn does, indeed, have something for everyone. If you feel you are caged by male perceptions of your beauty, she is a cautionary tale. And yet if you feel your body is too big, too wild, or too different, she let the curves that spoke louder than she could show through clingy fabrics. If you feel you are not taken seriously by the powers that be, Marilyn is someone who never became the actress, poet, or painter she was in her private time … And despite being everywhere, with something for everyone, she had something just for me. Her story was a tilted fairy tale I could wear like that dog-photo locket, believing—as so many have believed—that the ways in which I saw her were different.

I used to think of Marilyn as ageless and very old. Now, 60 years from her death and the same age she was when it happened, I think of her as impossibly young. She could have had five other acts—mother, serious actress, memoirist, game show fixture, showbiz oldie—if she had lived to gain a single wrinkle. What would that have looked like? Would she have become frustrated with the attention, or would she have relished it?

Soon I will be 37. Then, God willing, 38. I will find out the joys and fears that each of these years brings up, feel my youth lose its currency, hopefully replaced by love, respect, safety—a great head of wild, gray hair. Marilyn never got any of that, but in a way she got it all, living infinitely in her proxies: as story, as motif, as warning bell. We move past where she stopped, defined by so much that she started.”