‘Becoming Herself’: Finding Marilyn’s Feminine Power

Marilyn by Jean Howard, 1954

The queer feminist academic Sophie Lewis has written a very personal tribute to Marilyn for the November issue of literary magazine Harpers. It’s a rambling, often messy piece, but nonetheless offers valuable insights into Marilyn’s artistry, and the author’s own perceptions on why she has been so often misunderstood by men and women alike.

“About a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, hunkered down in West Philadelphia and searching—this will be familiar—for a lifeline, I corralled five of my best beloveds worldwide into an exclusive institution. We were called the Marilyn Appreciation Society—the M.A.S.—and we committed to converging across our various time zones to watch the movies of Marilyn Monroe … But the pandemic, as you may have noticed, has ended up being rather long. By last summer, the M.A.S. had watched and rewatched all the Monroe greats: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, Niagara, The Misfits, Bus StopWithout really intending it, we allowed Marilyn’s performances to inspire in us a wide-ranging critique—of misogyny, of Hollywood, of Americana, of the bourgeois white nuclear family. We cherished the strength, darkness, and utopianism we found in Monroe, and we wondered how so many could miss it.

Though Marilynism proved contagious, the obsession had originally been mine … Back then, I was happily ignorant of the industrial scale of the phenomenon the scholar Sarah Churchwell has called ‘trashing Marilyn’; in reviewing three hundred biographies of Monroe, Churchwell found that the vast majority were a type of aggressive antihagiography. But I would soon learn. I would also come to understand that Marilyn worship and Marilyn trashing usually share an important assertion: that whatever Monroe accomplished she did by accident. Whether we are posing as feminist defenders of the star or merely as admirers of Tinseltown, Churchwell writes, ‘we insistently, defensively, self-deceptively proclaim that she does not matter, that she is minor, worthless,’ even ‘in the teeth of inescapable evidence of her persistent, sustained, astronomical value to our culture.’

Churchwell’s ‘we’ is appropriate here. I have been guilty of the same … Perhaps what I am ultimately trying to do is atone for the femmephobia of the past, and for my own. Perhaps treating Monroe’s memory with the partisan softness I now feel can be a small contribution to a world where women need not be so unhappy.

In an essay published in 2000, in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan says that a particular female Monroe biographer ‘is hard on the men who tried to transform her’ … Of all the hundreds of Monroe biographies in existence, O’Hagan claims, there are but two ‘good books,’ both coincidentally by men … I was unpleasantly reminded of a question posed by the feminist film critic Molly Haskell in her 1974 book on women in the movies:  ‘Would we, or she, have been better off if Marilyn had never been born, and if Norma Jean, sitting on the front porch of some Southern California rest home, or even surrounded by a brood of children, were rocking her way into oblivion?’ Haskell doesn’t commit to an answer; Monroe’s life is ‘a fait accompli.’ But the idea is pervasive: that perhaps Marilyn did wrong, and did all of us wrong, to become herself.

For decades, most feminist critics have been unable to befriend Monroe, or her image—unable to get close enough to see her clearly, held back, it seems, by their own shame … In 1986, Gloria Steinem wrote an essay titled ‘The Woman Who Will Not Die‘ in which the image of the ‘minor American actress’ haunts her through the streets of New York, and she reconsiders Monroe’s legacy, attempting to approach Marilyn more generously than she had when the star was alive. But the overwhelming effect is of pitying distaste … ‘She was the child-woman who offered pleasure without adult challenge.’

Was she? Is this borne out by her persona, her films? The short answer is no. Her characters are unified by a femme form of toughness. In Niagara, she tries to murder her husband; in The Prince and the Showgirl, she gives the monarch a taste of his own handsy medicine; in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she icily evicts a suitor (‘pray, scat!’) from a cabin … Is Steinem’s assessment borne out by Monroe’s life, then? For instance, by the actress’s refusal to play roles written for her, such as The Girl in Pink Tights—rebellions for which she long skated close to dismissal from Fox and was several times suspended? Monroe put up a ferocious fight over the terms of her original, seven-year contract, not least by setting up her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and refusing to appear on set. Following the lengthy conflict, she received new say over her projects, including choice of directors and cinematographers. Her pay was increased to $100,000 per film.

With Steinem as its guide, second-wave feminist criticism of Marilyn overwhelmingly struck the same note: condescending aversion masquerading as empathy or high-minded appreciation of tragedy … Steinem also popularised the trope whereby feminists confidently bisect Monroe’s identity as a Jekyll-and-Hyde type—such that Marilyn, the popcorn Venus, can be blamed and loathed for the murder of the ‘real woman’ Norma Jeane.

Taking a brief detour on my pilgrimage, I immersed myself in BimboTok, Generation Z’s femme-liberation micro-province of TikTok … It is no surprise then that Marilyn, whose beauty was a great labour, who spent hours at a time gazing into mirrors, is beloved on BimboTok … Theirs is an ethos that posits machismo and femmephobia as two sides of the same coin, I muttered appreciatively; here are the rumblings of a future of respect.

The M.A.S.’s collectively formed view is that every Marilyn movie is a document of, at the same time, Monroe’s yearning for and questing into the heart of Tinseltown, her desire to be elsewhere and otherwise, and a type of tug-of-war with the turbines of the Hollywood machine. Marilyn was used for sexist and racist purposes in a sexist and racist industry. The Monroe enterprise was no doubt a tool of the white-supremacist culture of postwar America: the reigning image-makers strove to position Marilyn nationalistically, close to cowboys, gas pumps, beer, Coca-Cola, GIs, little blond children, and little houses on the prairie.

But it never quite clicks. The moral conversions Marilyn is supposed to undergo amid wedding bells at the end of so many of her films rarely seem plausible. They also never seem at all desirable—the real romance, the real action is always pre-reform. And her enthusiasm for underwhelming men and underwhelming circumstances teeters constantly on the edge of send-up. As for Marilyn herself: she’s too funny, too sad, too sensual to serve reliably as an avatar of domestic heterosexuality … One of Monroe’s great gifts, writes Jacqueline Rose, was ‘to distill suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else. Just doing that much is already to throw a spanner into the cultural works.’

Another of her talents was to be earth-shatteringly funny, but Rose thinks that Marilyn ‘could not see it. She did not realise that the audience were laughing not because she, Monroe, was ridiculous but at the genius with which she played her part.’ I am not convinced by this: I think she oscillated in and out of understanding her brilliance and its power. An entry in her notebook reads: ‘Remembering when I couldn’t do a god damn thing. then trying to build myself up with the fact that I have done things right that were even good and have had moments that were excellent but the bad is heavier.’

This will be clear to you by now: under my leadership, the M.A.S. became a Marilyn solidarity cell. Its hypothesis evolved to be that it remains possible, even now, to see Marilyn, not simply feed on her flesh … We submit that it is possible to enjoy or critique her art without projections, and without falling into the condescension of so many feminists and non-feminists alike … We honour the whole uncanny and ingenious artist—as raw and true as anything one has ever seen.”