America’s Favourite Cliché: Marilyn and the Myth of Norma Jeane

In an excellent article for The Atlantic, Sarah Churchwell (author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) deconstructs the pernicious trope that Marilyn was a false identity brutally imposed upon the ‘real’ Norma Jeane – as propagated by biographers and in popular culture, and most recently in the wildly misleading Netflix ‘biopic’, Blonde.

“Most films that are widely reviled upon release simply evaporate into their own disfavour. Yet Andrew Dominik’s recent Netflix film, Blonde, has lingered in the public consciousness weeks after its release and subsequent criticism for a simple reason: the enduring star power of Marilyn Monroe.

The film is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel, which promised 20 years ago to reveal, through fiction, the real person behind the celebrated image. ‘I have to tell you immediately that I never would have written any book about Marilyn Monroe,’ Oates said in an interview promoting the novel at the time. ‘I got very interested in writing about an American girl who is Norma Jeane Baker who becomes a celebrity later in life … To me, she’s always Norma Jeane.’ It was hardly a new idea then, and it isn’t one now. The idea that Norma Jeane is more important than Marilyn Monroe will not fade away, as both the premise of Blonde and its critical reception make all too clear.

Since the first studio-written press release in 1946, the search for the real Norma Jeane behind the supposedly artificial persona of Marilyn Monroe has driven endless stories … We talk endlessly about the myth of Marilyn Monroe, but the myth of Norma Jeane is its foundation, encouraging people to express open contempt for the ‘fake’ Monroe by pretending to love the ‘real’ Norma Jeane instead. In fact, Marilyn Monroe was a real person in every way recognised by our culture—except in our stories about her.

The idea that Norma Jeane is both the real Monroe and a different person from Monroe is the myth of Marilyn Monroe. It is a fundamentally misogynistic idea, blaming Monroe for the contempt with which she is treated … Regardless of how unconscious it may be, reducing the staggeringly successful Monroe to ‘little Norma Jeane’ has the undeniable effect of denying her power, keeping her infantilised, pathologised, and always less than a whole self.

That fundamental contempt for the very idea of Marilyn Monroe bleeds into any number of unquestioned clichés about her. One, for example, is that she hated herself—as proved, supposedly, by the tragic circumstances of her death. Little that Monroe actually said suggests this is true. In many interviews, especially in the fullness of her stardom, she spoke of self-respect, insisting upon her self-worth, asking people to take her seriously. Monroe’s drug addiction was self-destructive, yes, but it also likely spun beyond her control before she comprehended its dangers. Addiction doesn’t have to be a symptom of self-hatred: It might also provide escape from the derision of others.

Marilyn Monroe’s life did not happen to Norma Jeane. Norma Jeane is only significant because she created Marilyn Monroe. If Norma Jeane had not turned herself into Monroe, we would never have heard of her. But we don’t speak of Monroe as being the agent of her own transformation; instead, we speak of her passively Becoming Marilyn … We still refuse to do Monroe the basic justice of crediting her for her own stardom … Monroe was not put on a treadmill; she pushed and shoved her way onto it, and then beat the competition. Nor did anyone make her change her name: A casting director suggested it, and Monroe, hungry for stardom, agreed. ‘Monroe’ was, in fact, her mother’s maiden name, and thus has considerably more claim to be Monroe’s ‘real’ name than the shifting patronyms of her insecure childhood.

She legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe soon after she started her own production company: There is no reason to view her name change as anything other than a triumphant assertion of her identity. She is globally recognised as Marilyn Monroe 60 years after her death, yet people keep lamenting the loss of Norma Jeane. Cary Grant famously said that everyone wanted to be Cary Grant, including him—but no one says Archie Leach is the real Cary Grant. Nobody sings, ‘Goodbye, Frances Gumm’; everyone prefers Judy Garland. We also prefer Marilyn Monroe, but we flatly refuse to admit it.

There is another Marilyn Monroe, recalled by those who actually knew her—a woman of tremendous determination, ambition, humor, and dedication to her craft. Her addiction to pills was serious; her stage fright was real and disabling; every one of her successes was met with mockery and gaslighting. She rose above it all, fighting back, fighting them off, showing them up, until the day she took too many of the pills she routinely took too recklessly.

‘Everybody knows about her insecurities,’ another Monroe biography quoted her friend, the photographer Sam Shaw, as saying, ‘but not everybody knows what fun she was, that she never complained about the ordinary things of life, that she never had a bad word to say about anyone, and that she had a wonderful, spontaneous sense of humour.’ The truly rare tribute to Monroe would focus on her survivalism, her ambition and wit, the courage with which she fought her detractors … This Monroe also exists in the public record—but is not the one who circulates in our stories about her.

The great struggle of Monroe’s life wasn’t her struggle against addiction, depression, and loneliness—it was her struggle for respect, which our culture still denies her. ‘Some people have been unkind,’ she once said. ‘If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work. I’m more serious about that than anything.’ Monroe wanted, above all, to progress and improve, but we don’t let her change—because then we’d have to change our minds and admit that she was one of America’s great success stories, instead of one of its favorite tragic myths. In truth, Marilyn Monroe offers one of the purest instances of the old American promise of reinvention. And, on the evidence of stories such as Blonde, we continue to evolve considerably less than she did.”