Before beginning this piece, please search “Marilyn Monroe real voice” and listen to it for a moment just to set the scene.
There has, in recent decades, been a push to recognize Marilyn Monroe as the exceptional comedic actress that she was, a move to resist the narrative of “dumb blonde” and “sexpot” that were designed for her. However, the image of Marilyn as a “dumb blonde” and a tragic, young actress have been incredibly resilient to any kind of reassessment. It doesn’t help that the most enduring image of Marilyn is her swooning in delight over a subway grate as wind rushes up her white dress. But this was not what Marilyn wanted. It could be argued that this was, in fact, what she most feared; she once ended an interview by pleading with a reporter, “Please don’t make me a joke” (Steinem, 38). She was, in contrast to this image, an ambitious and driven woman who was always striving for more. I believe that to remember her in a reductive way is to further compound the suffering that she experienced during her life, to be, in a way, complicit in it. To look at her life and her construction as an icon is a difficult task, but a more rewarding one, it is one that acknowledges the complications and depths of a life and seeks out the realities that the widespread diminishment of her ability and accomplishments had on that life.
The construction of Marilyn was not merely that of sex symbol for its own sake. One of the more virulent, if subconscious, constructions of Marilyn is explored by Jacqueline Rose in Women in Dark Times. To Rose, in Marilyn’s sexuality there was a symbol for post-war America, of all it wished to forget and of all it wished to be. A society haunted by the revelations of a violence run rampant and dominated by a desire to return to normalcy needed a body to project this onto. And thus, Marilyn became Marilyn, her body serving as America’s distraction from itself. Of course, this left her no options. Her image was all-consuming and it was cemented. Because of the importance placed on it, she was not allowed the growth available and necessary to a person. She was not allowed to become other than her image. That was painful to her and, or course, it eventually became untenable. Marilyn was to become a symbol of a new, safe, abundant postwar America, she was to subsume all of the atrocities of war within her image, within her body and it left no room for the actual person inside. Speaking of Don’t Bother to Knock and later, Niagara, two of Marilyn’s dramatic roles, Rose comments, it is “As if in these early films, America can offload on to a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality, without let or inhibition, the violence it cannot reckon with in itself… I counted no less than five earlier images where she is lying prone-whether asleep or fainted-splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction in the script describes her pretending to be asleep in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history-the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget-owes her nation a death. America is denying its own pain. Who pays the price?” (123-124).
To further complicate dominant notions of her, one can look to the stories that detail Marilyn’s dedication. Numerous accounts from her early days as a model have her questioning photographers about the processes necessary to create a quality image. She was interested in learning all of the facets of a discipline in order to make the most compelling or successful product. Similarly, in acting school, she was always interrogating scenes; how they worked, why they worked, breaking them down into pieces so that she could assess them for their successes or failures. Her fervent adherence to interrogating her life through psychoanalysis as well as her consistent attempts to examine every step of the systems with which she worked in order to learn the most effective ways of performing and being a star illustrate for us not a vacuous bombshell, but a determined woman, intelligent, alert, and savvy.
But her desire to be understood as more than just a sex symbol was not allowed by the desires that she evoked in others. She wanted to expand and hone her acting, she wanted to study, to educate herself and the public mocked her for this striving. This would have given her image depth, contour, and shading of which she would be in control. But, of course, this is not allowed of a symbol, whose purpose is to be flat, static, uncomplicated. It would have confused her essence, that of, as Gloria Steinem, in Marilyn: Norma Jeane, writes, “a magical, misty screen on which every fantasy could be projected without discipline or penalty, because no clear image was already there” (161). The avid studying and the learning could have been her way out, a freedom from the pain she had suffered and the strictures that bound her. Her inability to have any depth beyond her image was a damaging proposition. The larger society wouldn’t allow her to cultivate or explore an identity that could have been all her own. No wonder she was wracked with mental and emotional pain. No wonder she kept running into herself.
I asked you to listen to Marilyn’s real voice at the beginning of this in order to illustrate the degree to which Marilyn was a construction. I could repeat this again and again, but hearing her real voice and the way it contrasts with the breathy, simpering voice she used in her films, is to really, fully and viscerally, understand that Marilyn was not a person. Norma Jeane was a person and Marilyn was the ready-made construction, cobbled together of the hopes and desires of a nation hellbent on concealing its pain. Marilyn was the symbol that eventually consumed her and, in a painful piece of irony, still lives on. To understand this distinction is to finally, in some minute way, change her story. I want to end with an anecdote that Steinem recounts in Marilyn: Norma Jeane. “By the time she had become a star, this artificial creation of a woman called Marilyn Monroe had become so complete and so practiced that she could turn it on or off in a minute. Actor Eli Wallach is one of many colleagues who remember her walking down the street completely unnoticed, and then making heads turn in sudden recognition by assuming her famous mannerisms. ‘I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,’ she would explain” (241).
Rose, Jacqueline. Women in Dark Times. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn: Norma Jeane. Open Road Media, 2013. PDF.