You know what i wasn’t expecting when I picked up Steinem’s 1988 book entitled Marilyn and provided with illustrations from George Barris,(Steinem later wrote another entitled Marilyn: Norma Jeane)? Sympathy, I really didn’t expect the decidedly plain-faced, scrawny, ultimate symbol of the radical feminist movement in the mid-20th century to be sympathetic and nurturing toward the sex symbol that was Marilyn Monroe. You know who Steinem is: “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” That’s her. Now compare that to Marilyn’s comment “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it,” Not a whole lot of commonality. Steinem did admit that she left the movie theatre after watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes embarrassed and angry that this “big-breasted blonde looked and acted as self-conscious as I felt.” Just before the release of Marilyn, Steinem published a 1986 essay entitled The Woman Who Will Not Die. which was essentially an excerpt from Marilyn.
If anything I waited for the scathing attack on her that was Norman Mailer’s diatribe in his pseudo-biography Marilyn Monroe: A Biography. I say pseudo because Mailer didn’t know Marilyn and he was very frustrated that his literary colleague, Miller, refused to introduce him to his famous wife. Mailer knew nothing of Marilyn but his book sold in the millions. That’s because of who the author was, not due to its ridiculous content. Steinem on the other hand surprised me. She had a look at Marilyn’s life from her early Norma Jeane years to the end of her life as Marilyn Monroe. I don’t recall if she speculated about murder or not. I used to own the book but I lost it during a move to a new home a couple of decades ago.
Too bad. It’s a good book. Worth a read. if I find it again I shall buy it. I do remember that Steinem included a reasonable number of facts about Marilyn’s life but most of it was a soft speculation about how Marilyn’s life could have played out had she not been mentally ill, depressed, an actress, famous, a waif and so on. It’s a speculative prose that includes non-fiction about Marilyn’s history so in that sense it is a very alternative read. It’s better than most. Some musings include: Would Marilyn Monroe have become the serious actress she aspired to be? Could she have survived the transition from sex goddess to mortal woman that aging would impose? Could she had stopped her disastrous marriages to men whose images she wanted to absorb (Beloved American DiMaggio, Serious Intellectual Miller), and found a partner who loved and understood her as she really was? Could she have kicked the life-wasting habits of addiction and procrastination? Would she have had or adopted children? Found support in the growing strength of women or been threatened by it? Entered the world of learning or continued to be ridiculed for trying? Survived and even enjoyed the age of 60 she now would be? I had a new respect for Steinem when I read the book, Marilyn fan that I am.
Some of Steinem’s feminist theories however really don’t convince me as to why Marilyn is such an icon during and after her lifetime, Aside from her beautiful face, which women envied, she was nothing like the female stars that women moviegoers have made popular. Those stars offered at the least the illusion of being in control of their fates – and perhaps having an effect on the world. Stars of the classic “women’s movies” were actresses like Bette Davis, who made her impact by sheer force of emotion; or Katherine Hepburn, who was always intelligent and never victimized for long; or even Doris Day, who charmed the world into conforming to her own virginal standards. Their figures were admirable and neat, but without the vulnerability of the big-breasted woman in a society that regresses men and keeps them obsessed with the maternal symbols of breasts and hips. Okay, now. I really don’t see men as regressed and obsessed with Marilyn or any other beautiful woman due to the “maternal symbols of breasts and hips.” Where does Steinem come up with this stuff? She does criticize Marilyn however as the humiliating stereotype of a dumb blonde: depersonalized, sexual, even a joke. Yet few women yet had the self-respect to object on behalf of their sex, as one would object on behalf of a race or religion, they still might be left feeling a little humiliated – or threatened – without knowing why. I don’t believe too many women were or are threatened by Marilyn. So many of us are huge fans. The Marilyn Monroe craze if anything grows stronger with each decade and it is women who are mostly responsible for it. It is a fact that the vast majority of people who participate in auctions to purchase Marilyn’s original property are women. Many women still emulate her style – the bleached blonde hair and startling red lipstick. Female celebrities do photo shoots emulating Marilyn as best as they can, some more successfully than others. Celebrities such as Megan Fox (herself a gorgeous woman) have tattoos of Marilyn’s pretty face on their bodies (Fox’s is on her arm).
However I do agree with Steinem when she stated “Marilyn is an exaggerated version of what very often women are encouraged in general to be. All the more so in the 40s and 50s… she was encouraged to be childlike, to be ornamental, she was valued for her looks rather than for what was in her head or her heart, She played a role of the role, that is, the classic dumb blonde role. And in addition to that she was encouraged to conceal the real Norma Jeane who was inside her in somewhat the way women are encouraged to hide behind a stereotype. Yet that internal woman had experienced what we now know happen to a large number of women, being sexually assaulted as a little girl, I mean when she was alive she might have felt quite alone in this experience. But since her death many more women have come forward…I got hooked. I’m trying to find out who she was inside.”
That all makes sense to me. And Steinem’s being “hooked” sounds like the majority of Marilyn fans especially in wanting to know more about the inner person and not just being smitten by the sex goddess with the fly-away skirt.