Lately I have been thinking about women, and the many incarnations we can embody and be in the articulation of our femininity and our way of being the woman we want to be. Such thoughts led me to consider Marilyn Monroe- yes, the Marilyn Monroe, the woman that illuminated that “dark continent called woman” in Hollywood neon. Monroe seems to inhabit the collective unconscious of both men and women: As the “star” everyone knew, some sexualized and objectified, others copied, and still others shunned. Decades after her suicide, her image continues to be imitated and remains a universal symbol of femininity.
Who am I? What kind of woman? Asked Monroe. This is a question that most women have asked. Along the way, it is other women that have helped answer it, starting with our mothers. Marilyn Monroe had no such help. With a mentally ill mother who could not care for her, and an unknown father, she had to negotiate growing up mostly on her own. She found a way out of poverty and foster homes through her beauty and her body, sex and seduction being the primary means of exchange in a world dominated by men. She used her looks to give men what they wanted in the hopes that they would then give her what she needed – love, respect, safety. Like many women of her generation, she looked to men for recognition, validation and security.
Marilyn Monroe personifies many conflict-ridden parts for women, particularly women of her generation. She was too frail, too funny, too sexual, too much of everything, and it was reflected on the big screen. Marilyn was too much of a reminder of just how much of female sexuality and identity was reliant on men and on male sexuality. Her image ensnared femininity and made it a persecutory ideal for many women. Illusion often leads to idealization, and for women, the image of the ideal woman, or the ideal of femininity is something that can continue to haunt them throughout life. Think of the way Monroe influenced the look and sensibility of an entire generation of women who nonetheless struggled with what she represented. Trapped in a stereotype of woman, Marilyn was objectified, depersonalized and ridiculed. Few women stood up for her, it was too personally threatening. Monroe embodied basic female fears having to do with envy, jealousy and competition; she was a beautiful, sexy rival who was desired by all men because she played to their fantasies, in giving herself totally and asking to be loved she reminded women of their own vulnerability in the socio-symbolic contract.
Monroe was more comfortable with men because they treated her like a woman, while women treated her like the enemy. She looked for definition, and found it lacking and imprisoning. Being treated like a woman does not a woman make, instead it makes a man’s idea of a woman, which can then imprison her. While masculine identifications may serve to reinforce many parts of female identity, validation happens in a totally different way with other women precisely because we are different than men, and concretely because we are built differently. No matter how important the men in our lives are, they cannot replace the role of other women in our lives. It is a biological impossibility. Women need other women to work out who they are and want to be, and in particular, to work out how they process aggression, envy and eroticism. When these aspects of the self are repudiated, they continue to manifest in women’s lives through bodily experiences – from not being satisfied with their appearance to not being able to enjoy and own sexuality, and everything in between. In search of validation, women might turn to the male gaze as objects of desire, like Marilyn did. Or they might hold other women up as a mirror that reflects an “ideal” so they become the object of envy, jealousy and competitiveness-precisely what happened to Monroe. What circulated between Marilyn and other women was an unresolved image of woman. An image that many women struggle with. Who am I? What kind of woman?
Marilyn’s public image reflected a masculine desire for an innocent yet sexy woman who did not bring any complexity along with her sexuality. “In fact,” Monroe is quoted as saying toward the end of her career, “my popularity seems almost entirely a masculine phenomenon.” Despite the fact that she played to it, Monroe disliked Hollywood’s promotion of her as a sex symbol, and she was explicit about the sexual exploitation that accompanied her career, as well as the history of sexual abuse that was part of her childhood. She spoke up and made it possible for many women to begin to speak about similar abuses. Yet, like many of her female peers, Marilyn sought to live out her idea of the woman she wanted to be through the men she chose as husbands. First there was the merchant marine James Dougherty, who saved her from yet another foster home when she was only 16. Then came Joe DiMaggio, the homespun jock who softened her image with the promise of the American dream, and finally there was Arthur Miller, the intellectual who provided proof that she was in fact, more than a sex symbol. With Miller, Marilyn attempted to have a child, but becoming a mother was not to be for her. Monroe continued to struggle with her image and the woman that she was and wanted to be throughout her short life. Along the way she was betrayed many times, by the men in her life, by the media and the press, by her psychoanalysts, and, sadly to say, by women who did not want to see themselves in her and disowned her. I like to think that she would have fared better in the post-feminism era.
Marilyn’s story is still relevant today because women continue to struggle with the same issues despite the fact that there are more possibilities to who and what we can be, when and if one can use the space and possibility to become. In search of validation and recognition, women often replicate an either/or situation for themselves that begins in the relationship with their mothers and is later re-enforced by culture. Take the woman-child, or the madonna-whore extremes, they leave little room for the specificities of what a woman might want to be. Marilyn exemplified the struggle to live between the two. Despite the fact that she was repeatedly trapped into the dumb, sexy blonde role, she continued to try and negotiate different film and theater characters for herself, developed her skills as a comedian, insisted on being taken seriously both for her acting and her thoughts, and toward the end of her life, was managing her own small film company. When she was not on a movie set, she would take literature and history classes at UCLA. Monroe loved literature, and her library contained over 400 books, including Joyce, Freud, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Kerouac. Because she took her craft seriously, Monroe began taking acting classes in New York from Lee Strasberg, with the hopes of changing her image and gaining some respect in the theater world. She even undertook psychoanalytic treatment on 3 different occasions in attempt to tackle her internal demons and understand their impact. In my reading of her life, I see a woman trying to create a life by her own rules rather than those being imposed on her, and trying to understand the impact of her emotional history, yet continuing to get caught up in the longing and idealization of her decade and the image of woman she helped to create. It was the stress of articulating herself as both sexy and intelligent, playful and smart, vulnerable and strong, needy and seductive, child and woman, Norma Jean and Marilyn Monroe – some of the very qualities and alternatives that first and second wave feminism made possible for all women – that did her in.
Marilyn Monroe’s trajectory as a woman mirrors the construction of WOMAN, and its many embodied, psychological and socio-cultural meanings. As women we are always negotiating between daughter and self, child and woman, as we articulate our subjectivity. Despite the glamour and furor that surrounded her, Marilyn Monroe was a woman in search of herself, a woman in process.