Editor’s Note: Christina Newland is a film critic and an award-winning journalist. She is featured in CNN’s new Original Series Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, which reexamines the life and legacy of the Hollywood bombshell. The four-part series premieres Sunday, January 16, at 9 p.m. ET. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s vanishingly difficult for Marilyn Monroe to be seen as an actual human being. Not after this many decades of being a symbol, a sex goddess, a blonde bombshell or a candle in the wind. As author Sarah Churchwell, whose book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, has said, “What we think about Marilyn is what we think about women.” In the 1950s, that proved to be a damning indictment.
Given her tragic barbiturate overdose in 1962, it’s easy to dismiss Monroe as a victim without the coping mechanisms for success. But these are only partial truths at best, aided by decades of rumor, mythmaking and assumption about the woman herself.
Monroe was consistently typecast as vain and stupid for using her looks to her best advantage. She suffered sexual assault and wrote about it, though it fell more or less on deaf ears. She lived a life that was singular and extraordinary, but women continue to identify with her. While I was being interviewed for the making of this documentary, I at one point found myself unexpectedly wiping tears from my eyes as I spoke about Monroe. The feeling of kinship we feel with Monroe is, in part, what I suspect has led so many people to find her a source of continuing fascination.
Monroe’s body, face and hair are cultural objects and commercial vehicles. She knew it back then, too. Today, they are also vessels of ideology about feminism, sex, Hollywood and #MeToo. With all of that baggage, her actual life can sometimes feel blotted out, overpowered by the force of her own star power. Even her films – and many of them are truly great, including “Some Like it Hot,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Misfits” – are sometimes sidelined in favor of the screen goddess image.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson to a single mother who was institutionalized for mental health problems, the girl who came to be known as Marilyn Monroe was raised in a series of foster homes. By the time she hustled her way to the movie backlot – and made it into her first truly noticeable parts in a one-two punch of films in 1950 (“Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve”) – she had done a lot of fine-tuning.
This was not a simple and stratospheric rise, but a series of stop/start events. And the image of Monroe as a peroxide-haired bombshell did not spring forth fully formed. She was a very willing participant in the process of her star-making, from her name change to her dye job, her “Jell-O on strings” walk to the perhaps apocryphal story that she put marbles in the tips of her bra for added sex appeal. Monroe understood how to maximize her star potential. She worked with a personal makeup artist, Allan “Whitey” Snyder and agreed to a staggering range of promotional gimmicks at the behest of her studio.
No matter what came her way, she was canny, ambitious and self-starting: far from the “little girl lost” cliché so often attached to her. In 1952 for instance, the discovery of Monroe’s nude Playboy photoshoot threatened to hobble her climb to the top. The team of publicity men at 20th Century Fox insisted the photos would ruin her career, but Monroe – wisely – got out in front of the rumors. She openly admitted it was her and explained the reason was simply she was about to be evicted at the time and needed the money.
It was a calculated risk, and it paid off: instead of ruining her career, the scandal poured rocket fuel on it. Mid-century America was generally a socially conservative place, but the va-va-voom powers of the pinup and the bombshell during the war years likely paved the way for a more risqué image of American womanhood.
But Monroe’s appeal was often referred to in the press with phrases that revealed the writers were usually men: things about her “three-dimensional” assets and her “chassis.” Male journalists fawned over and belittled her in equal turn, seemingly incapable of understanding her intelligence and her looks might not be mutually exclusive. It would be decades before women journalists and writers began to truly examine Marilyn and the phenomenon around her, from Joyce Carol Oates to Gloria Steinem. But at the time, Marilyn must have felt very alone. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, once said all her talent was “above her navel and below her belly button.”
When she broke her contract with Zanuck and absconded to New York at the height of her popularity, she had grown fed up with the “dumb blonde” roles he’d been saddling her with. Actors had rebelled against top-down studio system control before – Bette Davis had rebelled against the system and Olivia de Havilland won a suit against Warner Brothers in 1943, extending her contract with them continually. But taking a stand against a powerful studio was still a huge gamble, and often a tough one to win. The moguls tended to take it personally.
When, in 1954, Marilyn announced the founding of Marilyn Monroe Productions, Zanuck panicked and suspended her contract, but she refused to come crawling back. Instead, she called his bluff, knowing just how popular she was with audiences, and refused to return until major changes were made to her contract with 20th Century Fox.
Remarkably, by 1955, she won her battle with 20th Century Fox. Fox upped her salary and offered her script, director and even cinematographer approval on each of her films with them. This was essentially unheard of for the time, proving yet again that Marilyn authored her image and her career far more than the domineering men in her life.
Maybe the turning point in our understanding of Monroe was best explained by Gloria Steinem, second-wave feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine. In a 1986 essay called “The Woman Who Will Not Die.” Steinem writes, “Most of all, women readers mourned that Monroe had lived in an era when there were so few ways for her to know that these experiences were shared with other women, that she was not alone.”
For many women, Monroe represents a wound that never quite heals, and her quests to carve out her own identity and to be “taken seriously” are still a nagging thought in so many of our heads. Yet the buoyant defiance of her roles in films, like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” when her character says, “I can be smart when it’s important. But most men don’t like it,” provide us endless solace.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter much to me whether we slap the label of “feminist” or “proto-feminist” on someone of her era. She did unquestionably pioneering things, and she was equally victimized and forced to tolerate shameless misogyny. What matters is her story and her work stand in proud monument to a deeper cultural understanding and embrace of women’s agency and desire. Marilyn Monroe held great power, and in admiring her, so do we.
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