So few know about the woman behind the red gloss.
I forget that to most she is a sex symbol for the male gaze. When I describe Marilyn Monroe as one of my biggest heroes, people get confused like seagulls trying to decipher bread crumbs from plastic. Unbeknownst to the many that continue to sexualize her, she was a real fighter, breaking social barriers left and right, somehow surviving the brutal sexism of her times.
“Why do you like Marilyn Monroe so much?” my dad once asked me as he meandered around my apartment, observing my gallery wall of Marilyn photos. I was personally offended. I didn’t feel it was a question worth asking. Marilyn Monroe is a legend.
Despite the horrific obstacles of her upbringing, she finally made it across the border and into Hollywood. She was type-casted, but her talent could not be tied down by her dumb blonde roles. It twinkled in the slim pickings. Eventually she grew rich and famous in her own right and became one of Hollywood’s first successful business women (yes, one of the first).
Few know that she took elite acting classes, seriously respecting her craft. It seemed that deep down, on some level Monroe believed she would one day be cast in dramatic roles, regardless of the garbage she was given. She also attended night school to study literature and wrote poetry in her journals which have now been published postmortem.
Monroe seemed ashamed of the dumb blonde roles she played; she once said she was, “tired of the same old sex roles. I want to do better things. People have scope, you know.” The problem she faced stemmed from producers and directors who only valued her face and body, rather than her personhood. She explained, “Some people have been unkind. 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.”
But even in the objectifying parts she was assigned, Monroe is supremely entertaining and conveys excellent comedic timing in her films. She stuns with her smooth singing voice accompanied by fabulous dancing performances. Few today realize that she was an excellent entertainer and singer.
Because her generation was extra hard on women with sex lives (unless in bed with one yourself of course), her promiscuity put her at a disadvantage, further emboldening Hollywood to sexualize her. She insightfully once described, “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.”
She married three times and always longed to start a family, but also longed for true success in her career. Monroe explained how difficult her situation was, “In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hairdo. You’re judged by how you look, not by what you are. Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for kiss, and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty.”
Monroe was far from alone. Another huge star of the times, Donna Reed, once said, “Forty pictures I was in, and all I remember is ‘What kind of bra will you be wearing today, honey?’ That was always the area of big decision — from the neck to the navel.”
Impressively, before her early death at 36, Monroe got the chance to produce and act in her own two films after she founded Marilyn Monroe Productions with her photographer friend, Milton Greene. Finally free from her strict and sleezey contract with Fox, Monroe could choose her own roles and design her own movies. Without the obligation to please directors and colleagues, MM Productions made Bus Stop, which many critics claim to be her strongest role, and The Prince and The Showgirl (one of my personal favorites).
The story of Monroe’s success is complicated and controversial. There are still so many people that keep her pinned down to the image of a sex symbol. Her story serves not only as a cautionary tale about life before sexual harassment laws but also her story is the legend of a heroine, a martyr for creative women with real ambition.
Bonus Fun Fact: Another progressive element of Marilyn Monroe’s lifestyle was her propensity to workout and exercise. Remember that this is before sports bras and Title IX. While most women were encouraged not to exercise, Monroe was well aware that her physical and mental health were much improved by exercising–again, she was way ahead of her time.