Pop culture has turned Marilyn Monroe into a two-faced mythological figure, both shallow sex symbol and confidence-boosting bearer of wisdom.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” This quote is one of dozens that make the rounds on the internet, typically written in script across a photo of Marilyn Monroe, sharing the wisdom of the tragic actress with a new generation. The problem – ironic given the nature of the quote – is that these words did not come from Marilyn. In fact, the many false quotes attributed to her are just a small part of the mythology of Marilyn, a movement that has placed her at the pinnacle of feminine charm and transformed her into something that both aggrandizes her and reduces her to the stereotypes she hated.
“A sex symbol becomes a thing. I hate being a thing.”
Now, those are Marilyn’s words. And like most of the “Marilynisms” that verifiably came from her, they paint a very different picture from the one that is now emblazoned across t-shirts and posters and tattooed on starlets’ bodies. To get the above quote tattooed is virtually a rite of passage for young women in show business and one that has turned Monroe into a sort of secular goddess to whom all sorts of wisdom is attributed. Why do women idolize Marilyn Monroe to this degree? Is it healthy? Does it really honor her?
“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.”
It’s not hard to see why so many people continue to find Marilyn so charming, decades after her death. She was utterly captivating. Breathy and beautiful, Marilyn had a keen sense of comedic timing, and her overt sexuality made her both a magnetic and controversial figure. Today, most of us tend to see her as the ultimate representation of female sexiness: someone in control of her own body, someone who was able to gain the adoration of millions with a wiggle and a shake. She appeals to the desire of many women to transform themselves from Norma Jeane next door into a glamorous sex goddess.
In fact, Marilyn has become something of a meme. Pop culture has turned her into not just a sex symbol but a confident and carefree role model, with the help of fake quotes like “We are all stars and we all deserve to twinkle” (subverted, oddly enough, from a passage in one of her letters referencing a freedom ride for minority rights). Photos of her curvy figure are used to pit women of different body types against each other, ostensibly in support of the celebration of fuller figures, despite the fact that Marilyn averaged 117 pounds and had a 22-inch waist. She had the ideal shape of her era, now misinterpreted due to changes in sizing that make a vintage size 10 seem much larger than it really was. Such memes may be well-meaning, but they’re false.
“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.”
Building Marilyn up into a mythological figure ignores the realities of who she was, and the circumstances that made her life so tragic. Marilyn had to change to fit an expectation of female beauty. She adapted to fit an existing ideal, and at this, she played her role perhaps a little too well: she became the ideal. But would Marilyn be happy to know that she is remembered primarily for her beauty and her sexuality? Probably not. Despite wanting nothing more than to succeed as an actress, she was not only disrespected during her lifetime – treated as an object rather than a thinking and feeling person – but ridiculed.
“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.”
Marilyn couldn’t seem to escape the restrictive boundaries that her physical appearance and her sense of alluring yet shallow feminine mystique placed on her life. When she proposed an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, envisioning herself in a role that was actually quite fitting for her persona, a reporter asked her, “Do you know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?”
A foster child with a family history of severe depression, Marilyn bounced from one unloving home to another before marrying at sixteen to escape the cycle. Her two subsequent marriages, to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, were a hallmark of what it was to be a woman in the socially restrictive 1950s: marrying what they wanted to be. In Marilyn’s case, that was first an American hero, and then someone serious, who commanded the respect of intelligent people. But the myth that had already begun to swirl around her then made her larger than life, even to her husbands. Marilyn oozed sex, but childhood abuse left her scarred to the degree that she didn’t experience an orgasm until she was well into her thirties.
“I am a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they have made of me and that I have made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy’s the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it.”
None of this is to say that Marilyn Monroe is unworthy of being adored, nor that she should be viewed only as a cautionary tale – an example of the toll that objectification can take on a woman’s psyche. But perhaps part of what draws us, as a culture, to the legend of Marilyn is the fact that she represents an essential struggle within many women to this day. She has become, as Gloria Steinem put it, an exaggeration of femininity that struggles to fit into the expectations of an ideal, but conceals the truth of who she really is inside – “a kind of larger projection of the individual woman for a lot of us.”
Marilyn’s early death at age thirty-six – whether an intentional overdose or accident – has preserved her at the height of her beauty and sexual allure. She didn’t live long enough to push through all of those restrictions and participate in the feminist movement, as many believe she likely would have. She never got that serious starring role that would finally have given her the validation she craved as a thespian. She didn’t reach an age that would have allowed her to beat back many of the misconceptions that many have developed about her and her life. And so she has been commercialized for mass consumption, plasticized into a mannequin that can be manipulated to say anything we want.
In our mythical interpretation of her, we have washed away some of Marilyn’s humanity. Remembering Marilyn Monroe as a three-dimensional person rather than a flattened image of an hourglass figure and a pretty face – or even worse, a complete subversion of her reality – is a far more fitting tribute to the most iconic woman of the 20th century, and to ourselves.