Happy birthday, Marilyn
Seventy-five is definitely one of life’s great milestones, but it’s not a birthday most women would care to admit to, let alone celebrate. And a movie star turning 75? Forget about it.
In Hollywood, actresses never turn 50.
The really smart ones deny hitting 40, hovering permanently around 35.
So it is probably for the best that Marilyn Monroe will be missing the lavish birthday party fans are throwing in her honour come next Friday, when she turns 75. None more than Marilyn understood that a sex symbol’s currency lies in her youth, her curves, in the suggestion that a sexual encounter lurks around the next corner. Growing old, complete with wrinkles and menopause, is not a chapter in the bombshell handbook. It is doubtful that Marilyn would ever have sanctioned the 75th birthday tributes planned.
But Marilyn, dead now for 39 years, is conveniently unable to lodge a protest, so the fan parties, the mournful trips to her Los Angeles grave, the movie marathons on television, will all proceed according to plan.
In fact they must - there are too many industries depending on it. The store owners who know a milestone birthday will boost sales of schlocky Marilyn memorabilia (watches, mugs, towels), the publishers who will re-issue Marilyn picture books just for the occasion, the bra companies who know a sudden burst of Marilynia sends women straight to the lingerie racks (if not to their plastic surgeons, requesting her breasts).
Then there are the feminists. They are looking forward to this birthday, too. This is not a joke. In recent years, American feminists, both first wave and third, have claimed Marilyn as one of their own. They have anointed her, arguably the world’s most famous sex object, a symbol of the women’s movement, without a trace of irony. The ensuing hype surrounding birthday 75 now gives them a chance to spread their message to a wider audience, using Marilyn as leverage.
Asked recently whether, if Marilyn were alive, she would be a card-carrying feminist, Gloria Steinem said: “I think so, because her experiences were ones that feminism often speaks out on: sexual abuse, sexual victimisation, a mother’s madness.
“She died just before the beginning of the modern women’s movement. Her experiences were so typical and exaggerated in terms of what happens to women who are abused as little girls, then treated as objects.”
But just because she died before the birth of the modern women’s movement doesn’t mean Marilyn cannot join it posthumously. Feminists today are citing her life as an example of how sexism objectifies women, ruining their lives in the process. She has become for them a potent symbol of how bad things were for women in the 50s, when the job options were simple: housewife or sex kitten. It, she, was all about serving men. Where was the equality?
“I think Marilyn would be stunned to see how people have reinterpreted her life since she died,” says Nancy Friday, author of My Mother, Myself and The Power of Beauty. “But I do understand why the women’s movement sees her as significant. She was a woman exploited for her beauty; few admired her acting or cared about her personal feelings. Her role was sex object. Looking at her life story, you can see she is a powerful reminder of why feminism was necessary.”
In fact, that is what prompted Steinem to write a book about Monroe (Marilyn: Norma Jean) in 1986, dissecting her life from the feminist perspective. It is also what is motivating younger feminists to reclaim her now.
“Marilyn puts a face on the hardships that women have to face every day in this country - sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, abusive relationships, sexual objectification,” says Erin Johansen, a third wave San Francisco feminist activist and editor of feminist website www.girlchick.com. “I think in this way, a lot of young feminists see her as a sort of martyr for modern feminism, as a shocking example of how a woman can be torn apart by the greed, lust and coercion of the men in her life.”
Marilyn’s life story, today the subject of over 300 books, biographies, movies and university dissertations, is not one you would typically expect feminists to seize upon for inspiration. She never knew her father and her mother was institutionalised when she was young; she was placed in a series of foster homes before ending up in an orphanage.
Marilyn Monroe, then Norma Jean Baker, was discovered working at an aircraft factory during the second world war. Pictures of her at the factory were circulated in army newspapers and their popularity launched a modelling career, which led to a contract with 20th Century Fox in the mid-1940s. But it was the agent Johnny Hyde who ultimately turned mousy Norma Jean into platinum blonde bombshell “Marilyn” and guided her to stardom.
Along with marriages to baseball great Joe DiMaggio and literary legend Arthur Miller, there were affairs with Kennedys, miscarriages, abortions and a parade of sleazy studio executives desperate to latch on to Monroe once she became money in the bank.
“Nobody ever gave her any applause for who she was,” Nancy Friday says. “It was all about her singing at President Kennedy’s party, her tits, her baby-doll voice.”
This, she explains, is exactly how feminists don’t want the world to view women, which is why Marilyn is so appealing to them. “The message is, look at what happened to Marilyn. What happens when you allow the world to turn you into a sex object. And feminists say, don’t let that happen, girls, make something of your lives. Become somebody.”
While it is impossible to visualise Marilyn Monroe in a senior citizens’ home, or wrinkled and grey, that has not stopped people trying. Sketches of what she might look like today are all over the internet and surfacing in newspapers, too. There is also much talk in the US about what Marilyn would be doing today if she were alive, a game played with only two other names - Elvis and James Dean.
Gloria Steinem suggested Marilyn’s life experiences might have sent her running into the arms of the women’s movement. But she also entertains the idea that Marilyn would have done a Greta Garbo, fleeing Hollywood for a more private life. “I imagine her as an older woman, living in the country and giving refuge to animals,” she says, claiming that, as a woman, Marilyn identified with their vulnerability.
Joyce Carol Oates said recently that she believed if Marilyn could have escaped Hollywood and moved to New York, she would have built a successful career in the theatre. “Unlike the movies, the theatre allows actresses to mature and to continue to work virtually as long as they are able. Had she not died at 36, it is possible that Monroe could still be acting today in, for instance, a play by Shaw or O’Neill or Chekhov. I wish that this were so.”
Yet many people weighing in on the prospect of Marilyn turning 75 have admitted that they are glad she died young, that to see her age would have been devastating. This is not necessarily so, according to Nancy Friday, whose book The Power of Beauty examines both the power of good looks and the need for beautiful women to develop themselves in order to feel valued. She argues that our culture, while obsessed with female beauty, respects ageing bombshells if they grow old gracefully and stop pretending (like Mae West) that they are still sex kittens in their 70s.
“People say they are glad they don’t have to watch Marilyn age,” Friday says. “But if she had moved past her beauty, if she had made something out of herself, she would still be their icon.”