The Chronicle Review

Marilyn Still Bewitches Biographers

Eve Arnold, Magnum Photos

Marilyn Monroe in 1955
July 16, 2012

We've had 50 years now to reckon with the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, and the only thing we have learned for sure is that Monroe had a genius for seduction. Just watch Jane Russell's Monroe impersonation in the courtroom scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coming just after Monroe's show-stopping S&M bordello lark "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," it has many of the same ingredients: blonde curls, suggestive winks, stunned male spectators. Both scenes are about how performance can change minds, but the energy in Russell's brashly sexual interpretation of Monroe goes entirely one way: It's all about her, about the Amazonian spectacle of her body. Monroe's number, on the other hand, is a teasing interplay with her fawning backup dancers and the camera, into which, unlike Russell, she gazes as she sings, putting the off-screen viewer in the place of her hapless and disapproving on-screen beau, sitting in the on-screen audience watching her. Russell's performance is about using her sexuality to blast the audience into submission; Monroe's is a more inviting, subtler, although no less effective power play.

Her seductiveness is exactly what has always made Monroe such a difficult subject for interpretation, the spot where 50 years of academic and critical studies have continuously faltered. Was Monroe an embarrassment to women, her "dumb blonde" act something like a Jim Crow-era minstrel show—or was that part of a bigger game? Was she an unrecognized intellectual, a political leftist whose marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller and fondness for Rilke and Freud suggested deeper waters than she otherwise let show—or, again, was she putting on airs to impress a different type of man? The mere fact of her obvious need to seduce once made her anathema to feminists, but was it a tool used in service of more steely ambitions?

A new biography by the feminist historian Lois Banner, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (Bloomsbury USA), argues for Monroe as "a third-wave feminist, who sees her body and her sexuality as a way to get power." Banner's archival work is thorough and impressive, her sympathy with her subject obvious. But the book's theoretical readings of Monroe, like most made since her death in 1962, may say more about our era than about the actress herself—a faint figure now, erased not merely by time and by the stacking up of our fantasies around her, but by her own decisions.

In the years right after her death, Monroe was viewed as a tragic figure exploited by a cruel studio system that kept her working on fluff like The Seven Year Itch and Let's Make Love when she would have preferred to play dramatic roles, and then cast her off, firing her just a few months before her apparent suicide by drug overdose. At the time, none other than Ayn Rand commented, "If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim."

Over the 1970s and 1980s, the new lens of feminist theory complicated but didn't at first do much to improve this perception, critics treating Monroe as at best a victim and at worst a collaborator in her own destruction and the objectification of other women. A 1973 pictorial biography by Joan Mellen, a Temple University English professor, describes Monroe's image as "a means of enslaving others to an impoverished and demeaning conception of what it meant to be a woman. And Monroe herself became the prime victim of this image." Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream, published the same year, is similarly critical, writing that "Marilyn's slow and terrible demise was related more to very personal female insecurities which led her to insist that everyone around her embrace a paternalistic role." Rosen, now a professor of journalism at the City University of New York's Lehman College, says that although she wishes she had given more weight to Monroe's brilliant comedic performance in Some Like It Hot, the actress was no protofeminist. "I wish I could defend her as a feminist heroine," she says, but "I see her as pretty lost, as a woman who was desperate to find out who she was through men."

When Gloria Steinem turned to Monroe in the 1980s, it was with a protective impulse, an idea of defending her from such criticisms on feminist grounds, as well as from locker-room tributes like Norman Mailer's 1972 reverie, Marilyn: A Biography. But Steinem's own Marilyn, published in 1986, did little to banish the specter of Monroe's helpless and victimized femininity. Steinem writes of her own discomfort as a film-loving teenager watching Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, "this whispering, simpering, big-breasted child-woman who was simply hoping her way into total vulnerability. How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?"

In fact, Steinem writes, Monroe was exactly the sort of person that the women's-rights movement was made for: sexually abused as a child, her professional life marred by misogyny, her personal growth stunted by society's dehumanizing obsession with the female form. "Now that more women are declaring our full humanity—now that we are more likely to be valued for our heads and hearts, not just the bodies that house them—we also wonder: Could we have helped Marilyn survive?" Steinem asks, in a section considering what Monroe might have become if she'd lived into a post-Betty Friedan world.

It's a perhaps unwittingly condescending portrait: Monroe comes off as a daffy flower child, not at all the mature, sexually aware actress who can be seen in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits. Clearly, even the feminist variations on the argument for Marilyn-as-victim, Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" theory, don't take into account her subtlety and range as a performer, her often startling self-awareness in interviews, her obvious desire—whatever you think of the results—to better herself through stiff reading, acting classes, showdowns with the studios, continually upgraded husbands.

But soon the critical viewpoint on Monroe began to catch up to some of those complexities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the academic mainstream became more welcoming to pop-culture scholarship, critics started paying more attention to the postmodern aspects of Monroe, the ways in which she represented a truly fragmented subject. Decades removed from Monroe-as-person, perhaps without even the connecting experience of having seen her movies while she was still living, these critics began to focus on the accumulation of imagery surrounding her, while also lamenting the lost human at the heart of it. As Wendy Lesser writes in her 1991 book His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art: "She is a being who, despite the fact that the emphasis is on her body, is in constant danger of becoming disembodied, invisible, nonexistent." Or, as S. Paige Baty, the late Williams College scholar of politics and women's studies, writes in her 1995 book, American Monroe: The Making of a Body Politic, "Marilyn is a cyborg reproduced through mechanical means and constituted by mass-mediated simulations."

Around the same time, the very aspects of Monroe's biography that had proved so alienating to second-wave feminists—her frank, often exhibitionist sexuality; the fact that she slept with producers and photographers early on in her career to get work—began to seem more of a piece with a third-wave, sexually empowered story about her. (It's perhaps no coincidence that Anthony Summers's biography Goddess, the first mainstream book to argue that Monroe's death was a conspired murder to hush up John and Robert Kennedy's mob and Hollywood connections, came out in 1985. Now there was a way to read Monroe's death as a tragedy but not an indictment of her personal choices.)

In this view, Monroe is a feminist in the way a stripper or a sex worker can be a feminist: a woman using the tools available to gain economic power within a corrupt and male-dominated system. This version proved more receptive to Monroe's talents and professionalism as an actress, too. If she wasn't purely a victim of the studio system, if she wasn't simply a "child-woman" wandering from one strong and domineering man to another, there must've been something else driving her—and for many critics, that something else was a fearsome and creative desire to succeed in her chosen career. Lesser, for example, turns the common idea of Monroe as "exploited" by the studio system on its head: "Exploitation was the essence of Marilyn Monroe—in its positive sense, as 'full use,' as well as in its negative sense. As a professional, Marilyn was always seeking out situations that would 'use' her." The British political theorist Graham McCann's 1988 biography Marilyn Monroe argues, "Monroe was certainly subjected to the techniques of cinematography, but she just as surely subjected them to a form of irony. Speaking of Mae West, Monroe said: 'I learned a few tricks from her—that impression of laughing at, or mocking, her own sexuality.'"

Sarah Churchwell's The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2004) offers a smart summation of that line of thinking: Monroe's "image paves the way for postfeminism in its suggestion that sexual display or conspicuous consumption can operate as a form of feminine power." Monroe was working within an industry—and a society—that viewed women primarily in terms of their bodies. It's impossible to argue that she wasn't tremendously successful in this industry and this society, however you read her death. Churchwell, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, says the postfeminist question is "why I think she's so important. Can a beautiful woman be a feminist? At what point does sex intrude? It's the matrix of women's sex and power. And we have absolutely not gotten our heads around it."

Banner's new book is the realization of the postfeminist Monroe in biographical form, coming out of 10 years of archival research that also produced Banner's last book, MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, an edited collection of previously unpublished Monroe documents. Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, is herself a Monroe collector and a member of the Los Angeles fan community, with some personal identification with Monroe: "Blonde and blue-eyed, I had her body dimensions and won beauty contests," she writes of her Southern California childhood, not far removed in space or time from Monroe's. (Monroe biographers are prone to such personal asides, perhaps no more so than any biographers but with an added level of self-consciousness; the women tend to point out whether or not they are blondes, the men tend to labor over some statement of their protective, fatherly regard for their subject.) Banner's own journey mirrors the evolution of the feminist viewpoint on Monroe at large: She writes about having, in her early years as a founder of the second-wave-inspired women's-history movement, "dismissed Marilyn as a sex object for men," and then later become inspired by third-wave feminists among her students to give Monroe a second look.

The paradox of Banner's book is that it's a portrait of a third-wave feminist written for traditionally second-wave goals. Banner says that she has been laughed at by male colleagues who see Monroe as "a dumb blonde, a stupid woman, who only engaged in a kind of raunchy sex." Her book is meant as a corrective, a defense of Monroe as an intelligent, warm-hearted artist, working in a hoary aesthetic tradition with roots in clowning, turn-of-the-century burlesque, postwar architecture, and such worthy antecedents as the commedia dell'arte, German Expressionism, and Charlie Chaplin. Like the British critic Jacqueline Rose, who wrote a long paean to Monroe in the London Review of Books this April, Banner highlights Monroe's radical leftist leanings, her racial sensitivities, her interest in psychoanalysis, and other ways in which she prefigured various social and political movements of the 1960s. She doesn't gloss over the uglier aspects of Monroe's character, delving into her possible sex addiction, but works to present a full woman—exactly what Steinem purportedly set out to do nearly 30 years ago, with such half-baked and sentimental results.

Banner's version is more complete, more sensitive, more entrenched in archival data than any before, and yet the "real Marilyn" remains elusive, as she always will. "I can be anything they want me to be," she told a friend. "There are a lot of cards in my deck, so to speak."

Her slipperiness as a biographical figure—the various stories about her childhood, the different interpretations of her life, the conspiracy theories about her death—all of this has become, in a sense, the crucial material of her biography. Monroe is the perfect postmodern subject, and that is exactly what she always aimed to be.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.