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November 2022 Issue [Criticism]

Some Like It Hot

Notes from the Marilyn Appreciation Society
Colour Her Gone, 1962, by Pauline Boty © The Estate of Pauline Boty. Courtesy Wolverhampton Art Gallery, England. Boty’s work is included in Great Women Painters, which was published last month by Phaidon

Colour Her Gone, 1962, by Pauline Boty © The Estate of Pauline Boty. Courtesy Wolverhampton Art Gallery, England. Boty’s work is included in Great Women Painters, which was published last month by Phaidon


Some Like It Hot

Notes from the Marilyn Appreciation Society

About a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, hunkered down in West Philadelphia and searching—this will be familiar—for a lifeline, I corralled five of my best beloveds worldwide into an exclusive institution. We were called the Marilyn Appreciation Society—the M.A.S.—and we committed to converging across our various time zones to watch the movies of Marilyn Monroe. We planned to see all the greats and a new tribute, called Blonde, long in the works and promised to be arriving imminently, based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. The group chat, on Signal, was inaugurated with a go-round of peroxide-perm selfies, courtesy a Marilyn filter, and my tech-savvy wife solemnly arranged the streaming. My friend Richard, tuning in from Newtown, Wales, provided scholarly background on the various genres—noir, western, sex comedy—and promised to dig up podcast episodes he remembered as having conveyed, above all, Marilyn’s “courage, and rage at all the people who abused her.” Judy, in Manchester, England, sent transcribed dialogue, passionate fashion impressions, and key insights: “This is the most homo shit I’ve seen in my life”; “Which one is Clark Gable?”; “GET AWAY FROM HER.” My younger brother, in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, likewise appraised outfits and, chiefly, struggled with his Wi-Fi connection. He demonstrated his respect for Marilyn by referring to her as “Mazza,” in accordance with the U.K. convention whereby Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, is rendered “Jezza.” For my part, I alternated between thirsty exclamations, lols, and deposits of Marilynological facts for everyone’s edification. We did not predict that it would get very deep.

But the pandemic, as you may have noticed, has ended up being rather long. By last summer, the M.A.S. had watched and rewatched all the Monroe greats: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, Niagara, The Misfits, Bus Stop. We now saw Monroe, aka Norma Jeane Baker (née Mortenson), aka Zelda Zonk (the sexy-space-alien pseudonym she used to travel incognita), as our comrade—proletarian and perhaps queer—pushing mightily, humanely through the seams of whatever inhuman role the industry had fitted her with this time. Here was Marilyn, as Roslyn Taber in The Misfits, screaming, screaming, screaming at the men of the town: “You’re only happy when you can see something die. Why don’t you just kill yourself and be happy!” Here was Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot, offering sisterhood and acceptance to “Daphne,” a creation of the movie’s Jerry, played by Jack Lemmon, who was trained in movement for the role by the trapeze artist and transfeminine icon Barbette. And here was the intense sleep deprivation of the character credited only as “The Girl” in The Seven Year Itch, a story nominally about male fantasy, which surely, the M.A.S. agreed, was in fact about Marilyn dropping a plant pot from her balcony onto the head of a consummate misogynist in the apartment below, killing him instantly, only to find that his ghost lingers around in the summer heat, paranoidly accusing her of accusing him of rape.

Without really intending it, we allowed Marilyn’s performances to inspire in us a wide-ranging critique—of misogyny, of Hollywood, of Americana, of the bourgeois white nuclear family. We cherished the strength, darkness, and utopianism we found in Monroe, and we wondered how so many could miss it.

Though Marilynism proved contagious, the obsession had originally been mine. In 2014, I had an abortive exchange I’ve never let go of, with a very handsome man of the British far left. I expressed to him my gushing enthusiasm for the treatment of Monroe in Jacqueline Rose’s Women in Dark Times, a book that had just come out. “Why should I give a fuck,” replied the handsome man, “about an actress who once fucked a president?”

In retrospect: at least he called her an actress. Back then, I was happily ignorant of the industrial scale of the phenomenon the scholar Sarah Churchwell has called “trashing Marilyn”; in reviewing three hundred biographies of Monroe, Churchwell found that the vast majority were a type of aggressive antihagiography. But I would soon learn. I would also come to understand that Marilyn worship and Marilyn trashing usually share an important assertion: that whatever Monroe accomplished she did by accident. Whether we are posing as feminist defenders of the star or merely as admirers of Tinseltown, Churchwell writes, “we insistently, defensively, self-deceptively proclaim that she does not matter, that she is minor, worthless,” even “in the teeth of inescapable evidence of her persistent, sustained, astronomical value to our culture.”

Churchwell’s “we” is appropriate here. I have been guilty of the same. It’s a funny thing: ever since my mother died, now almost three years ago, I have been fixated on other women who were, like her, impossible, hilarious, horny, suicidal, bookish, and intermittently threatened with psychiatric confinement. First, it was the feminist revolutionary Shulamith Firestone; now, it is Marilyn. There’s something of my mum in them both, or vice versa. No doubt this only part-conscious research project I have undertaken has had something of a will to redemption in it. I suspect the creation of the M.A.S. was undergirded by a desire to discover, forgive, and accept the Anglophilic, alcoholic German woman who bore me. I think of Monroe as Sugar Kane, and her thigh flask falling off as she dances; the bottle of liquor of which she says: “I’ll bring this back when it’s empty”; in Bus Stop, the string of drool forming between Chérie’s mouth and her arm as she raises up her puffy, tear-streaked face. While loving Mum remains tricky, I love both Shulie and Marilyn with an almost frightening ardor.

My mind’s coupling of the latter two originally seemed to me eccentric in the extreme, though their politics were in fact similar (both were leftists), as was the boldness, the fullness with which they committed to their lives. Their approaches to the world were extraordinarily different—one conceived of a “smile boycott,” a proposition for women and children to withhold their social labor; one smiled for her supper—but it was something else that led me to see them in opposition. It was the long black hair of the stern theorist from New York on one side, the ecstatic white halo of the Hollywood star on the other. That is to say: it was misogyny. Specifically, the denigration of the femme subtype of femininity as void of intellect, strength, and even valid will. It was the same impulse that insists that society’s interest returns to Marilyn again and again for frivolous reasons—the same that diagnoses her, often, as an “unlikely feminist.”

A photograph of my mother—my “Mumputz,” as she liked to be called—circa 1968, seems to me breathtakingly Marilynesque: her naturally platinum blond hair waving but short, a roundness about her open smile. She’s leaning back against a fence in the countryside, holding with both hands a bouquet of flowers she’s just plucked, and laughing almost defiantly. She looks like a parody of a bride, carrying a bit of the winking knowingness of Monroe and Jane Russell at the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes just before they walk down the aisle. When the photo was taken, my mother belonged to a Maoist cadre at the University of Göttingen. To get there, she’d had to break free of her parents in Hanover, who thought girls shouldn’t go to university—defying especially my late Opa, who fought for Hitler. I know from her anecdotes that she enjoyed the culture that feminist and gay radicals had helped create on campus, but she never joined the organized feminists of her time. I think she felt, like that earlier ingenious comic Mae West: “Men are my kind of people.” She would have been hostile to Monroe’s self-presentation, despite (or maybe because of) the resemblance between them, missing all that the woman actually said and did, not understanding the liquid magic of what Monroe created, which poured through the strictures of her time, and finds its way still through ours.

Perhaps what I am ultimately trying to do is atone for the femmephobia of the past, and for my own. Perhaps treating Monroe’s memory with the partisan softness I now feel can be a small contribution to a world where women need not be so unhappy.

A responsible but restless leader, I purchased The Marilyn Encyclopedia as well as six Marilyn biographies to read on the side, including one by Michelle Morgan, which (I warned you) is subtitled, in part, “the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist.” The hook for these volumes never seems to be the artist’s self-creation, as it is for so many biographies of other charismatic stars. For Monroe, whose life is often cast in the shadow of her early death, at age thirty-six, it always has to be something else: conspiracy, exploitation, objectification, feminism, mental illness. The transformation of normal Norma Jeane (“String Bean” in school) into Marilyn, while part of her mythos, is oddly not consistently credited to Monroe, and even rehabilitative projects tend to express surprise that she was its true author. It is as though the power of what she created obliterated its own history.

From the beginning, Monroe’s contemporaries understood her unworldly charm to be accidental, and tied to a supposed infantile nature. According to Clare Boothe Luce, Hollywood studios in the Forties were actively on the lookout for a “true Lolita” type imbued with “the quality of innocent depravity [that] can be found only in a female ‘juvenile delinquent.’ ” Top executives recognized this sacred brokenness in Monroe early on, and licked their lips. They also understood that she was a charity case: they could eternally underpay her. At the peak of her stardom, she earned 10 percent of what the pedigreed actress Elizabeth Taylor earned at hers.

The facts of Monroe’s structural “delinquency” are endlessly repeated: she was “fatherless,” and her mother, who was later hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia, gave her over to foster parents before she was two weeks old. She bounced between foster homes and an orphanage, and was maltreated by several stand-in parents (“like my being forced to live in a closet for days,” Marilyn said in 1962), as well as sexually abused by an adult boarder at one of her homes, who locked her in his bedroom and groped her when she was eight. Years later, Monroe said that the pain of not being believed by her foster mother caused her to stutter for the first time. But in Lois Banner’s 2012 biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, the effects of trauma are much more sensational: “We now know that such abuse can produce lesbianism, sex addiction, exhibitionism.”

At sixteen, the exhibitionist lesbian sex addict was married off to the boy next door (who soon enlisted and was deployed to the South Pacific) and began working as a Rosie the Riveter. An army photographer approached her at a defense factory, and memorialized her face next to the OQ-2 Radioplane, the first American drone. She soon graced the covers of myriad magazines: by the time she was twenty, more than thirty titles.

Determined to become the next Jean Harlow, in 1946 Norma Jeane got an agent, divorced her husband, and christened herself Marilyn Monroe. Movie jobs involving proper billing would not start coming in for another four years. Dead broke in the interim, she posed nude for a photographer acquaintance, accepting fifty dollars for an image that changed hands a few times before reemerging unexpectedly as the first Playboy centerfold, essentially setting up Hugh Hefner for life. “I was hungry,” Monroe said, unapologetically, years later. She went on to make more than two dozen movies, found her own film production company, and study the Stanislavski acting method at the Actors Studio in New York. “Actress must have no mouth,” she wrote in one of her notebooks, which she filled diligently with poetry and method homework: “feeling only—all I have to / do is think it.”

The eloquence of this thought and feeling, incarnated as affect, proves every year to be deathless. Marilyn impersonators, biopics, fiction, and fan fiction are each small industries in their own right. Purely for the benefit of the M.A.S., I read two well-reviewed works of literary Marilyn fiction: Andrew O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, and Joyce Carol Oates’s aforementioned doorstopper, Blonde. Marilyn herself favored Dostoevsky, Freud, Joyce, Rilke, and Proust. And in fact O’Hagan’s pompously erudite canine narrator (named after a real dog given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra in 1961—“Maf” was short for “Mafia”) would prefer it if his owner didn’t read so much: “I wished I could tell her to leave all that to the mutts: anybody can read a book, but Marilyn could make people dream.” The novelist’s—or the dog’s—point here seems to be that Monroe’s substance interfered with her persona. Fittingly then, the inner workings of her mind get little attention in his whimsical, Shandean novel of ideas.

Blonde, a Pulitzer finalist and unsparing, self-conscious attempt at a great American novel, sets out to fictionalize the entire life of the star, also at a type of distance, beginning with Monroe’s traumatic childhood and ending in her lurid murder by an FBI sharpshooter. The author’s grand theme is mythic, presenting the universal, eternal abuse of Woman. The resulting saga is hellish—“Why,” the question is posed, “did the world want to jam itself to the bloody hilt like a great tumescent sword in Marilyn?”—and the protagonist is a kind of void: the author often calls her “the Blond Actress,” “the Girl,” “the Girl with No Name,” and “the Beggar Maid.” She is “trapped in this blond mannequin with the face.” Oates’s archetype, as such, does little other than gaspingly suffer. Alone in a bathhouse, JFK says to Marilyn: “You’re alive to be touched. To be breathed on like a flame. Alive to be hurt, even!”

After Oates saw a rough cut of the film adaptation, directed by Andrew Dominik, in the summer of 2020, she called it “brilliant,” and expressed surprise that it was “an utterly ‘feminist’ interpretation.” When I was finally able to view the film, two years later, I agreed, though I wondered if our reasoning differed. Ana de Armas, who plays Monroe, treats her subject with a care that bends the allegory of the original, dystopian story back toward the specific, namely: a working-class performer’s labor, both artistic and sexual. Commentators have harped on the fact that de Armas, who was raised in Cuba, retains some of her accent in the film, giving us an aurally Hispanic Marilyn. But the lilt translates Monroe’s class distinction, and the industry disadvantage of her lifelong stutter, to the present. Whereas Oates’s heroine, her face in JFK’s hands, thinks, “Oh I hoped I was beautiful for him and not sweaty,” and as the novel only alludes to Monroe’s sexual services, de Armas spends more than a minute staring down the camera, in a frighteningly tight close-up, while she sucks the president’s just-out-of-frame cock. De Armas is not out for pity: against the grain of a voiceover expressing dissociation (“Who brought me here, to this place?”), she broadcasts palpable rage.

In an essay published in 2000, in the London Review of Books, O’Hagan says that a particular female Monroe biographer “is hard on the men who tried to transform her.” He doesn’t mention Joe DiMaggio, though the baseball star, who sought to turn Monroe into a housewife, is undeniably one of these men. DiMaggio is also widely believed to have pummeled the actress, following the filming of the most famous scene in cinema history: the white dress, the wind from below. (While this beating was rendered in swooning alliteration in Blonde the novel, the film places it offscreen, a choice I appreciated.) Of all the hundreds of Monroe biographies in existence, O’Hagan claims, there are but two “good books,” both coincidentally by men. When I dip in, I find that both authors are enthralled with DiMaggio and perceive a magnanimity in his role as husband. One writes that DiMaggio was given “cause” for his rages of jealousy: “There is within every man a limit.” In fact, had Monroe not divorced him, the biographer claims, she probably would have remained alive.

As I slammed the volume shut, I was unpleasantly reminded of a question posed by the feminist film critic Molly Haskell in her 1974 book on women in the movies:

Would we, or she, have been better off if Marilyn had never been born, and if Norma Jean, sitting on the front porch of some Southern California rest home, or even surrounded by a brood of children, were rocking her way into oblivion?

Haskell doesn’t commit to an answer; Monroe’s life is “a fait accompli.” But the idea is pervasive: that perhaps Marilyn did wrong, and did all of us wrong, to become herself.

The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, by Pauline Boty © The Estate of Pauline Boty/Tate

The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, by Pauline Boty © The Estate of Pauline Boty/Tate

One of the scenes the M.A.S. most loves in its cinematic corpus is an homage to Marilynity performed by Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I’m talking of course about the musical number in the courtroom, at the end, when the queer-coded Dorothy (played by Russell) dons a platinum wig and passes herself off as her allegedly diamond-tiara-stealing best friend, Monroe’s gold-digging character Lorelei, and pleads her case to the assembled lawyers, finally bursting out of a fur coat into a scandalous, shimmying rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The scene is ripe for femmephobic laughs—this is what Marilyn impressions, after all, are famous for. But instead, Dorothy makes her own inability to dance “that way”—her own butchish, man-frightening movements—the butt of the joke. What do you know, Richard has just sent a text: he’s rewatched Gentlemen with his family during a visit home: “Her impersonation of Marilyn is such a beautiful act of friendship. Their relationship in the film is so moving to me.” That’s just it.

For decades, most feminist critics have been unable to befriend Monroe, or her image—unable to get close enough to see her clearly, held back, it seems, by their own shame. “I was embarrassed by her,” Gloria Steinem said in a 2006 interview. “Because she was a joke, she was vulnerable, she was so eager for approval.” In 1986, Steinem wrote an essay titled “The Woman Who Will Not Die” in which the image of the “minor American actress” haunts her through the streets of New York, and she reconsiders Monroe’s legacy, attempting to approach Marilyn more generously than she had when the star was alive. But the overwhelming effect is of pitying distaste. Monroe was, she writes, a “child,” a “worry,” an “embarrassment”; and she describes the damage “a compliant child-woman like Monroe” does to the culture. “She was the child-woman who offered pleasure without adult challenge.”

Was she? Is this borne out by her persona, her films? The short answer is no. Her characters are unified by a femme form of toughness. In Niagara, she tries to murder her husband; in The Prince and the Showgirl, she gives the monarch a taste of his own handsy medicine; in Gentlemen, she icily evicts a suitor (“pray, scat!”) from a cabin. In Clash by Night, directed by Fritz Lang, Marilyn plays an exhausted fish cannery worker, Peggy, whose boyfriend at one point strangles her with a towel in a restaurant full of people, refusing to stop until she retracts her statement that another man is “exciting and attractive.” Earlier in the film, he warns that she will “spread” if she keeps eating chocolate, adding, perhaps relatedly, that a husband has a right to beat his wife senseless. “Just let me see you try,” says Peggy, chewing, hands on her jeans, squaring up. “Let me see any man try.” And then they fight—they kickingly, full-on scuffle. She comes out on top and crows: “When I want you to kiss me, I’ll let you know—by special messenger.”

Is Steinem’s assessment borne out by Monroe’s life, then? For instance, by the actress’s refusal to play roles written for her, such as The Girl in Pink Tights—rebellions for which she long skated close to dismissal from Fox and was several times suspended? Monroe put up a ferocious fight over the terms of her original, seven-year contract, not least by setting up her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and refusing to appear on set. Following the lengthy conflict, she received new say over her projects, including choice of directors and cinematographers. Her pay was increased to $100,000 per film.

Perhaps it was Monroe’s dumping of three husbands, two of them famous and powerful, that posed “no adult challenge” to Steinem’s mind. Or perhaps Steinem’s comment disclosed nothing so much as her own inability to see high-femme people as subjects. Here, in case it might pierce the veil, is a Monroe apothegm, written on Waldorf Astoria letter paper in 1955: “Everyone has violence in themselves. I am violent.” Here is another, spoken to the photographer Bruno Bernard in 1956: “Both the anti-Communists on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the movie censors on the Production Board should be buried alive.” Perhaps Steinem, who proudly worked for the CIA in the Fifties and Sixties, would not appreciate this kind of courage: the courage of one Norma who, when notified by police at a Los Angeles roadblock in 1949 that a nearby house was being monitored for ties to communists, shouted the officers’ ears off and went straight to tip off the blacklisted screenwriters Norma and Ben Barzman.

With Steinem as its guide, second-wave feminist criticism of Marilyn overwhelmingly struck the same note: condescending aversion masquerading as empathy or high-minded appreciation of tragedy. Sometimes Monroe, passive though she may be, is an overt enemy; Steinem implied that Fifties proto-feminists might have productively picketed screenings in protest of the actress, had the women back then only “had the self-respect to object on behalf of their sex, as one would object on behalf of a race or religion.” Steinem also popularized the trope whereby feminists confidently bisect Monroe’s identity as a Jekyll-and-Hyde type—such that Marilyn, the popcorn Venus, can be blamed and loathed for the murder of the “real woman” Norma Jeane. This bisection was earlier expounded at length in Susan Griffin’s Second Wave classic Pornography and Silence (1981), in a chapter on Marilyn which describes her as a “simpering and sighing creature” who, as a “film star who represents . . . the perfection of a false image of women,” could “represent a danger and a threat to an ordinary woman’s life.”

The explanation of this danger is convoluted to say the least (Griffin likens her to both a slave and a dictator), but certain conclusions are clear: “The pornographic star”—Marilyn—“ceases to be a creature for whom one has compassion.”

Around August 2021, I went rogue. Too impatient for the society’s streaming schedule, I consumed Marilyn’s whole filmography solo. I familiarized myself with The Asphalt Jungle,How to Marry a Millionaire, River of No Return (“A grade-Z cowboy movie,” spat Monroe contemptuously), and Don’t Bother to Knock. I skimmed through very minor Marilyn flicks such as Love Nest, O. Henry’s Full House, and Let’s Make It Legal, films in which she is figuratively—and in one case literally—a whore. I got her sugar-baby dance number from Ladies of the Chorus (a startling exegesis of postwar gender relations) stuck in my head: “Every baby needs a da-da-Daddy / who has some gold to spare . . . Yes, we feel just like Red Riding Hood / ’Cause the wolves are awful hungry in the neighborhood.” Then, in a transport of completionism, I crossed off the tiresome musicals: Show Business and Let’s Make Love, both of which portray a performer’s determination to be respected.

Taking a brief detour on my pilgrimage, I immersed myself in BimboTok, Generation Z’s femme-liberation micro-province of TikTok. The vibes are campy, daffy, funny, queer, love-evangelical. Amid heavy disparagement of men, racists, and straight people, TikTok “Bimbabies” can be found reclaiming slutty hyperfemininity, centered around the figure of the New Age Bimbo, the old archetype stripped of its associations with selfishness and vapidity and enhanced with class consciousness and femme4femme solidarity. Being hot is a state of mind: the sole criterion is understanding yourself to be beautiful, and the Bimbabies will help you do this. The sensation of experiencing oneself as gorgeous and delicious, of liking it hot, is open to all.

It is no surprise then that Marilyn, whose beauty was a great labor, who spent hours at a time gazing into mirrors, is beloved on BimboTok. Endlessly referenced, she belongs to a pantheon that prominently includes the “WAP” creator Cardi B and the hillbilly hustler Dolly Parton. I encountered a plethora of comedic sketches on the themes of needing money, being a dumb bitch fabulously, and standing up for the girls—highly reminiscent of the clowning Marilyn perfected in her millionaire-scammer roles. Dorothy isn’t bad, Monroe as Lorelei avers in Gentlemen, only “dumb” on account of falling for men who aren’t rich. “That’s why I’m her best friend, I guess! She really needs somebody like I to educate her!”

With my new lens of bimbo generosity in place, I disdainfully consulted the film adaptation, featuring Faye Dunaway, of Arthur Miller’s self-exculpatory scribbling of a play, After the Fall—which presents Marilyn as a psychotic, helpless slut—and also movies that are only implicitly about Monroe, of which there are dozens (e.g., ... And God Created Woman, feat. Brigitte Bardot). I looked up Marilyn’s secretary and waitress bit parts—Dangerous Years, Home Town Story, and As Young as You Feel, in which her lines are all pretty much “Yes, Mr. McKinley”—and laughed out loud at the force field that forms around her beauty. She is only onscreen for brief moments, and yet a kind of awe comes over the actors around her, a prickling disturbance; they can’t act naturally, they can’t stop looking at her. I streamed a poor-quality version of We’re Not Married!, in which one is ostensibly supposed to despise Marilyn for having a career in beauty pageants while her husband “hangs the diapers”—but despising her is utterly impossible. I rented Monkey Business, in which her function as a secretary in Cary Grant’s laboratory is to stand around looking pretty, mutely soaking up his wife’s jealous barbs. America’s Marilyn hang-up, by this point, was beginning to look terminal. No wonder Monroe felt, as she said in the final interview of her life, that she was “always running into people’s unconscious.”

I saved my revisiting of All About Eve for last, relishing for the first time the moment when a theater critic congratulates Miss Caswell / Marilyn—an ambitious young drama school graduate and minor character—for her dexterous bimboism. She has just managed to get an important producer to fetch her a drink: “Well done. I can see your career rising in the East like the sun.” The film, as its title suggests, is all about another ambitious woman, a non-bimbo (and her usurpation of a third, a mature vamp), and it dawned on me that the presence of the bimbo is crucial. Like the titular character, Miss Caswell is a working-class outsider to the theater world. But unlike the sinisterly driven and chaste Eve—played by the highborn Anne Baxter, granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright—Miss Caswell uses her body to get ahead, providing a foil for the successful antihero. And yet the bimbo, perhaps more than anyone, knows what’s up. It is said that Monroe ad-libbed a line in the film about producers with whom her character is supposed to schmooze at a party: “Why,” she asks, “do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”

As I consumed BimboTokkers’ broadcasts against erotophobia, elitism, patriarchy, and work (taking naps and getting paid are core #bimbotok commitments), I nodded inwardly at their astute inheritance of Monroe’s political significance. Theirs is an ethos that posits machismo and femmephobia as two sides of the same coin, I muttered appreciatively; here are the rumblings of a future of respect.

In Bus Stop—a painful favorite, a mirthless dystopian story about misogyny thinly masquerading as a misogynist comedy—Monroe’s exhausted, penniless “hillbilly chanteuse,” Chérie, carries around a map of the United States upon which she charts in red pen her slow progress westward, year by year, from her birthplace in the Ozarks to “Hollywood and Vine.” At the end of the movie, Chérie crumples up the map and boards a northbound bus to Montana, to marry a man who previously attacked and kidnapped her. He has apologized, and Chérie, who seems to have been abused by some relatives back in the Ozarks, “would go anywhere in the world with [him] now.”

The M.A.S.’s collectively formed view is that every Marilyn movie is a document of, at the same time, Monroe’s yearning for and questing into the heart of Tinseltown, her desire to be elsewhere and otherwise, and a type of tug-of-war with the turbines of the Hollywood machine. Marilyn was used for sexist and racist purposes in a sexist and racist industry. The Monroe enterprise was no doubt a tool of the white-supremacist culture of postwar America: the reigning image-makers strove to position Marilyn nationalistically, close to cowboys, gas pumps, beer, Coca-Cola, GIs, little blond children, and little houses on the prairie.

But it never quite clicks. The moral conversions Marilyn is supposed to undergo amid wedding bells at the end of so many of her films rarely seem plausible. They also never seem at all desirable—the real romance, the real action is always pre-reform. And her enthusiasm for underwhelming men and underwhelming circumstances teeters constantly on the edge of send-up. As for Marilyn herself: she’s too funny, too sad, too sensual to serve reliably as an avatar of domestic heterosexuality, to be the ambassador of America™. In her burlesque hypersincerity, her campy humor, she can never be ideologically conservative, ideologically white. She plays the mirrors against her image and her society at least as brilliantly as Charlie Chaplin. Whereas Chaplin performed a Brechtian incarnation of a “tramp” inadvertently traveling the cogs and wheels of his industrial world, Monroe’s signature broke-girl ingenue is always inadvertently bumping into the unspoken rules of hers. (Literally, in Millionaire, bumping: her character is blind as a bat and won’t wear glasses, because “men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses.”) She is always exceeding the cage; always pouring forth that strange astral mix of anger, trust, hilarity, horniness, hurt, and kindness.

She was a woman “a little ahead of her time,” Ella Fitzgerald said. But she was also out of time, and from no place. She was in a sense purposely homeless, possessed by a utopian restlessness. It was the least surprising thing in the world for me to learn that Monroe serially adopted married couples, living with them for a time—a refugee from the nuclear household, a queer waif. (I think of the German feminist philosopher Eva von Redecker and her theory of those who care too much: “Care sluts are from the future! What they do makes sense. Just not here and now.”) Remember, seconds before Marilyn steps, decked out in white, onto the whooshing subway grate of The Seven Year Itch and takes flight, she declares her affinity with the creature from the Black Lagoon: “He wasn’t really all bad,” she says. “I think he just craved a little affection—you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”

“She’s been hurt. She knows the score,” said Christine, the black transfeminine lover of journalist Bill Weatherby, later a follower of Malcolm X. One of Monroe’s great gifts, writes Jacqueline Rose, was “to distill suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else. Just doing that much is already to throw a spanner into the cultural works.” Another of her talents was to be earth-shatteringly funny, but Rose thinks that Marilyn “could not see it. She did not realize that the audience were laughing not because she, Monroe, was ridiculous but at the genius with which she played her part.” I am not convinced by this: I think she oscillated in and out of understanding her brilliance and its power. An entry in her notebook from around 1951 reads:

Remembering when I couldn’t do a god damn thing. then trying to build myself up with the fact that I have done things right that were even good and have had moments that were excellent but the bad is heavier.

This will be clear to you by now: under my leadership, the M.A.S. became a Marilyn solidarity cell. Its hypothesis evolved to be that it remains possible, even now, to see Marilyn, not simply feed on her flesh. We are fans, yes, but despite the swaths of tempting data and fan-generated pseudo-data on, for instance, Marilyn’s lesbianism (she is rumored to have fucked, among others, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and—more plausibly—her acting coach Natasha Lytess), we try to remind one another not to impose ourselves and our queer agenda on her too much. Scratch around on the internet and you will readily find posts celebrating Marilyn as a queer ally, as a rape survivor and advocate (because she disclosed her experiences publicly), as a friend to trans fems whom she is said to have met at hospitals where she received treatments for endometriosis, or even as someone who was intersex. I won’t deny that, at the M.A.S., we have at times been raucous and bold with our acceptance of these ideas, but underneath all of it, I think, we don’t really want to heroize her in our own image. We submit that it is possible to enjoy or critique her art without projections, and without falling into the condescension of so many feminists and non-feminists alike, or the arrogant psychologizing typified by Cecil Beaton when he “lovingly” described Marilyn, in 1956, as communicating “a hypnotized nymphomania,” and as “a little girl’s caricature of Mae West . . . an urchin pretending to be grown-up.” Contra the Beatons and the Steinems of the world, we see part of our task as an insistence on the undivided person, Norma-Marilyn. We honor the whole uncanny and ingenious artist—as raw and true as anything one has ever seen.

What is so scary, exactly, about the reality that has been right in front of us all along: that Marilyn was a living person with convictions—not a doll, and not even a woman pretending to be a doll? Steinem contrasted Monroe with figures such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Doris Day, saying that those women “offered at least the illusion of being in control.” In the essay “Marilyn, We Hardly Knew You,” Kate Millett, the women’s liberationist, described Monroe’s career as a “gang bang”: a decade and a half of violation that Monroe helplessly suffered through.

I have been positively transfixed by this—a thinker as powerful as Millett permitting herself to say such a thing, that a woman’s career was a gang bang. But perhaps she was onto something. Critics are not incorrect to see in Monroe pliability, openness, lust. And we still think of those who are fucked, sexually, as fundamentally fucked, not to say fucked up. But Monroe’s vulnerability is her power. She did, I think, make a vocation out of a type of sexual communion with millions of people. “If only she had resisted . . . before yielding,” writes the scholar Dean MacCannell. “Then we might trust her. If only she had actually ‘yielded’ instead of freely giving herself . . .”

But she didn’t. Can we learn to love the Marilyns, the bimbos, the whores? Monroe “is the mythical $50 hooker,” wrote the art critic Richard Woodward. In Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe, he said, she looks like “a drag queen on drugs.” The M.A.S. agrees. We should all be so lucky.

 is the author of Full Surrogacy Now and Abolish the Family, which was published last month by Verso.

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November 2022

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