In the lead up to Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn statue arriving in Bendigo I felt apprehensive. The billowing dress bothered me. I was worried about Marilyn’s underpants being exposed, as if she was a little girl at play, self-absorbed and oblivious to the effect her bare legs and knickers could have on others, unaware of her vulnerability.
But the real Marilyn Monroe was not naïve – she was media savvy and she knew her audience. Wanting to make her way to the top in Hollywood she polished her surface until it shone, until she had perfected her image as an object of desire.
Marilyn had known how to turn heads since puberty, when the sight of her in a tight sweater caused boys to trip over in the street. She knew which clothes, and how they were worn, would provoke wolf-whistles. She courted and felt flattered by such attention.
Johnson’s statue is a grand-scale, three-dimensional version of the famous pose Marilyn performed in The Seven Year Itch. Far from feeling threatened by the leering and cheering of hundreds of male onlookers and photographers present at the film shoot, the publicity stunt was Marilyn’s idea.
So why did I feel this maternal impulse to pat her skirt down and cover her bottom?
This is where it gets tricky, because Marilyn also realized that succeeding as a blonde bombshell meant losing as a flesh and blood woman. ‘People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person,’ she once said.
While her dumb-blonde characters pretend not to notice or care about the lustful gazes of men, the off-screen woman who created these personas was acutely aware that being a sex symbol also meant being turned into a thing.
Marilyn’s naivety, if I can call it that, was in thinking that she could drop the charade once she’d reached the top, and become a serious dramatic artist, ‘an actress with integrity.’
Hollywood had other ideas – and perhaps audiences did too. Studios liked to typecast their stars, and to stick with formulas that worked. Marilyn was too valuable to them as an erotic object to let her become a woman of substance.
I’m less concerned for Marilyn now that she’s standing so firmly at the entrance to Rosalind Park. She doesn’t look fragile or vulnerable, as I had feared. She looks balanced, solid and unbreakable.
I know the real story, and how badly it ended. I know that the struggle for women to be safe on the streets and in their homes is far from over. So when I look at the playful, laughing figure of Marilyn at our city’s major crossroad, I dream of a time when feminine sexuality and beauty can be truly free, powerful and self-defining.
What a momentous landmark that would be.
Dr Sue Gillett will be speaking about Marilyn Monroe’s image and identity at the Marilyn Symposium at ACMI, on November 12th 2016.