Listen with the Eyes: The Making of Marilyn Monroe (Part I)

By Sue Gillett


Who was Marilyn?

“I wanted to be myself and not just a freak vibration that made fortunes for the studio sex peddlers.” – MM [1]

Black & White Marilyn

It’s difficult to introduce Marilyn Monroe – “the woman who needs no introduction,” as Peter Lawlor famously quipped at John F. Kennedy’s birthday bash – without first dealing with the either-or definitions that frequently frame commentaries about her. ­­­Was she a ditzy blonde, or a comic genius? A sex goddess or a tramp? An erotic body or an aspiring mind? An object of desire or a desiring subject? Was she destroyed by an interplay of conspiring forces – the patriarchal power of Hollywood, the men who used and abused her, the sexual conservatism of American post-war society, fame and fortune, childhood poverty and traumas – or was she a self-made, massively successful woman, a sexual revolutionary, a proto-feminist in advance of the women’s movement? Was she the eternal orphan, Elton John’s “candle-in-the-wind”, or a shrewd and independent businesswoman? A victim or a heroine?

Although it is tempting to settle these questions by arguing for one side of the debate and cancelling out the other, it is impossible to strip away the layers of myth and make-up to reveal a singular “Real Marilyn” and an unadorned “True and Complete Story” lying intact beneath the dazzling surfaces.  There are many ways of spinning the Marilyn story, and many contenders for the role of the “Real Marilyn.” As Lois Banner writes in her 2012 biography:

“However dominant, “Marilyn Monroe” was only one persona among many that emerged from and were created by the original Norma Jeane Baker. That happened when Norma Jeane signed a contract with 20th Century Fox in August 1946 and began her ascent to stardom.”[2]

A more illuminating approach to the question of Marilyn’s identity is to respect the tension within the set of opposing definitions gathered in my opening paragraph – a tension which is suggestive of the insoluble, enduring and all-too-real struggle to “be myself” that Marilyn Monroe’s life exemplifies. By searching the fracture lines in the Marilyn icon we may find signs of the composite, complex, unfinished woman – the Norma-Marilyn perhaps – who sought to develop her Hollywood image in concord with her inwardly experienced self, and on her own terms. Film theorist, Richard Dyer, writes: “the fact that [stars] are also real people is an important aspect of how they signify, but we never know them directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.” I don’t entirely agree with Dyer – to media texts we must also add so many other types of artefacts and evidence through which we might “read” a real person and personality – but his point that “we never know them directly” is important. No matter who we are, one’s identity is always “mediated” – though words, gestures, pictures, clothing, possessions, and so forth – and one is always “known” through the historical and ideological frames of culture. Many of the difficulties that Marilyn experienced throughout her life stemmed from issues of control over how her identity was mediated, and the meanings that resulted.

So let me relaunch this introduction to Marilyn by posing two other questions; questions that this exhibition also addresses; questions that direct our attention to the realms of culture and society, history and ideology: not who was Marilyn Monroe, but how was Marilyn made and what did she mean? The “who” question is psychologically appealing, because it promises the drama of peeling back the artificial accretions of culture and society to expose the genuine bedrock of personal identity within the individual self; the “how and what” questions are less forensic and wider in focus, acknowledging as they do that these ‘accretions’ are more like grafted layers of skin that become part of the self, than like costumes that can be taken off at the end of a performance. Perspective is everything when it comes to projecting, representing and interpreting an identity, and in the case of the pin-up girl turned movie-star who was Marilyn, that perspective was dominated by the ever-present gaze of cameras, spotlights, mirrors, spectators – and the powerful men who owned and operated Hollywood.  Marilyn Monroe was a name in lights, a resplendent vision, a spectacular identity that was deliberately manufactured for a star-hungry viewing public.

From the very beginning she was a willing and active participant in the crafting of her public image, and throughout her career she increasingly controlled it. Along with the name change she alternated physical aspects of her appearance, dying her hair blonde, having electrolysis applied to her hairline (to enhance her widow’s peak), having her teeth fixed, and even undergoing cosmetic surgery to improve her nose and hair-line. She was exacting about how her hair, make-up and clothing needed to be worn, knew which angles to present to the camera and where the light would fall, and she cultivated a repertoire of facial gestures and body movements that became part of her signature. Rather than relying on the studio’s publicity department, she often designed her own highly effective publicity stunts. But other forces and other players were also involved in how “Marilyn” was constructed and read, what she meant, and how self-determining she could be.  The potential for Marilyn to be who she wanted to be, and to project that being, was monumentally constrained. And yet to some extent she did succeed; arguably to a greater extent than any other female American movie star of her generation.

Works consulted:

Donald Spoto (2001). Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. New York. Cooper Square Press.

Jacqueline Rose (2012). ‘A Rumbling of Things Unknown’, in London Review of Books. Vol. 34, No. 8. pp. 29-34.

Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (1989). Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.

Lois Banner (2012a). Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. London. Bloomsbury.

Lois Banner (2012b). ‘Marilyn: Proto-feminist?’ in The Guardian.

Marilyn Monroe (2010). Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters. Edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007) My Story. New York. Taylor Trade.

Peter Harry Brown and Patte B. Barham (1992). Marilyn: the Last Take. London. Heinemann.

Richard Dyer (1979). Stars. London. BFI Publishing.

Richard Dyer (1986). Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. London. Routledge.

Sarah Churchwell (2004). The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. London. Granta Books.

[1] Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hecht (2007), p. 174.

[2] Lois Banner (2012b).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s