BY Emma Smith
Following the 50 year anniversary of her death, the girl born Norma Jeane, is as beloved as ever. Her passing a mere blip in the history of her legacy as an immortal screen legend. Marilyn Monroe; her name enough to instantly recall her and incite endless rapture and adoration throughout the world. As an endless devotee, I think it’s time to reflect on why she is quite so remembered.
The Cinderella story of rags to riches might be a well told one, but for Marilyn, it couldn’t be more fitting, albeit with a deeply tragic undertone. Illegitimacy, an unstable mother, sexual abuse and endless foster homes are all embedded in the early, dark narrative of a girl who turned it all around. She became one of the most iconic actors in cinema history, though the happy ending of her fairytale was never quite in reach. She possessed a magic and magnetism that can’t be taught in acting school, though her critics were keen to send her there. She was an undoubtedly brilliant comedy actress but, in typical fashion, was never truly appreciated in her time on her own merit. The enduring appeal and untouchable status she’s acquired because of her screen presence, seems totally non-applicable to most of the droves of faceless actors and actresses around today who follow acting style to the letter.
Some fellow feminists may despair over the idol status of a woman whose most recollected film persona was that of a ditzy airhead, but this was simply part and parcel of being a beautiful, platinum blonde with a great knack for knowing what was expected of her. It is only to her credit, she offered these personas sparkle and made them relatable. Her sometimes penchant for shallow sentiment such as “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot” gets my feminist hackles up a little in her defense of the fetishised discomfort of the female via fashion…but then it was a pre-Greer era. In many other ways, her civil rights conviction, her support of the working class, her refusal to buckle to domestic, gendered expectations- she is practically a poster girl for emancipation. Her most heartfelt desire of simply wanting to be loved can strike a chord with anyone.
Men wanted to protect her, loved her because of her childlike charms and apparent innocence, and wanted to prove a father figure to the girl who never had one. She craved respect from her peers and partners for who she really was outside of the flawless veneer. Her looks meant she was inevitably propelled into the public sphere through her physical assets, but she rejected the perpetual objectification that came with it, saying “A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing.”
Unapologetically, I adore her, and it’s clear a lot of other people feel the same way. A woman who was an advocate of equal rights, a reader of Freudian theory, an associate of McCarthy-era dissidents (one of whom she was married to) and a true wit who responded to jibes playfully. She was smart, together and focused and stole hearts as effortlessly as she stole attention. She knew of her public persona but those who truly appreciate her know she wasn’t trapped by it and only confined by those who were blinded to her real talent; her typecasting didn’t matter in the end because she’d proved her worth.
Perhaps it’s partly to do with our morbid fixation on the tragedy of young death and the whispers around her demise, that mean we can’t get closure. Perhaps it’s our steadfast belief in the adage of “Die young, stay beautiful” through which Monroe exists. Or it could be our culture’s fascination with the car-crash lives of those we adore and the fact Marilyn’s history of heartache, insecurity, infidelity and despair are at odds with her façade of perfection. Perhaps it’s because the magic she had was so indefinable. Perhaps it’s because she was brilliant. Whatever the reason, it’s evident that after 50 years, she lives on. Unforgettable, incomparable Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair shows at The National Portrait Gallery 29th September 2012 until 24th March 2013