Finding Marilyn...

By Lucy Harbron - 19:40

I wish I’d seen the magic of Marilyn before, that I hadn’t spent so many years shrugging her off as that pretty face from that picture of her white dress floating. I wasn’t fussed, simply didn’t care, rejecting the mainstream and turning down all the arguments that Marilyn was a real woman, the true image of femininity. I didn’t want to go down that path, the 50s bubble-gum image of aspiration and dizzy ditziness; I wanted my women exciting and real and wild. Give me Edie, give me Audrey, give me Patti or Stevie or Francoise, leave the goddess behind.

The last place I expected to find her was in my dissertation research, reading about 1960s America’s alternative scene. But there she was; undressed and frantic, counting pills in a ripped dress. America’s sweetheart was there in the underbelly playing with death with the junkies and failing to hid it with her signature smile in the mirror held up by none other but her husband, who directed the scene. I came to her defence before I even knew her. How dare he. The man that was supposed to know this woman better than anyone. How dare he create a caricature of her memory, put a woman on stage in a blonde wig and shapewear and get her to play the role of the dumb blonde once again, this time with a death wish that he admits he helped grant. A husband creating entertainment from his wife’s death, cashing in on every possible stereotype and putting it in front of an audience, less than 2 years after her passing. I didn’t know her, didn’t even know how false the stereotypes were, but the lack of care upset me; seeing a talented female character broken down and calling out for his man who was her god, that wouldn’t help her up but said ‘I wish you knew how to take care of yourself’. When she tries to tell him more about her life, he says ‘I know enough’.

I wish I’d known more sooner, that I hadn’t echoed that sentiment along with most others, leaving my knowledge of the star at stardom, at the beauty, at a hollow laugh. I wish I’d attempted to find the human there behind that image, because maybe I’d have seen stars as more attainable, less fictional than the wildly rich and reckless Edie, or the Nazi-fighting Audrey. Because Marilyn was dirt poor but clever. I bet you didn’t know that she was a child of the foster care system, bouncing from home to home from abuse to abuse until she learned how she could control men. She married age 16 to get herself out of the system. She started modeling to earn her own money. She dyed her own hair blonde to cash in on the image of beauty being thrown in her face. And mostly, she created Marilyn. Norma Jean from the back end of nowhere created the greatest character in American history; the goddess, the world’s mistress, to cash in on the expectations the world threw at her. In her private life, she loved to garden and learn about philosophy, she had an extensive home library powering through some of the most difficult books known to man, she wrote poetry and capped off each day with a hot fudge sundae. She craved monogamy and motherhood. She made millions and married for love. The Marilyn we know; the gold-digging baby doll that’s too dumb for her own good, becomes a role of pure comedy the more you learn about her history. In the face of her self-made story and simply wants, her male co-stars become the butt of her jokes as she harnesses the stereotypes the male execs of Hollywood would love to put on her. Behind the scenes, she’d argue with directors for better pay and more representative female characters, refused to diet for roles, fought against her constant typecasting, but then would get in front of the camera, hypersexualise these ridiculous female characters until they were funny, cash in on making men’s tongues roll out of their mouth, then sit and read Ulysses in-between takes. An icon, not because of her curves or her face, but because she played the game and beat them at it because no one ever suspected she was acting all along. It’s a sad kind of amazement, no one gave her credit for her acting but no one cared to consider the actress under it. Arthur Miller’s issue with the marriage was that he wanted to marry Marilyn Monroe but he married Norma Jean; he wrote of the dumb blonde drinking and naively flirting, failing to see the natural brunette being smothered underneath. I think that’s what killed her; method acting with no escape, no one cared for the self. (Or maybe the American government if you’ve read the conspiracy theories, but that’s another story…)

I found my love for her there, in that gap between Marilyn and Norma as all their inside jokes seemed to come out. When you know her history and how clever you have to be to turn society against itself, her characters become hilarious. You start to see how her character always comes out on top, always so self-assured and certain that she’d end up there, never doubting her power. You start to notice all the times she switches in and out of the role, revealing little moments of her wisdom and intelligence as the supposedly dumb, gold-digging Lorelei Lee carries out a fool-proof plan to recover incriminating images of herself, outsmarts a lawyer with her best friend, gets herself a gig in Paris to earn money and still manages to get the man to marry her by point out the double standards in gender expectations; why shouldn’t she seek out a rich man when men are allowed to only seek out beautiful women? As the opening bars of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend ring out and she appears in that signature pink dress in one of the most expensive scenes ever created in cinematic history, I sing along giggling. It’s hilarious watching her batting her eyelids, harnessing all the stereotypes of the dizzy helpless woman that everyone wanted her to be, the humour comes from knowing that Norma Jean hated diamonds, she much preferred pearls... or pay-checks equal to her male co-stars.

I came to her defence before knowing all that though, partly because I saw myself there, in this breakdown scene as she tries desperately to cling to anyone who will see her and pull her out. In a selfish way, there’s a comfort in seeing the worlds brightest starlet broken down, knowing she struggled with mental health but still achieved such huge things. I read her diaries and found myself there too, as she wrote herself affirmations and comforts; ‘life starts from now’, ‘I will be as sensitive as I am- without being ashamed’, ‘my body is my body, every part of it’. Her thoughts feel so close to me, a feeling I never expected when I started looking into Marilyn Monroe, the world’s dream woman. Nothing in that famed Seven Year Itch picture would’ve suggested I’d find a sense of solidarity there. But I did, peeling away layers as I learned and finding new things to share, noticing new ways that she began to inform my attitude and my performances as I merged more of Marilyn into Sunday Girl. The biggest thing; I noticed a change with my body image. In past shows, I’d wanted to make myself look tall and long and slim. The last show, I wore a suspender belt that hugged my hips and smoothed round the curves, I wore a vintage bra and didn’t try to look small. As I watched more films, I realised I hadn’t really noticed her body, something so rare for someone that struggles with body image. Normally, I stare with envy at the starlet, obsessive over their long legs and slim arms and pixie features, spend the following day wanting to emulate their outfits but feeling locked out because my body simply can’t copy it, these hips won’t let me. But I didn’t with Marilyn, I just knew she looked beautiful, then I realised she looked like me; hips and thighs and arms, her jawline soft, her face round and rosy-cheeked. I could emulate that, feeling good as I pulled on high waisted trousers and sweetheart necklines. I started buying more tight-fitting things, no longer so scared of the curves, no longer feeling so off balance with my tiny top half, excepting that my body was more of a 50s classic than a 60s alternative. When I’d always gravitated towards the latter, wanting the excitement and rejecting the presumed squeaky-clean goodness of the earlier era, learning about Marilyn suddenly made the 50s seem a little bolder. I don’t feel scared of glamour now as I pull on my pencil skirt and heels at every given opportunity and begin carrying out a red lipstick as an essential.

I guess I found a kind of representation here; physically, mentally and spiritually, finding a sister in every part of her that I never would’ve expected to find. America’s sweetheart sat in the underbelly, laughing at everyone with her cards to her chest, only showing you if you take the time to ask.

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