Marilyn Monroe, my grandmother, and the art of seeming
Enough books have been written about Marilyn Monroe to fill libraries; enough films and television shows to run for weeks end-to-end. If we see her at all now, 50 years post-mortem, it’s through the lens of conspiracy, tawdriness, lunch boxes and video tapes and salt and pepper shakers, supposedly dispassionate biography, Camelot and the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, psychoanalysis, and pre-feminist, feminist, and post-feminist re-interpretations of what she survives as, in aeternam: the most powerful and long-enduring image of womanhood in American culture. This image is what I find interesting.
I am, needless to say, ill-positioned to treat with it or to deconstruct it, film by film, gesture by gesture, picture by picture. I’m confident that any number of scholars and film historians have done an excellent job parsing out Marilyn Monroe’s symbolic importance, her vulnerability, her magnetism, her connection to all sorts of female stereotypes and themes and traditions, stretching back, through time immemorial, to the Venus of Willendorf. Moreover, both as a gay person and a man (and one not educated enough to call himself a feminist), I don’t feel entirely comfortable analyzing what I don’t fully understand, and Marilyn Monroe is, as both a symbol of heterosexual male sexual desire and vulnerable femininity, beyond my full comprehension.
Why does she even merit the effort to comprehend, or, to put it a different way, why does she continue to dominate our, or at least my, thoughts about “the American woman”?
Personally, thoughts of Marilyn Monroe don’t conjure up any particular connections to the movies that she acted in or the relationships that she participated in or even those scenes of her with a billowing white skirt or a form-fitting pink dress. My generation isn’t particularly in thrall of the 50s or of Camelot, and “Some Like It Hot” doesn’t get replayed much on TMC (at least when compared to “Gone with the Wind” or “Lawrence of Arabia”). When my sister and her friends looked back for role models among classic movie stars, they preferred Audrey Hepburn’s thin elegance and poise to what Monroe had to offer, and when I had my brief schooling in camp icons, it was more often Gaga and Madonna and Kylie Minogue who got attention. I don’t, therefore, have many direct memories of seeing Marilyn Monroe on her own terms, but, rather, I tend to reckon with her in memories of her generation, or, more precisely, in my memories of a particular woman of her generation.
My grandmother Geraldine was born in 1931, five years after Marilyn. In her youth, she was thin and blonde and rather precious looking. Her family, and my grandfather, nicknamed her “Dolly” and compared her to another Hollywood blonde: Carole Lombard. She came of age during World War II, like Marilyn, and moved to California at a young age, like Marilyn. By the early 60s, around the same time Marilyn Monroe’s life ended and second wave feminism began (in 1963, with the publication of the “Feminine Mystique”), she was raising my mother, her first and only child, and dealing with married life with my grandfather, who was 10 years her senior. For all that she told me in life, she spent the next years tending house, raising my mother, working as a hair-dresser, decorating, buying clothes, until the grandchildren came along. What followed was a second try at raising children, perpetual rounds of rosaries and novenas, followed by a short decline, and then a swift death from a cancer that she had concealed from everyone up until the very last moment. And that was it.
And it would have been, had it not been for the vast amount of papers and writing and material that she left behind her, and had it not been for the fact that my grandfather, unlike his wife, was not good at keeping things tidily concealed. In the ten years since her death, I’ve learned more about the woman (or, if we take things chronologically, women) that my grandmother was, from her youth to her old age, than I ever learned from her own mouth. I’ve read things that she wrote at 18 and at 65, breaking the confidence of her journals and diaries. I’ve learned about what she loved and what she hated, her fears and her joys. I’ve learned about what she wanted to be and how she dealt with attaining some and not achieving the rest. I’ve learned about her regrets and her neuroses and her hopes. In short, I’ve committed the sin (beyond the obviously unethical act of violating her privacy) of forcing her to become in death what she so skillful kept hidden in life: the flesh and blood of a real woman, rather than just the “grandma” whom I adored and worshipped, the woman who never appeared in public without flawless makeup, without matching shoes, without a silk blouse or, when occasion warranted, a mink coat.
It’s certainly a very long jump from my grandmother to Marilyn Monroe, but I think there’s something to the idea of the “image”, divorced from or otherwise unrelated to the reality, that might resonate with many of the women of that last pre-feminist era, and beyond. They, the women of my grandmother's generation (and Marilyn Monroe's), attended to their and their families' own images, to the outward signs of their lives.
It’s something that was on my mind yesterday, as I attended a wedding of a close female friend from high school. Once I got over the idea that someone my age was getting married [my generation has just recently gotten to be marriageable and child-rearing age], what struck me was how readily and openly and vocally the bride emphasized the vow to obey her husband, dwelling on it in particular for several minutes. It honestly took me aback and stuck in my throat a bit, especially coming from my very vocal and well-educated and well-spoken friend.
Once I got over my initial outrage, though, I suppose I began to place the moment in the context of my other female friends: of a teacher whose salary supports her boyfriend and their family; of my ex-girlfriend, who now dates a woman, labels herself “queer” (as I do, as a matter of fact) and manages a store in Northern California; of a younger management executive who half-jokes with me about adopting a kid together if we end up without kids at 40. In a world with all this diversity and confidence among young women, a world where people honestly speak of the “end of men” and bemoan the dominance of women in terms of graduation rates and other indicators of success, have we passed a point where we can stop worrying about the symbolic? I mean, my same generation of women was the one that chose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton with an unapologetic shrug, and that now evidences higher female employment than male. If they appear to eschew anything as a group, it’s that same art of seeming, of supporting the image, that their grandmothers and even their mothers were complicit in practicing.
It’s that same image that Marilyn Monroe, like the spirit of some of the women of her age, still plays a role in maintaining, even in this, the 50 year anniversary of her death. It’s an image that is fading, but it’s one that I, along with many, continue to be fascinated by, for good or ill.