Having written biographies of major feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, I decided to analyze the life of Marilyn Monroe. A world symbol of beauty from her years as a major Hollywood star in the 1920s until today, I wondered what strains of independence and feminism I might find in her. Was she simply a “dumb blonde,” as so many writings about her indicate? What would her life tell us about the position of women in the 1950s? What lessons might the women of today learn from her?
It's hard to apply the term “feminism” to Marilyn, since the movement didn't really exist during her lifetime. In its modern incarnation, it can be dated to the publication of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique in 1963. (Marilyn died in 1962). Yet I was surprised to find that Marilyn was always egalitarian–she came from a working-class background and identified with that group. She was racially egalitarian–she even dated black men, in a racist era when that was socially prohibited. By the end of her life she supported Fidel Castro in Cuba and Communist ideals in general. She fought against the Hollywood “moguls”–the small group of aging men who controlled the Hollywood studios–to be able to star in dramatic roles that would draw on her full skills as an actress.
She was highly intelligent, well-read, and in her own way an intellectual. Without those qualities the great playwright Arthur Miller wouldn't have married her. To know her better, I suggest you read her autobiography. Ghostwritten by Ben Hecht, who drew heavily on his interviews with Marilyn, it is one of the great American autobiographies. She often played the role of a “dumb blonde,” but that was a standard comic character. In fact, she was the greatest “dumb blonde” character of her age. Unfortunately, she played it in real life as well as on the screen.
Marilyn's life is both a tale of triumph and of disaster. Raised in foster homes, sexually abused as a child, she suffered from a bipolar conditions, probably caused by the trauma of her childhood (what we call “traumatic stress disorder.”) She was often depressed and sometimes over-elated, and from her adolescence on she consistently used sex to get ahead–to the point that she seems to have suffered from sex addiction, a not uncommon result of childhood sexual abuse. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, she created the character known as “Marilyn Monroe,” willingly objectifying herself sexually on the screen to get ahead.
She fought her way to the top in Hollywood, demonstrating uncommon valor and determination. She can be viewed as a female exemplar of the American Dream. But, shy and insecure, she began taking prescription drugs to enable her to meet the rigorous schedule demanded of a Hollywood star. She became addicted to those drugs–uppers for energy and downers to relax and to sleep at night. As is characteristic of bipolar individuals, there were many suicide attempts.
Regarding Marilyn as a tough career woman, I call her a “proto-feminist.” But the real tragedy of her life was that she had no ideology with which to understand her condition, no way of putting the oppression she experienced into a framework that would enable her to name it. There was as much sexism in the radicalism she espoused as in society in general in the 1950s. Without a feminist point of view, she kept recycling old solutions that didn't work–an overdependence on men, an addiction to drugs, and a continuation of presenting herself as a sex object to the point that she herself felt degraded by it.