Marilyn Monroe: A Cultural Phenomenon

“Beauty is only skin-deep,” wrote the Self-Made Merchant to his son, “but that’s deep enough to satisfy any reasonable man.” That was sixty years ago, before it became customary to use the hands for describing beauty and when beauty, however deep, kept most of its skin under cover. The reasonable man’s pleasure to-day is Marilyn Monroe, and the publishers and booksellers, with their empirical knowledge of his tastes cannot give him enough of her—at second hand, of course.

Reigning beauties of the past, for all that poets have made of them, reigned only in courts and castles. Miss Monroe’s sovereignty is practically unlimited, geographically or socially. Not long back, Manchester City Councillors averred her to be preferable to one of Henry Moore’s sculptures, and a Work of Art: a national columnist went farther and said she was an Act of God. Even the Communists’ censoriousness of her as a dollar princess has the scent of sour grapes. Marilyn Monroe, in fact, represents the acme of desirability in this day and age.

Times have changed, of course. This writer once heard an old lady describe how, mounting her bicycle in the eighteen-nineties, she was attacked by a woman who screamed: “You brazen thing! I can see your ankles!” It is not only that people in the ‘nineties would have been shocked by Miss Monroe, undissembled in tight or negligible clothing: they would have thought her ugly, too. The beauties of the day—Lily Langtry, Olga Nethersole, La Belle Otero—were strapping girls with all the appearance of good living. Nobody talked of slimming, and the ladies’ magazines advertised a treatment called Diano which, if it was all true, was nothing short of an inflationary measure.

The case for eternal beauty becomes as illogical as the argument that there is eternal morality, when one considers the variations in both according to time and place. Metropolitan man may pull faces over the Congo’s idea of pulchritude; it is certain that the African native in turn would not think a lot of Marilyn Monroe. It is a question of what you esteem, and that itself is a question of what your world finds necessary. There is an old but appropriate story of a farmer and his guest together gazing across the countryside: the townsman rhapsodizes about the rolling vista, the farmer spits and says, “Thirty-bob-an-acre stuff.” Most likely the African, as well as the Eskimo and some others, would say something of the sort about Miss Monroe.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a fair enough statement of fact, but it leaves the important question unanswered. Man is the beholder: what puts, and transforms, beauty in his eye—his mind’s eye? In primitive communities it is chiefly physical function, the apparent capacity for child-bearing and hard work. In class-divided societies, beauty has always been seen to a large extent in terms of conspicuous leisure; the sirens of all western civilization seem to have done little else through history but loll on divans (if you believe it, look in the art galleries). And, of course, every age creates its own motives and needs which help to shape its concept of beauty. According to the franker historians, mediaeval ladies often assailed the nostrils as well as the heart, but nobody minded much; nowadays, with a century’s public health behind and the soap advertisements before us, a whiff of perspiration kills romance.

Marilyn Monroe is the personification of what popular consciousness in our time deems desirable. The rubato walk is a source of delight; in Victorian England, when no respectable woman thought sex pleasurable, it would have brought an indignant flush to a decent man’s face. When the family was sacrosanct (because the economic ties which held it were still fairly strong) sexual provocation was shameful. Now the ties have sagged, the morality has sagged too, and beauty can present itself to arouse the instinctive polygamist in every man. And the conspicuous leisure is still there—in impractical dress as well as the sultriness and aura of wealth.

There is more to Marilyn Monroe than merely physique, however. She is “the sexiest girl in Hollywood,” the girl who posed naked for a calendar and takes an interest in Freud. Almost every day there is a fresh tale and a fresh photograph; her skirts blow over her head, she distorts perspective with her callipygous charms. Her marriage to Joe DiMaggio was a feast for the papers and everybody’s imagination. The husky, virile Joe, a masculine idol, and the supremely nubile Marilyn saying: “You can’t take a career to bed and cuddle it,” and: “I like honeymoons.” Miss Monroe is, in fact, a dream. In Hollywood they make dreams; she is the most delectable dream of all.

The visual promise of pneumatic bliss is only the beginning. The real secret is the legend. Earlier film beauties, the vamps, the sweater girls and the rest, established conventions for exciting without intent to gratify; the Monroe legend is all of intent to gratify. Miss Monroe suggests not merely that she would please you but also that you would please her. From the humbleness-to-riches story, to the fabulous marriage and the scene where a plumber gropes for his pipe-wrench in her bath, the whole is a gorgeous fantasy into which every unsatisfied person of either sex can project every longing. It is Cinderella up-to-date, in glorious technicolour, and they live voluptuously as well as happily ever after.

None of this reflects any particular discredit on Miss Monroe or her employers, the film magnates. People who sell things, even dreams, are simply cashing-in on other people’s needs—the only important criticism is of the world which creates such needs on so large a scale. The brevity of Marilyn Monroe’s marriage indeed suggests that she herself is no more satisfied than a good many of her admirers. Certainly she knows no greater security—the careers of public entertainers are as precarious as those of any other people.

One of the paradoxes of our time is that, as fast as morality has slackened and so removed apparent obstacles to well-fulfilled sexual lives, the lack of satisfaction has grown. It is impossible to imagine a stable, sane community deifying a dream, but modern culture is largely made up of dreams. There is Miss Monroe; there are the revenge dreams of the brutal gangster stories, the escape dreams of popular romance, the vicarious thrills of speedways, space-fiction and the big fights. Our society, despising primitive people who incorporate sex practices in their cultures, has erected Marilyn Monroe as its tribal symbol—the symbol of frustration and unsatisfied desires.

Robert Barltrop

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