The myth of Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe has been a tortured, wiggle-hipped sex symbol for half a century – and still the biopics keep coming. Isn't it time we let her go?
Sunday 16 October 2011
ged 17, with glandular fever turning my skin into a three-bar fire, I accidentally overdosed a little on painkillers. Instead of taking two every four hours, I started taking four every two hours. Amazing pills, illegal now, they were fluorescent pink, like matte-effect diamonds, and in the middle of the night they made me hallucinate vividly. As I lay there, throat like a barrel, Marilyn Monroe stepped out of the Andy Warhol print on my bedroom wall and began to wiggle towards me, one tiny foot in front of the other, click click click. I was delighted – I had so much to ask her. When she crawled into bed, I think I giggled. We spooned, but not for long, because quite quickly, snuggled next to me, she began to die. I remember the promise of Monroe, who (when I was a teenager, swollen thick with kissing disease) I was fascinated by: she seemed the prototype for womanliness.
Little has changed. This week, the trailer was released for My Week With Marilyn, the latest Monroe biopic, this one starring Michelle Williams with ever-parted lips and blue-blonde hair. But now I feel that with every retelling, every time the wig is dusted off, every time the bra is sharpened, her life becomes fainter, like we're photocopying a photocopy.
Williams is one of few female Hollywood stars who, until now, hasn't discussed her affinity with Monroe – Madonna, Anna Nicole Smith, Lindsay Lohan ("People in their mind have created who I am and act as if there is no real person inside of me," Lohan smugged once, "just like Marilyn") – all boast noisily of their similarities to the actress, pulling wildly on her fine chains of sex and sadness. The myth of Marilyn washes over our culture like a Hipstamatic app – this bleached, beached tragedy; a woman too feminine to live; a wiggle-hipped symbol of objectification – but it's one that has been raked over so many times it ceases to have any impact.
Is our continued obsession with Monroe (yet another biopic comes out next year featuring Naomi Watts) simply a glossy form of suicide porn, a dark attraction to the idea of a woman who gave in to her emotions? Partly, too, it must be nostalgia – not just for those acceptable curves and lipstick, but for her assumed naivety. There'll never be another celebrity ingenue. Today everybody knows everything. The TOWIE stars, Big Brother housemates,X Factor contestants – all are literate in fame, cynical to the point of boredom. Where Marilyn's skill was to appear turned on all the time, today's starlets have learned to look like they're ready to please.
She died just before modern feminism took hold – is part of Hollywood's Marilyn obsession a hungriness for that pre-liberated age? Or an elevation of her to martyr status? A symbol that when you let the world turn you into a sex object, you cease to exist. It's a "She died so we could live." I like to think this is what my painkillers were trying to tell me.
These discussions have been stretched gummily to snapping point. Is it not time to let Marilyn rest now? Surely there's another culturally weighty coffin to rifle through, another story to be told. It feels time. And while AmericanVogue's cover star is Michelle Williams in full Marilyn bodysuit, in the tabloids there's a hint that the rest of us are moving on. This week Megan Fox (stamped "Sexiest woman in the world" by FHM) was photographed in California, walking back from lunch in flip-flops and a baseball cap. On her right forearm a shadow is visible – her Marilyn Monroe tattoo, which she began laser treatment to remove earlier this year, is almost gone. "I got the tattoo as a warning," she once explained, "to not let myself be treated so badly by the film industry that it breaks me down." The tattoo looked like a fan sketch; now all that's there are a few pale lines, a gentle swoosh where a blonde curl once was, the faded suggestion of two cattish eyes. In a month they'll be gone.