Thinking about Marilyn Monroe a lot these days. She’s stunning and vulnerable yet gets a really disrespectful rap in our culture, and I’ve been trying to sort out why.
I work with a bunch of dudes, and asked a couple of them in the story room recently, “What category of woman do you put Marilyn in?” “Not a role model,” was the first reply. “Alcoholic, pill popping, whore,” was another. They see the mistress of JFK, singing “Happy Birthday,” lips all pouty, skirt blowing up in the wind. She certainly was all of that, oozing sex appeal with an embarrassing need for validation, yet still somehow she strikes me as a woman who was very in control of her destiny, not willing to be controlled by her daring choices nor man’s perception of her.
I recently watched a short documentary about her life and learned a few things that surprised even me. Like, did you know she was the first woman in Hollywood since Mary Pickford (the silent film star) ever to own her own production company? And she was such a big fan and friend of Ella Fitzgerald, that she petitioned a famous night club owner in Hollywood to let Ella perform there back in the days when not even famous blacks could sing in night clubs, promising that every night Ella sang, she, the enigmatic Marilyn Monroe would be in the audience. And the club owner did it, and Marilyn showed up for her friend, Ella, every night…
That’s no bimbo move.
But Marilyn knew she was a fantasy. The girl you secretly admire but never actually make your wife…or your friend. She didn’t fit in a traditional role, she didn’t want what was readily available to a pretty girl like her and in refusing what was offered her, called into question everyone else’s assumed role in culture. Women scorned her, men lusted after her. What to do with a woman who identifies with something bigger than herself, unapologetically chooses to follow It, and oozes a peculiar, disarming confidence along the way? We are all given the option when confronted by a woman like Marilyn – to embrace Her or reject Her…and in choosing either we demand of ourselves to either step up to the plate of life, or retreat.
This peculiar something Marilyn embodied is mysterious and challenging. It harkens to another time, long ago when being a woman of power didn’t necessarily mean giving up all your feminine attributes. To be a goddess in a former world meant being both seductive and a wise leader. It’s a frightening kind of power women possess, it’s been called cunning, manipulative…we’ve been re-storied by men as temptresses, brujas, whores, bitches and witches, Delilah’s and Jezebel’s….simply because of our alluring power. True feminine power is a scary kind. It weakens the structures we build to protect us from all feeling.
While undeniably striking Marilyn appears on the surface, I get that one wouldn’t necessarily consider her a “tower of strength.” Her pout distracts from the limitlessly freeing multi-dimensionality of what being a real woman like Marilyn actually offers to me, and all women alike. She was tragic and empowered in a way that we don’t dare celebrate so no wonder it’s hard to recognize strength in her…or in oneself. It’s simply easier to pity than feign to understand. Easier then to put woman in a box – strong or weak, secure in herself or self-loathing, confident or wracked with self-doubt. Hollywood, God bless this town, seems to beckon these enigmas. It may be one of the few spaces where insecurity and vulnerability are invited, and then tricked into putting it all out there for everyone to see. Marilyn owned her sexual prowess, and her weakness. And that is a lifestyle granted only to the extremely daring and courageous.
Seems men and woman alike aren’t quite sure how to manage the fascination with this kind of woman. There’s something about Marilyn that was so desirable, yet she could never be possessed by anyone. Studios tried. And men certainly tried. And because she could not be possessed, I gather they could not figure out how to love her. And I am coming to believe her life was a tragedy not because she had a tragic childhood or an addiction to pain medication. The tragedy was that truly, the lady just needed to be loved. Not possessed, Loved. Underneath all her liquid appeal, she was really just a fragile diva. Very needy, very wounded and very unwilling to hide it from anyone. She knew she was a fantasy because she knew the truth of herself. It wasn’t just the way she dreamed, it was her awareness of her own duality…That she could be at once a persona, yet always still just a person.
I’m thinking a lot about how to walk that line – of the persona and the person. Because what’s occurring now in culture is a type of woman whom we call strong, confident, secure of herself…who doesn’t seem to need a thing. This kind of confidence comes quite naturally to some, that ability to project strength, to keep going in the face of fear and never let on to the truth of what’s really occurring inside you. It’s so damn attractive, and it is often quite a real strength to be admired. Yet, it seems once a woman exhibits that kind of strength, she is qualified as this “type,”and that qualification seems to come at the cost of her full expression of herself. Not sure that’s the ideal either?
Half the beauty of being a woman is being able to love fully in our bodies, and through our feelings. The widest range of emotional expressions is at our disposal, to embrace and mirror back what we experience in the world. To laugh and cry, to smile and pout. To nurture and to need. It is our luxury as women, it is our natural biological cycle to be Moved…to care…To Feel.
The impulse to disregard our feelings, our Be-ing, is in effect to deny the Essence of a woman. No matter how masculine the everyday rhythm of this world (and it is so) – to win, to own, to rush, to war. No matter how insistent the compulsion to play at a man’s game – to rationality, to logic, to strategy, to succeed. We cannot do so at the cost of our feminine power. I will not put up walls, button up, give good face. If my crying makes you cry, good for you. Connect for one moment as the Feminine does, with the suffering of this world, with the recurring loss of innocence, the desperate grasping for hope, the incessant hum of injustice, the raging inequality – and your powerlessness to do anything about except to Feel It All. Touch Her, for one moment…sit with Her and let Her break your heart. And just. fucking. cry. about it.
That’s the gift, the absolute joy of being a woman. We have the pleasure of knowing that this expanse of feeling inside us, no matter how overwhelming, won’t be the end of us, and it won’t be the end of you, and it won’t be the end of this world. It is just Who We Are at this moment, at any given moment. We are disappointed, broken-hearted, yet we still Love. We are betrayed, and betrayed again, and again, yet risk love once more. Because that’s what women do. We give birth and watch it die, over and over and over again…for Love.
I feel it all I feel it all
The wings are wide, the wings are wide
Wild card inside, wild card inside
…I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart…