Goodbye Norma Jean (and Fall Semester 2014)…

“It doesn’t really take any talent to spread your legs.” So said a student during a discussion of Marilyn Monroe during my first offering of a class on the history of the American Dream. He was referring to the notorious “casting couch” spirit of the postwar Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s willingness to engage in whatever it took to get noticed, get cast, or, ideally, get a contract in that climate. As the discussion continued, this student revealed he’d never seen a Monroe film, but he was inclined to regard the “dumb blonde” archetype she portrayed across her career as an expression of the real Monroe rather than an indication of any sort of comic acting chops. Well, then. I pushed this student, but he was unwilling to bend in his assessment. Apparently our efforts to “reconsider the past through analysis of historians’ arguments and primary source evidence” were not encouraging him to reconsider his pre-class opinions.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and increasingly, when I find myself in this kind of position in the classroom, my response is to head back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

I’ve just concluded my offering of the American Dream class for a second time. For this installment, I revised the entirety of the course from top to bottom. Marilyn was among the few figures not cut in the overhaul (a] she is FASCINATING; b] I owed her redemption!). As part of the revision process, Monroe was much better situated in a discussion of idealized 1950s womanhood, a brand of womanhood that suggested a woman’s earning power was directly linked to the career aspirations and success of the man she managed to marry. His American Dream was hers (or maybe more accurately, he was hers?). To that end, Monroe is both an embodiment and a challenge (in her films and in her life), and fits beautifully in a section of the course that is all about invention and reinvention.

I assigned segments of Lois Banner’s biography of Monroe, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where Monroe is SO BEAUTIFUL and SO FUNNY), and excerpts from Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn biography. The readings are really engaging (if I do say so myself), with Banner considering the public image of Monroe, the views of those she worked with, and Marilyn’s efforts to establish agency and personal power in a time when both were in short supply for a woman in her field. Steinem thinks about Monroe’s legacy – with a particular focus on what the feminist movement has meant for her memory and what it might have meant for her, both personally and professionally, had she lived longer. Along with the film and some in-class source work, it is a good section of the class (again: if I do say so myself).

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Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

Really good for me: I had a *great* class. They were smart and engaged from the first. They did the good work of highlighting themes across the course, of putting figures into conversation with one another, of establishing what has given the American Dream the longevity it has enjoyed and where it has revealed itself as a mythic and often unattainable creation. And, as it turns out, they were willing to disagree with each other. But it took Marilyn Monroe for that willingness to reveal itself.

Banner’s chapter on Monroe talks about the years leading to super stardom where MM would wear the sexiest possible dress to a party in order to assure that she’d be noticed. Banner writes about Monroe’s conflicts with authority and her habitual lateness on the set, but she reminds readers about the tyrannical nature of 1950s directors and their impatience with “silly women.” She highlights the difference between the studio’s focus on the bottom line versus an emerging view among Hollywood stars that they were artists, not interchangeable parts that could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. She reveals that Marilyn, for all the trouble she allegedly caused with her demands as she made films, was never once late to a dance class or voice lesson.

For me, it was clear that Monroe worked – and worked hard – during her early years in Hollywood. She consciously had cultivated a style intended to aid her ascendancy to stardom. She did what she had to do to get by in terms of appearance and enduring typecasting, but beyond that, she showed tremendous savvy in developing a compelling interview style and crafting an unforgettable screen presence. Some students in the class agreed. Others: not so much. While several students commended Monroe for her understanding of the way media worked, others were resistant to see Monroe as active in shaping her stardom. What’s more: they didn’t like her. They thought she was cocky and arrogant. In this class, we discussed Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Welles, and not once had the charge of arrogance been made. Even after discussing the context of late 1940s/early 1950s womanhood, when being linked to a man was the surest way of succeeding, the class was divided on whether or not we wanted to assign Monroe “risk-taker” status (an important element to achieving the American Dream, so said my class). When she was still a teenager, with no family and no sure source of income, she basically walked away from her ace-in-the-hole husband with hopes a modeling and film career would pan out. IN 1946. And we don’t know if we want to call her a risk taker? Hopefully my face was not communicating what my brain was screaming, which was WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Even after watching Monroe on screen, the divides persisted. When I asked if she had not played a great dumb blonde, the old view reared its ugly head: “I’m not so sure she’s ‘playing’ dumb,” said one student. Others nodded in agreement. Multiple students expressed the belief that it hadn’t needed to be Norma Jean Mortensen/Dougherty who became Marilyn Monroe – someone else could’ve done it. Apparently students were ready to shed their faith in individualism during Week 13, when only two weeks earlier they’d been adamant that only Jackie Robinson could’ve been Jackie Robinson. Unwilling to accept the necessity of Monroe’s alleged use of sexual favors to make her way up the star ladder, another student noted, “I don’t know a lot of women stars from this time, but I’m sure not everyone did that.” And yet this student admitted that she’d known Marilyn Monroe before she enrolled in a course on the History of the American Dream, begging the question: what was the surest path to stardom for a woman determined to be a star? Particularly a woman with no money, no education, no connections? Over the course of the semester, it was not uncommon for students to commend figures of the past for trading in on whatever currency they had. And yet sexual currency seemed not a currency to commend.

The unwillingness to accept neither the labor of beauty nor the labor of feminine agreeability (which Marilyn often displayed in spades) and the further unwillingness to accept the potential talent of a sexually attractive woman (Monroe’s great sadness during her life) reminded me of things I already know. But I was disappointed to see these truisms revealed in my class. HOWEVER. I did note my class’s willingness to debate, and there were strong voices supporting Marilyn, too. Several students placed her squarely in the mold of 1950s womanhood – and saw, as I hoped they would, both the possibilities and limits of her role. After reading Steinem, one student said she’s wished for Marilyn to have lived long enough to read The Feminine Mystique while another noted that she believed Marilyn would’ve thrived in the world of women’s liberation where she would have found a community of women with whom she could’ve discussed their many shared experiences (sexual abuse, miscarriages, general anxiety). Another student, who felt so sorry for Monroe, reported to me days later that her philosophy class had just read feminist philosophy and her feelings for Marilyn weren’t just sympathy: she was looking at her through a feminist perspective! HALLELUJAH! I did NOT have this cluster of defenders in my first discussion of Monroe.

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And that has been my point in writing this far too long post: there is POWER in education to change perspective even if we feel like we’re sometimes going up against a wall. Students who have taken classes on women’s history, human sexuality, or any number of other courses that encourage consideration of the roles of gender and sexuality in social or cultural construction used their analytical skills and their content knowledge to challenge reductions of Monroe to a mere sex symbol bombshell. They considered who and what made her what she was – and what she did to challenge expectations and ideals and the obstacles she faced as she did. The idea that they’ll take with them this willingness to consider alternative perspectives and challenge widespread assumptions as they leave the classroom and head into the future not only gives me hope but also a sense of the power of what we do in the classroom to make a difference in the world beyond. And I’m grateful for this now, at this moment, when I have been feeling so powerless. As I’ve just concluded a long semester and face another one looming after a too short break, I’m determined to take this optimism with me. As I’m gearing up for another 15 week stretch, it’s good to be reminded that both the time we spend in and the time we spend on our classes is time well spent.

Thoughts on Gisele, Nursing, and the Mommy Wars; Or, Why _Our Bodies, Ourselves_ is worth revisiting

Potentially the most horrifying scene ever put to screen by acclaimed series Mad Men is the one in which Betty Draper delivers baby Gene. The overall mood of the third child’s arrival – the child unplanned and, to some degree, unwanted – is cold and antiseptic. But the child’s conception may have had no bearing on that. Such was the nature of even a welcome childbirth in mid-1960s America. The message communicated in the episode is that Betty Draper went into and came out of that delivery room alone. What transpired within, even she may not be sure of. A baby came out of it, and that’s all the viewers, her husband, and even Betty herself need to know. When I think of gynecological care of the 1960s, this episode sums it all up. Doctors who were put on a pedestal for being doctors, women who were encouraged to trust in their MD’s medical knowledge (aka ask no questions), and a clinical and somewhat frighteningly dispassionate view of the body and its many possibilities.

In contrast, when I had my annual exams at Indiana University’s Health Center in the mid-2000s, something that struck me immediately was that all the rooms in the women’s wing had posters on their ceilings. When women went in for whatever ailed them, as they lay back, they viewed pictures of fields of wildflowers or beaches at sunset. The atmosphere was warm, and the message communicated by those posters was that women shouldn’t be tense or nervous. They should focus on something beautiful and think about their visit in a positive way.

Something had shifted.

For a time, and not unrelated to my experiences at the Health Center, I considered that my next project would be about women’s health. In particular, I was (and still am) interested in the efforts of the Boston feminists who put together Our Bodies, Ourselves as a pamphlet in 1971 (originally published as Women and Their Bodies in 1970: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/uploads/pdf/OBOS1970.pdf). Women wrote for women in a manner that was matter of fact and, for the time (for now?), radical in its assertion that women should take ownership over their bodies and their health. What’s great about the original document is that it not only encourages women’s agency but it dismantles widespread social prescriptions about birth control, sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth. Challenging limited viewpoints that suggest all women are predestined to be mothers, or ascribes “true womanhood” only to those who’ve born and raised a child, the book embraces a variety of feminities, any of which are considered legitimate and proof-enough of “real” womanhood. As a whole, the book was non-judgmental and remarkably kind.

OBO

But it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that has had me thinking about these evolutionary views of women’s health (whereas I usually digress somewhere midway through these things, here I started with a digression. Sorry.). Rather, it was Gisele Bundchen’s recent Instagram of herself breast-feeding baby Vivian. If you’ve been living under a rock (aka haven’t seen it), use the power of the Google, choose the appropriate search terms, and it will come to you.

As I suppose GB intended, people responded to this image (All press is good press, yes?). There were those who eye-rolled, maybe more at Gisele’s caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready”) than the image itself. There were those who cheered GB for “normalizing” nursing (I personally think those people are looking for the term “glamourizing” but whatever). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams (of whom I’m a great fan) defended Gisele as a working mother, finding a balance, like so many other working mothers of the world.

It’s worth nothing that this wasn’t GB’s first jump into the nursing fire. She’d caught greater heat back in 2010 for a Harper’s Bazaar UK interview in which she stated, “Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” In the ensuing backlash, she clarified her intentions, claiming that her comment had “nothing to do with the law.” Except, and maybe I’m being nitpicky here, she used the phrase “worldwide law.” Anyway. Her statement went on: “I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I believe that bringing a life into this world is the single most important thing a person can undertake, and it can also be the most challenging.”  Well, except that the original words were entirely judgmental. And Gisele added to that judgment by suggesting those who opt out of child bearing – or are unable to do so – are living lives of less importance than those who bear children. So…I guess you could say I have my doubts about this “apology.”

As I’ve thought about GB’s picture and her words over the last several weeks – both of which are part of an image she consciously crafts – I’ve come back time and again to the openness, acceptance, and lack of judgment communicated in the original Our Bodies, Ourselves and how those qualities seem so absent in GB’s words and actions. With her picture (and I keep thinking about its caption) and her words, she seems totally unaware of the insularity of her experience, and in many ways, fails to recognize the privileged position she occupies. She notes that every woman has her own experience, but the comment seems a throwaway, a bone tossed to people pissed that she’d overstepped. On the other hand, Our Bodies, Ourselves went out of its way to assure women that their many varied experiences were totally normal and totally valid. In this contemporary world of Mommy Wars – of which I’ve long read and am now quickly learning first-hand (and of which I’d count GB’s words) – a return to the OBO view of women’s life and health would be most welcome.

Which is to say: all of this has had me thinking historically (as the historian is wont to do), and on a variety of levels. Typically, when I’m writing, I like to sum up my thoughts with some larger conclusion about then, now, people, relationships, etc., etc., etc. It feels nice and tidy. But with this, I’m somewhat stymied. Do I think something has gone awry from the time of the budding optimism of the women’s movement, of which Our Bodies, Ourselves is a product? Yes, I think something has. Pretty clearly, and there’s been good discussion of this by contemporary feminists, one of the things that went awry was the movement away from “we” and the failure to really take institutions to task (the original OBO pamphlet calls for maternity and paternity leave – in 1970!!) and the movement toward an expectation that individuals put up or shut up. And Gisele pretty clearly puts up. From there, she can operate on a kind of “if I can do it, so can you” mindset. But I don’t think the problem is something about women in isolation. I keep thinking about the culture of celebrity that’s grown since the 1970s – and maybe more specifically the style of celebrity that’s really blossomed since the 1990s, where the lethal combination of reality TV, the internet, and social media has given celebrities the option of opining at will and to audiences of enormous size and scope. And with little thought to how their actions or views might be interpreted by others or what their actions or views actually communicate. There are things I’m still working through when I think of this. Among those things, however, of this I am certain: this “throwaway” world of popular culture is chock full of possibility for the observant and constantly reveals the evolution of our views on a host of issues.

Michael Wilbon, how could you? (I still love you.)

Full disclosure: I am a great fan of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (PTI). More generally speaking, I find much of ESPN’s programming in which sports journalists play a prominent role to be very compelling. The conversations and debates on shows such as PTI, Around the Horn, and The Sports Reporters often raise issues beyond the sports world and towards questions of media responsibility, journalistic ethics, and the nature of celebrity as it intersects with race, class, gender, and sexuality.

All that said, a story this past week came directly into my wheelhouse when PTI hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser debated the ethics of Redskins phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III (RGIII) accepting gifts fans had sent him and his fiancé after The Washington Post linked their Bed, Bath, and Beyond registry online. Wilbon and Kornheiser went back and forth on the legitimacy of a major sports celebrity accepting expensive gifts from fans.

RGIII_registry

RGIII tweeted his thanks to fans and posed before a mountain of empty boxes to show his appreciation. When criticized, he expressed shock that “Because you are rich you are not allowed to receive gifts…?” I’m not so much interested in the should he/shouldn’t he debate over whether RGIII should return the gifts or donate them to charity (although, like Kornheiser, I’m surprised he and his fiancé chose to register at Bed, Bath, and Beyond – but that’s beside the point).RGIII_boxes

What grabbed my attention more was Wilbon’s commentary about how this wasn’t really RGIII’s registry. Wedding registries, he asserted, are the domain of the bride-to-be. “Oh, Wilbon,” I thought. “You’re so much better than that.” Is the view of pre-wedding planning (and the unpaid labor it entails) as primarily women’s preserve one that is widespread across the population? Yes. Is this view an accurate one? I say no. More, I would argue, it’s one of the tired stereotypes about the world of weddings that we come back to time and again because it’s a) easy; b) often supported by some anecdotal evidence; and c) doesn’t do anything to challenge notions of appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity. However, a quick look to the past provides evidence to suggest that registries are not only for brides-to-be. During the 1950s, when the notion of marriage evolved to suggest that the marital partnership should be the primary relationship in American adults’ lives, many brides and grooms were feted with “mixed” showers at which guests (male and female) provided any number of gifts, either gender-neutral or explicitly masculine (bar accessories, lawn tools, grilling paraphernalia) pre-selected by the bride and the groom. During the late 1960s, as Bride’s magazine planned to expand its circulation to reach more prospective brides, the marketing team assigned to pitch ad space to prospective buyers highlighted how the registry – now often computerized – was regularly selected by both brides and their grooms. And from the 1970s on, much of the world of wedding planning – and its associated literature – has spoken directly to the expectation of egalitarianism in marital pairings, egalitarianism often established well before the wedding and frequently demonstrated in the labor leading up to the celebration.

While it may be easier to imagine an easy dichotomy between masculine and feminine (and groom and bride), the reality is that the egalitarianism that increasingly has marked American marriages and overall relationships between men and women has meant that there is greater fluidity in gender roles and categories. As such, it is far more acceptable and far more likely that men will, in fact, express tremendous interest in the goods requested of their wedding guests, especially as men have found greater welcome in the world of home life and decor. And even for those uncomfortable with challenges to “traditional” ideas of what a man should be and do, registries have continued to allow for the stereotypically masculine offerings requested of those attending mid-century mixed-showers.

PTI often features a segment called “Report Card” in which Wilbon and Kornheiser assign a letter grade to a recent event or action suggested by “Professor” Tony Reali. If I’m scoring Wilbon on his registry comment, I go “D.” He submitted a response, and I guess I’m an easy grader. Besides, I like to leave some room for improvement.

grade-DWilbon