“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).
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.
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.