Most surprising about Norma Jeane Mortenson Baker’s grave is this: It does not exist. No tombstone, mausoleum or urn marks her final resting place. Norma Jeane’s absence is telling, for her presence in the cultural imagination is unsettled and unsettling.
Memorialized instead at Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in the Westwood area of Los Angeles is the legend “Marilyn Monroe.” This slippage between woman and icon speaks to a legacy of erasure that simultaneously created and destroyed Hollywood’s biggest star. Over the past few years I have returned repeatedly, almost obsessively, to Monroe’s burial site, eager to make sense of her ambivalent meanings in my life as in popular culture, and to understand Norma Jeane’s disappearance from the collective unconscious.
Monroe’s imprint on my identity and sexuality is traumatic, liberating and breathtaking, all at once. The ubiquity of her image saturated my world, leaving in its wake a puzzling, kaleidoscopic mosaic of fantasies, myths and archetypes about female sexuality, desire and power. “Marilyn Monroe” alternately played siren and dominatrix, intoxicating me with the power and pleasure of an ingenue, yet disciplining my desires with the seemingly flawless, sexy and exuberant styles of femininity that she seemed not only to model but to exhort for young girls and women keen to break free from the domestic ideals of wife and mother that dominated the cultural zeitgeist of 1950s America.
Monroe’s excessive visibility was a mode of enslavement that ensured the legend yet destroyed the little girl. Soon after she was “discovered” as new modeling talent by photographer Bruno Bernard of Hollywood, Monroe met audiences hungry to consume her in every conceivable way. Public viewing of Monroe mutated into sport, hobby and pastime—an avid means of genuflecting as well as devouring. Ogled by the press, Monroe’s body became the quintessential “commodity fetish,” in Marxist parlance, and a repository for myriad cultural fears, fantasies and longings about masculinity, femininity, sexuality, war and domesticity.
Like the pharmakon in ancient Greece, visibility served as both poison and cure in Monroe’s life. Visibility proved similarly destructive and enabling in my own explorations of femininity. Navigating adolescence meant coming to terms with the hegemonic regime of “Marilyn Monroe”: one that governed most girls’ forays into popular culture in fervent missions to discover how, where, why and in what ways to be and become a “woman.” Norma Jeane’s legacy also wreaked havoc as a potentially feminist marker of the wildly unimaginative styles with which one might inhabit “femininity” in the 1950s Cold War, Father Knows Best era; it was a tragic reminder of childlike innocence betrayed and female beauty defiled by the sexually exploitative tendencies of Hollywood.
In ancient Athens, “Pharmakos” referred to a ritual of sacrifice or catharsis used to purge evil from individual bodies as well as the body politic. Pharmakos was the name given to a designated scapegoat: someone chosen to become an outsider, to be expelled from the community at times of crisis for the purpose of purification. In many ways, Norma Jeane resonates today as the contemporary equivalent of Pharmakos: one who has been cast out, cut adrift.
So who was “Marilyn Monroe”?
Everyone seems to know how to answer this question. Sex symbol, icon, Hollywood legend, blonde bombshell, Playboy centerfold, seductress, performer for the troops, pin-up, movie star. Equally fascinating, many feel convinced of one thing she was not: smart.
Yet Monroe longed to be taken seriously as an actress, a wish that haunts her final interview in Life magazine: “Please don’t make me a joke.” Monroe lamented the limited archetypes she was enlisted to portray on-screen. No “dumb blonde,” she was an astute interpreter of her objectification: wary of its costs, yet cognizant of the privileges of fame. As she quipped in her Life interview, “That’s the trouble: A sex symbol is a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of!”
Sex symbols offer complex conduits for fantasy in our culture. Given the limited vocabulary with which to discuss gender, sex and iconicity in her time, Monroe challenged the culture of shame that shrouded sex in the popular imagination. She also critiqued the ways in which Hollywood recruited her to perform sexuality and femininity, and yearned for roles that would showcase her dramatic and comedic talents instead. She began her own production company in hopes of fulfilling this aspiration.
My favorite photographs of “Marilyn Monroe” depict her alone, not self-consciously playing to camera’s eye, but lost in thought or reading a book. Insatiably curious about art, literature and philosophy, she routinely carried books to movie sets. Auctioned by Christie’s in 1999, Monroe’s library encompassed a range of works that spoke to her longing to achieve intellectual and spiritual transformation. From James Joyce’s Ulysses to F. Matthias Alexander’s Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Tolstoy, Twain and Gibran’s Jesus, many of the books evidenced Monroe’s active engagement in the form of underlining, pencil marks and marginalia.
Do you pose for the camera, or for the mirror?
–The mirror. I can always find Marilyn Monroe in the mirror.
–“Marilyn Monroe,” interview in Life magazine
The most reproduced woman in modern history, Monroe continues to travel far and wide 50 years after her tragic death at 36 on August 5, 1962. Yet as Michel Foucault reminds, visibility is a trap, and Monroe was both indebted to and destroyed by her image. Celebrity culture induces a state of permanent and conscious visibility among Hollywood stars. As Foucault observed of the Panopticon, a 19th-century model prison designed by Jeremy Bentham to induce similar effects of permanent visibility among inmates, within such a space of relentless surveillance one internalizes the sense of being watched. Aware that one is on permanent display, one begins to act accordingly and to perform the identity most craved by the public eye. Subject transforms to specimen: a relentlessly probed object of the collective gaze.
A complex web of cultural fears, anxieties and longings are projected onto the phantasmatic surface known as “Marilyn Monroe”. As I reflect on her legend, I am most troubled to find “Marilyn” rather than “Norma Jeane” etched on the stone that marks her resting place in a quiet cemetery hidden amidst the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. With this name the icon speaks, while the girl and woman disappear. Whenever I return to Monroe’s grave, I am haunted most by Norma Jeane’s erasure. If silence is a form of violence, then this final silencing of Norma Jeane—on the very artifact that reserves a permanent place for her in collective memory—is an act of violence that must be questioned. Norma Jeane’s disappearance should provoke outrage against the obliterating power of an industry that champions female beauty and vulnerability while encouraging the perpetual evaluation of girls and women relative to impossible ideals of femininity, especially the virgin/whore dichotomy.
Given the pervasive erasure of female sexual desire, agency and pleasure in popular culture, medicine, philosophy and psychoanalysis, I have come to understand Monroe’s performances of sexuality as subversive and empowering. Using the cinematic roles, codes and devices available to her at the time, she adeptly mined cultural archetypes of femininity to stylize her own brand of sexual autonomy and pleasure. A savvy reader of sexual fantasies at play in the collective unconscious, she deployed them as means to access sexual agency denied through childhood experiences of sexual abuse. Monroe’s evocative magic on-screen flows from the sincerity and passion of her attempt to claim the erotic as source of empowerment in the wake of her experiences of sexual violation.
Although Monroe played to heterosexual male fantasies of femininity, sexiness and desirability, she embodied them with a mix of irony, bewilderment and alienation. Even as she breathed life into such fantasies on screen, Monroe marked their performativity and reflected on their damaging potentials for female sexuality. By so doing, she carved out a space for female jouissance amidst a cultural zeitgeist of fear. Through film and literature, she also forged a space of catharsis—or emotional release through the arts that enables genuine healing and empathy—of the sort conjured in Aristotle’s Poetics.
One of the first celebrities to speak publicly about sexual abuse, Norma Jeane dared to name childhood experiences of molestation and rape in a cultural milieu in which silence reigned supreme with respect to such issues. Her confessions did nothing to advance her career, but were instead ignored and ridiculed by virtually everyone, including her mother, who accused Norma Jeane of being a slut. Heterosexual male audiences proved especially unreceptive to Norma Jeane’s tales of abuse, as they interrupted popular fantasies of childlike innocence.
Sexual violence, and its dismissal from those in whom she confided, scarred Norma Jeane with a profound sense of being unwanted. Few have asked how her history of violence impacted Monroe’s sexually charged performances. Yet sexual violence inexorably transformed Norma Jeane on and off screen. According to personal correspondence and notes culled from her psychiatrist, Norma Jeane sought power and attention through sexual expression (provocative dressing and hyper-femme roles); conflated sex with self-worth; suffered from insomnia, depression, numbness, a fear of intimacy and abandonment issues; experienced an inability to trust the men in her life, a conflict between sex and caring and an intense desire to please others; and internalized a sense of guilt, shame and low self-esteem with respect to sexuality. Sexual violation also imbued her with a deep understanding of how sex was embedded in her professional negotiations with the patriarchal Hollywood elite. Monroe’s virtual “promiscuity” on screen (hyper-sexualized behavior that seemed to render her infinitely “available” to all eyes) coincided with her inability to experience sexual pleasure or orgasm for much of her adult life. Throughout her career, Monroe’s apologia as a sexual violence survivor struggled with her desire to be taken seriously.
In his ode “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats hauntingly narrates a mythical rape. In the final stanza, he asks of Leda, the survivor: “Did she put on [the rapist’s] knowledge with his power?” With this question, Yeats gestures toward the transformative potentials of violence. If violence undoes us, how might we be re-made in its aftermath? By “putting on” female archetypes with exuberant curiosity and wonder, Monroe explored not only their hold on the collective unconscious but also their enabling role within cultural narratives of violence. While she delighted audiences with performances of female sexuality as a potent, creative force, Monroe simultaneously negotiated sexual agency and self-knowledge in the wake of sexual violation.
In her lifetime, most Hollywood audiences and insiders were unwilling to see Monroe as a savvy “reader” of culture able to dissect the stereotypes she was enlisted to portray. Although she was the most exposed female figure in celluloid history, few encouraged her to display or cultivate her spirit of critical inquiry vis-a-vis celebrity culture. Her reflections on the gendered mechanisms and personal costs of fame were routinely veiled, hidden.
So what does it mean to remember? On the 50th anniversary of her death, I would like to change the public conversation about Marilyn Monroe and imagine a space for Norma Jeane in the collective memory. In many ways, her resting place in Los Angeles is empty: a grey stone flecked with gold and perennially decorated with lipstick traces and floral salutations. While Monroe’s gravesite pays tribute to the legend, it is bereft of Norma Jeane’s soul. This essay is my attempt to re-member Norma Jeane in the sense proposed by Homi Bhabha: not as a quiet act of introspection, but “a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past in order to make sense of the traumatic present.”No one could fully inhabit the persona of “Marilyn Monroe” or its ambivalent messages about female sexuality, least of all Norma Jeane herself. Yet she acted so that she might put the pieces back together again.