Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

There are countless books on Marilyn Monroe already – so why another? And why did I choose to read this one? The author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, Lois Banner, is a prominent American feminist scholar and historian, and teaches history at the University of Southern California. The inside cover of this book, as well as her USC faculty page, calls her ‘a founder of the field of women’s history’; without knowing anything more about her, I was impressed by these credentials. With her focus on the role of women in society and my already being fascinated by Monroe and her life story but never having read a book on her, I looked forward to Banner’s viewpoint, which in the prologue she says will be from a specifically feminist point of view.

2012 hardback edition

The problem with asking whether Monroe was a feminist herself is that the term, Banner asserts, wasn’t in widespread use at the time. Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking and controversial feminist text The Feminine Mystique (which contains its own prejudices, despite extolling equality) was published in 1963, the year after Monroe’s death. Friedan’s book is credited as ‘sparking’ the beginning of the second-wave feminist movement (first-wave having been suffrage and the women’s vote). Monroe died before feminism became a populist movement that influenced society. Given men’s treatment of her throughout her life, I expect that Monroe would have engaged in second-wave feminism in the 1960s, or at least supported it. If nothing else it would have educated her and perhaps made her think differently about her relationships with men.

In the Afterword Banner quotes two of Monroe’s friends, Hedda and Norman Rosten, in relation to whether she could have been called a feminist. Hedda called Monroe ‘the quintessential victim of the male’; while her husband Norman stated that she would have ‘quarrelled with her “sisters” on the issue of sexual liberation.’ Banner asserts that in Norman’s view Monroe sounds like a post-feminist, emphasising ‘the power women possess through their femininity and sexuality.’ Having read Banner’s biography I think that these two opposing view points come not necessarily from the fact that Hedda was a woman and Norman was a man, but the way in which Monroe used her femininity and sexuality.

The famous subway grate scene from ‘The Seven Year Itch’ which caused a storm of publicity and controversy

In her early Hollywood years, Monroe slept with a lot of men, some of whom helped advance her career. Banner states that Monroe had a ‘free love’ attitude and believed that sex could be part of friendship. She certainly had a lot of lovers over the years and her image, partly cultivated by the studios she worked for and partly a natural reaction of her own to her fame, was based around her being blonde, flirty, and sexy. She used her sexiness and the appeal of her body to promote herself and her movies, rather than shun being ‘sexy’ in order to be considered ‘serious’. This is why Norman Rosten/Banner calls her a post-feminist. Hedda Rosten, on the other hand, only sees her as a ‘victim’ of men, partly because of her forward sexuality, negating her ability to be feminist.

And yet Monroe did strive to be considered serious. Banner states throughout the book that Monroe would memorise quotes from poetry and novels to recite at parties, and did genuinely read Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and many other highly respected writers. She was often spotted reading on movie sets. A great source of frustration was her inability to convince the bosses at Twentieth-Century Fox to allow her to play a serious dramatic role. She was a brilliant comic actor, and her movies brought in a lot of money. They weren’t willing to risk a failure if she wasn’t as good at dramatic roles as she said she was.

Marilyn in New York

Monroe was always unstable. Shy, sensitive and with a warped sense of her value to men and her role in relationships with them, she made a lot of bad decisions, and took a lot of pills to contain her nerves and her mood swings. When she entered Hollywood she marketed herself as ‘Marilyn Monroe, sex kitten’; she never shook this image off. Studio bosses, as well as the men she had relationships with, refused to see her as anything else than the sexy blonde bombshell she was on screen, though they often disapproved of her flirtatiousness and skimpy clothes. She was stubborn and defiant, and fought against the men who tried to control her, often and ultimately to her detriment. She was brave and at times reckless, but constantly strove to be successful and happy. Her courage and ambition makes her, in my view, an early version of a feminist – regardless of her own weaknesses that allowed men to dominate her.

Banner’s investigations and research into Monroe’s life are determined and thorough. In a slightly self-satisfied tone she informs the reader of all the information overlooked or purposefully omitted by previous biographers and obviously delights in being able to reveal the truth about things. Monroe took so many risks and got so carried away with her own emotions and impulses that the highest levels of American power hid the truth of her death, and some events in her life. Banner’s work on Monroe has been criticised for various reasons and although I didn’t always agree with some of her bold assertions about this or that, I admired her determination to examine Monroe from a new perspective. In her short and insightful Afterword, Banner states that Monroe praised those who rebelled against social conventions, and liked to place herself among them; in a way, she could – but she also succumbed to the power of men and became the sexy blonde bombshell they wanted her to be. Had she lived past 1962, or been born later in the century, she may have been different. She would have been educated by second-wave feminism and benefitted from the rise in women’s status and power in society and particularly in the professional environment.

Lois Banner with the ‘Japanese photograph’ of Marilyn taken by Cecil Beaton

This book will not be for everyone, as Banner makes strong assertions and proclaims herself to be not only groundbreaking in her analysis of Monroe but also Always Right. I, however, enjoyed her storytelling (though her chronology sometimes gets a little muddled) and admired her ambition with the project, which in the end took her ten years. She writes a blog on her website about Monroe, and her book, which I think is definitely worth a read. It is fascinating to see Monroe considered from a feminist point of view (Banner constantly defends her and is clearly angered by those who hurt her) and, having never read a book about Monroe before, I found this a great source of information and wonder. I would recommend this detailed and passionate biography to anyone seeking to add an extra dimension or two to the image of the ‘sexy starlet’ of Marilyn Monroe.

*

Published on 5th August 2012 (the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death) by Bloomsbury in the US and the UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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