Don't Mess With Marilyn

A revisionist new Monroe book refuses to reduce her to one simple role.

Sarah Churchwell has no tolerance for Norman Mailer's masturbatory Marilyn: A Biography. Gloria Steinem, she suggests, had a lot of nerve trying to approximate Marilyn in the first person for her feminist history Marilyn: Norma Jeane. Churchwell is also more than a little suspicious of Joyce Carol Oates' self-important Monroe novel, Blonde, and Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" elegy holds no poetic insights for her, either. Furthermore, in her The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Metropolitan, $26), author Churchwell has this to say about the most discussed, laboriously analyzed, and iconic woman in all cinema: I don't know about you, but all of the above makes me want to hug Churchwell, buy her a beer, and sic her on any number of would-be celebrity biographers. Churchwell's Many Lives is not a biography— it's a fierce but levelheaded defense against such efforts as they apply to Monroe. Churchwell first acknowledges the star as one of our most cherished "dead metaphors," then heads into the infested jungles of what she calls the collected Monroe "apocrypha" and begins hacking at the regurgitated reductivism. Churchwell is less concerned with a definitive "truth" than with identifying "what we bring to the story of a woman we supposedly adore: usually it's shame, belittlement, and anxiety." Churchwell knows that myths endure only because they reflect something we see—and don't necessarily understand—about ourselves. With Monroe, she argues, we want to have our cake and eat it, too—to enshrine her as a symbol of carnal innocence (identified canonically as Norma Jeane) while reviling her as a pathetic caricature of uncouth, fabricated female sexuality (known as "Marilyn Monroe," a name that, Churchwell astutely notes, is accompanied by "scare quotes" to establish its supposedly horrifying fraudulence). That such a thoughtful, minutely researched analysis—which includes refreshingly clear-eyed assessments of Monroe's films and photographs—would bog down in postmodernism, postfeminism, bifurcation, the Madonna/whore syndrome, et al., is inevitable. Many Lives is so determinedly both inside and outside its own subject, you might swear Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is hanging over Churchwell's shoulder. The book sometimes offers such weighty, thesislike prose that you want to throw it across the room; its charge-and-countercharge structure (they say this, I say that) can grow tiresome. This is to be expected from an English academic intent on debunking biographers who claim to be telling "the real story" of Monroe. What's worthwhile and rewarding, however, is that Churchwell's effort encourages us to confront within ourselves the stilted stereotypes that unavoidably shape our view of a woman who, decades after her death, continues to mean so much to so many.

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