Becoming WOMAN: The (Marilyn) Monroe Doctrine

Milton H. Greene, Marilyn 'ballerina' sitting in a tutu, 1954.

Yes, the Monroe Doctrine: Marilyn, the icon of femininity, the early feminist and woman all of us know, whom many wanted to be, some shunned, and others sexualized and objectified. Marilyn is the woman that illuminates that “dark continent called woman,” in Hollywood neon. Think of it: Decades after her suicide, Monroe’s image continues to be imitated and remains an almost universal symbol of femaleness. She retains a longevity that has survived many changes in our culture, including feminism, civil rights, social media, and same sex marriage. Monroe inhabits the collective unconscious of both men and women, so why not finally honor her as an icon of womanhood?

What is woman? Mother, daughter, object of desire — we have remained the subject of much mystery and speculation. Freud himself did not know what to do with us, and shaped female sexuality out of male libido. It took several generations of women psychoanalysts to rewrite gender theory and give it the complex texture that it deserves. Yet, the question remains: Is there something unique and essential to being a woman? A difference that separates us from men, intrinsically creating a binary of opposition and complementarity?

The answer has to be yes.

There is something specific about the psychological and physical development of women that is both embodied and socially constructed. The specificity of our physical and emotional development has important consequences for our ways of incarnating and personifying femininity and femaleness. As women, we approach our bodies, our sex and our aggression in ways, which are specific to our gender, and on that basis, either constrain or facilitate our ways of being and of being with others.

So lets look at the body of woman, its anatomy and physicality. Our biology is a sexed reality that deeply influences our identity and is re-interpreted psychically on the basis of societal and cultural expectations. Our experience of being female is defined by our early developmental experiences, and in particular, our experience of our genitalia. I underscore the word experience, because little girls cannot see their vaginas, so they experience them first and only look for them much later. This has all kinds of implications for their sexual identities. Early in their development, girls become aware of what they have (a vagina, a clitoris, and breasts) and what they do not (a penis), this experience of our body as complete and different begins to define our femaleness. Of course, our understanding and processing of these experiences is influenced by cultural and social contexts, which are then mediated for us by our caretakers (usually our mothers). Puberty and menstruation change everything for girls, as they usher in sexuality with physical changes, which acquire complicated meaning(s) in the world at large.

These physical changes have a significant impact on our experience of ourselves. For one thing, our bodies now become objects of desire and attract the attention of the opposite sex, ushering in the awareness of sexuality and the possibility of becoming mothers, lovers, and rivals to other women.

This is regardless of whether we define ourselves a hetero or homosexual woman. Menstruation causes a rupture in our previous experience of our bodies and selves, and makes it necessary to measure the ongoing physical changes, re-establishing a powerful link to our bodies in adolescence; for we can see what we were (a girl), what we are going through (puberty), and what we will become (a woman). These bodily changes necessarily impact psychological development because they must be processed, along with their cultural meanings, psychically. Of course, each woman’s experience is different, but there remains a common embodied language us that experience as female. The ways we embody our femininity, the way we shape the kind of woman we are, depend on both biological and social constructions. And that is the rub; our development is filled with struggles between the two.

So, how do we become women? Well there is mom, and the kind of woman she is. Her imprint has complex intra-psychic and inter-personal manifestations, which help to shape the sort of woman we grow up to be. Take sexuality for example: It is her touch, her smell, her voice, and her physical management that first introduces us to our bodies. It is also her own comfort or discomfort with her body that facilitates or blocks our acceptance of ours. Faced with a daughter’s sexuality, the mother of a pubescent young woman must also confront her own aging, and her relationship to her sexual self. This can be a slippery slope for women, as it involves considering one’s longings and dissatisfactions and the role of desire in one’s life. A woman who has not articulated her desire denies many of her feelings, particularly envy and aggression. Thus, the mother-daughter relationship turns out to be the primary matrix of interaction surrounding aggression, envy, eroticism and desire.

Think about it: These are the main emotional areas that women struggle with. Marilyn certainly did.

With a mentally ill mother who could not care for her, and an unknown father, she had to negotiate growing up mostly on her own. She found a way out of poverty and foster homes through her beauty and her body, sex and seduction being the primary means of exchange in a world dominated by men. She used her looks to give men what they wanted in the hopes that they would then give her what she needed – love, respect, safety. Like many women of her generation, she looked to men for recognition, validation, and security.

The lack of adequate cultural representations of the feminine and the female intensifies the conflictual nature inherent in being female. There is no feminine language that helps women own their sexuality, or deal with their aggression and anger, or process the envy that often creeps up along with desire. Instead, women get caught up in a duality that underscores similarity or difference with each other. The illusion of similarity between women confiscates the many possibilities of female identity, reducing it to one (WOMAN) in order to maintain a connection to each other. Essentially saying: You are either like me or you are other, and if you are other, you are too dangerous in that you articulate emotions I do not want to feel or know. Enter Marilyn. Illusion often leads to idealization, and for women, the image of the ideal woman, or the ideal of femininity is something that can continue to haunt us our entire lives. Think of the way Marilyn Monroe influenced the look and sensibility of an entire generation of women who nonetheless did not consider her one of them.

In search of validation and recognition, women often replicate an either/or situation for themselves that begins the relationship with their mothers and is later re-enforced by culture. Take the woman-child, or the madonna-whore extremes– they leave little room for the specificities of what a woman might want to be. Marilyn exemplified the struggle to live between the two. Despite the fact that she was repeatedly trapped into the dumb, sexy blonde role, she continued to try and negotiate different film and theater characters for herself, developed her skills as a comedian, insisted on being taken seriously both for her acting and her thoughts, and toward the end of her life, was managing her own small film company. When she was not on a movie set, she would take literature and history classes at UCLA. Monroe loved literature, and her library contained over 400 books, including Joyce, Freud, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Kerouac. Because she took her craft seriously, Monroe began taking acting classes in New York from Lee Strasberg, with the hopes of changing her image and gaining some respect in the theater world. She even started psychoanalysis on 3 different occasions, in an attempt to tackle her internal demons and understand their impact. In my reading of her life, I see a woman trying to create a life by her own rules rather than those being imposed upon her, and trying to understand the impact of her emotional history, yet continuing to get caught up in the longing and idealization of her decade and the image of woman she helped to create. It was the stress of articulating herself as both sexy and intelligent, playful and smart, vulnerable and strong, needy and seductive, child and woman, Norma Jean and Marilyn – some of the very qualities and alternatives that first and second wave feminism made possible for all of us — that did her in.

Who am I? What kind of woman? Monroe asked. I think that as women we are continually trying to work this out with other women — our girlfriends, teachers, mentors. Our relationships to other women are important sources of identity formation. The women in our lives influence everything from our opinions to our sexuality, helping us to elaborate our differences and similarities as women. This can happen through activities that highlight our femininity (like shopping) and through our use of female accoutrements (make-up, heels, clothes, jewelry, etc.). We also do this by seeking women mentors who can help us embody the many possibilities of becoming a woman. Remember the film La Femme Nikita? Jean Moreau in the role of female mentor? Nikita as the emblem of female aggression run amuck? As women we need other women so we can play with the image of woman together and continue the formation of our female identity that began with our mothers. We shape and mold our identities in relationship to each other, whether it is in intimacy or in fantasy, and this includes the way we handle aggression and envy.

Marilyn frightened many women, precisely because she personified conflict-ridden parts of them, so she remained that woman: too frail, too funny, too sexual, too much, too not me.

We can think of the envy that Marilyn generated as one of the ways that women negotiate aggression by creating distance. Another is to swallow aggression because of the inability to put words to difficult emotions, and becoming depressed. Marilyn Monroe was too clear a reminder of just how much of female sexuality and identity was reliant on men and on male sexuality. Her image ensnared femininity and made it a persecutory ideal for many women. Trapped in a stereotype of woman, Monroe was objectified, depersonalized, and ridiculed. Few women stood up for her, it was too personally threatening. Monroe embodied basic female fears having to do with envy, jealousy and competition; she was a beautiful, sexy rival who was desired by all men because she played to their fantasies, and in giving herself totally and asking to be loved she reminded women of their own vulnerability in the socio-symbolic contract.

Abandoned by her own kind, Marilyn was more comfortable with men because they treated her like a woman, while women treated her like the enemy. She looked to a he for definition, and found it lacking and imprisoning. But being treated like a woman does not make a woman, it makes a man’s idea of a woman, which can then imprison her. Men are able to validate women as partners, daughters, and objects of desire – and these are important parts of our identity.

Masculine identifications may serve to reinforce many parts of our identity, but validation happens in a totally different way with other women precisely because we are different from men, and concretely because we are built differently.

No matter how important the men in our lives are, and they are, they cannot replace the role of other women in our lives. It is a biological impossibility. Women need other women to work out who they are and what they want to be, and in particular, to work out how they process aggression, envy and eroticism. When these aspects of the self are repudiated, they continue to manifest in women’s lives through bodily experiences — from not being satisfied with their appearance to not being able to enjoy sexuality, and everything in between. In search of validation, women might turn to the male gaze as objects of desire, like Marilyn did. Or they might hold other women up as a mirror that reflects the “ideal” so they become the object of envy, jealousy and competitiveness-precisely what happened to Monroe. What circulated between Marilyn and other women was an unresolved image of woman. An image that many women struggle with. Marilyn’s public image reflected a masculine desire for an innocent yet sexy woman who did not bring any complexity along with her sexuality. “In fact,” Monroe is quoted as saying toward the end of her career, “my popularity seems almost entirely a masculine phenomenon.” Despite the fact that she played to it, Monroe disliked Hollywood’s promotion of her as a sex symbol, and she was explicit about the sexual exploitation that accompanied her career, as well as the history of sexual abuse that was part of her childhood. She spoke up and made it possible for many women to begin to speak about similar abuses.

Like many women of her generation, Marilyn sought to live out her idea of the woman she wanted to be through the men she chose as husbands. First there was the merchant marine James Dougherty, who saved her from yet another foster home when she was only 16. Then came Joe DiMaggio, the homespun jock who softened her image with the promise of the American dream, and finally there was Arthur Miller the intellectual who provided proof that she was in fact, more than a sex symbol. With Miller, Marilyn attempted to have a child, but becoming a mother was not to be for her. Monroe continued to struggle with her image and the woman she was and wanted to be throughout her short life. Along the way she was betrayed many times, by the men in her life, by the media and the press, by her psychoanalysts, and, sadly to say, by women who did not want to see themselves in her and disowned her. I like to think that she would have fared better in the post-feminism era.

Marilyn’s story is still relevant today because women continue to struggle with the same issues despite that there are more possibilities to who and what we can be, when and if one can use the space and possibility to become a woman. Monroe’s trajectory as a woman mirrors the construction of WOMAN, and its many embodied and socio-cultural meanings. As women we are always negotiating between daughter and self, child and woman, as we articulate our subjectivity. Feminine sexuality and subjectivity require other women in order to be elaborated and understood. Despite the glamour and furor that surrounded her, Marilyn Monroe was a woman in search of herself, a woman in process – a woman like you and I.

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