* "Please don’t make me a joke." –Marilyn Monroe
Most surprising about Norma Jeane 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 Cemetery 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 ingénue 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.
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 spread in Life magazine: "please don't make me a joke." In interviews, 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 don't want to become a thing… Yet if one must be reduced to one thing, it might as well be sex!" Sex symbols offer complex sites of, and 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 and pencil marks.
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, Monroe 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.
As 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.
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 the embeddedness of sex 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) was concurrent with an 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. While she delighted audiences with her performances of female sexuality as creative force, Monroe simultaneously negotiated sexual agency and self-knowledge in the wake of sexual violation.
The most reproduced woman in modern history, Monroe continues to travel far and wide 50 years after her tragic death on August 5, 1962. A complex web of cultural fears, anxieties and longings are projected onto the phantasmatic surface known as “Marilyn Monroe”. As I reflect on the legend of “Marilyn Monroe”, 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.
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 to imagine a space for "Norma Jeane" in the collective memory. Her current 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.
Karina Eileraas is a gender studies professor at UCLA.