WITH NINETEEN YEARS separating us, I was only a toddler, just learning to say my name, when Norma Jeane was getting used to signing autographs with the new name Twentieth Century Fox Studios had made up for her: MARILYN MONROE. Before I suffered the embarrassment of needing my first training bra, Marilyn was making it obvious that the more a girl had “up top” and was willing to show it off, the more she would be remembered and sought after.
I grew up in an era when morale-boosting “pinup girl” pictures, like the nude that had rocketed Norma Jeane out of obscurity, had found a showplace in the girly magazines that were as ordinary as ashtrays on living room coffee tables. Back then, no one thought of smoking as dangerous to your health, and no one thought of magazines with names like Titter, Peek, See, and Cheesecake as pornography. I remember seeing such magazines displayed right alongside Life and the Saturday Evening Post on magazine stands. Society just dismissed them with the age-old permissive adage that “boys will be boys.”
During the late forties and all through the fifties, Marilyn, clothed in the most revealing bathing suits of the time and striking the most provocative poses she could get away with, graced the covers of many of these magazines. And then, in 1953, when the first issue of Playboy made its daring debut, its first completely nude centerfold was of Marilyn, in all her glory, stretched across a field of red velvet.
Her blatant sexuality caused me to burn with a shame that I was too young to understand. Images of her in one degree of undress or another flooded the media for the first seventeen years of my life, and I remember feeling disgusted by her. It seemed to me that she was everything I never wanted to be. She was not “ladylike” the way 1950s Home Economics classes and my Catholic upbringing insisted a woman should be. She flaunted her sexuality outrageously, and seemed delighted that she was lusted after. I hated the “dumb blond sexpot” stereotype that she seemed to enjoy. After all, I was a blonde, and I was dumb, at least according to my school IQ tests. But I certainly didn’t have her beauty or sex appeal which kept people’s attention, if not their respect. She was everything I had come to understand a woman should never be. I made it a goal to be as disdainful of her as I could, and to deliberately avert my eyes from her.
I was fifteen when I went to see Marilyn in the movie Let’s Make Love—one of her most blatantly sexual films. I went because I wanted to fit in with some of my friends from school. What I really wanted to do more than anything was have an excuse to sit next to one particular boy. Too naïve to realize that no male in that theater was going to be thinking of me while Marilyn was on the screen, I had such a crush on him that I was willing to endure Marilyn’s celluloid persona if it meant that I could be close to him for a whole hour and a half. Her goal was to be desired by every male who ever laid eyes on her. Who could think of anything else during the movie when she slid down a pole wearing nothing but a tight blue sweater and no pants? My face burned so hot I thought it must be glowing in the dark—but even if it had been, no one would have noticed.
Staring down at my clenched fists in my lap, I tried to force Marilyn’s sensuality out of my mind and my body; but it didn’t work, thanks to the stupid song she sang in a voice dripping with sexual innuendo, “My heart belongs to Da-Da-Da-Daddy.” The thought of any of the several “daddies” I have had in my life doing anything sexual to me nearly made my stomach turn.
In another scene, her skintight dress left nothing to the imagination—except maybe how her breasts could possibly be as pointy as they appeared. And then her voice, so sugary and sappy, and her body language, every inch of which made you think she wanted to devour every man she saw. I could sense the young man sitting next to me getting excited, as if pheromones were spilling out every time he exhaled. I was beyond mortified! I detested how she used her sexuality to make being a woman the equivalent of being a slut, someone who men both lusted after and despised. As my friends and I walked out of the theater after the movie and I listened to them—especially the boys—talk about her in such cheap, vulgar language, I felt like the sidewalk was tilted under my feet. Folding my arms tightly across my chest, I walked a step behind the others, trying to repress my disgust.
And then suddenly, on August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was dead, accidentally overdosing on alcohol and drugs. When I heard this, I thought, Well, there you go, Norma Jeane. That’s exactly what a girl gets when she wants too much. That was my seventeen-year-old interpretation of what was screwed up about Marilyn—she had wanted too much, given away too much, and settled for too little. Even though I had come from such similar circumstances, I would never allow myself to act or be like Marilyn. I turned my rigid idealism into the caption for my senior picture: “Never want too much out of life, but never accept too little.”