Opinion: I'd like to introduce you to the real Marilyn Monroe

'No matter what came her way, [Marilyn Monroe] was canny, ambitious and self-starting: far from the 'little girl lost' cliché so often attached to her,' writes Christina Newland

1/16/2022 1:00:00 PM

'No matter what came her way, [Marilyn Monroe] was canny, ambitious and self-starting: far from the 'little girl lost' cliché so often attached to her,' writes Christina Newland

It's vanishingly difficult for Marilyn Monroe to be seen as an actual human being. Not after this many decades of being a symbol, a sex goddess, a blonde bombshell or a candle in the wind. As author Sarah Churchwell, whose book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, has said, 'What we think about Marilyn is what we think about women.' In the 1950s, that proved to be a damning indictment.

(CNN)It's vanishingly difficult for Marilyn Monroe to be seen as an actual human being. Not after this many decades of being a symbol, a sex goddess, a blonde bombshell or a candle in the wind. As author Sarah Churchwell, whose book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, has said,"What we think about Marilyn is what we think about women." In the 1950s, that proved to be a damning indictment.

Christina Newland Given her tragic barbiturate overdose in 1962, it's easy to dismiss Monroe as a victim without the coping mechanisms for success. But these are only partial truths at best, aided by decades of rumor, mythmaking and assumption about the woman herself. Monroe was consistently typecast as vain and stupid for using her looks to her best advantage. She suffered sexual assault and wrote about it, though it fell more or less on deaf ears. She lived a life that was singular and extraordinary, but women continue to identify with her. While I was being interviewed for the making of this documentary, I at one point found myself unexpectedly wiping tears from my eyes as I spoke about Monroe. The feeling of kinship we feel with Monroe is, in part, what I suspect has led so many people to find her a source of continuing fascination.Read More Monroe's body, face and hair are cultural objects and commercial vehicles. She knew it back then, too. Today, they are also vessels of ideology about feminism, sex, Hollywood and #MeToo. With all of that baggage, her actual life can sometimes feel blotted out, overpowered by the force of her own star power. Even her films -- and many of them are truly great, including "Some Like it Hot," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "The Misfits" -- are sometimes sidelined in favor of the screen goddess image. 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christinalefou I'm just in the middle of watching this now....and then up pops you! Congratulations on being a part of this MarilynMonroe project on CNNOriginals 🎬👏🏻🍸 MarilynMonroe born with Pluto on the most sparkling fixed star Sirius .With Sun on royal fixed star Aldebaran . Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were like Romeo & Juliet. Wonder if CNN will get their story right tonight? --

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Bullsh*t, Monroe was a sex toy. FOREVER STAR

Christina Newland is a film critic and an award-winning journalist. She is featured in CNN's new Original Series Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, which reexamines the life and legacy of the Hollywood bombshell. The four-part series premieres Sunday, January 16, at 9 p.m. ET. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN. (CNN)It's vanishingly difficult for Marilyn Monroe to be seen as an actual human being. Not after this many decades of being a symbol, a sex goddess, a blonde bombshell or a candle in the wind. As author Sarah Churchwell, whose book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, has said,"What we think about Marilyn is what we think about women." In the 1950s, that proved to be a damning indictment. Christina Newland Given her tragic barbiturate overdose in 1962, it's easy to dismiss Monroe as a victim without the coping mechanisms for success. But these are only partial truths at best, aided by decades of rumor, mythmaking and assumption about the woman herself. Monroe was consistently typecast as vain and stupid for using her looks to her best advantage. She suffered sexual assault and wrote about it, though it fell more or less on deaf ears. She lived a life that was singular and extraordinary, but women continue to identify with her. While I was being interviewed for the making of this documentary, I at one point found myself unexpectedly wiping tears from my eyes as I spoke about Monroe. The feeling of kinship we feel with Monroe is, in part, what I suspect has led so many people to find her a source of continuing fascination.Read More Monroe's body, face and hair are cultural objects and commercial vehicles. She knew it back then, too. Today, they are also vessels of ideology about feminism, sex, Hollywood and #MeToo. With all of that baggage, her actual life can sometimes feel blotted out, overpowered by the force of her own star power. Even her films -- and many of them are truly great, including "Some Like it Hot," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "The Misfits" -- are sometimes sidelined in favor of the screen goddess image. 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!Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !=='undefined' && videoPinner !==null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(false);}}},onCVPVisibilityChange: function (containerId, cvpId, visible) {CNN.VideoPlayer.handleAdOnCVPVisibilityChange(containerId, visible);}};if (typeof configObj.context !=='string' || configObj.context.length 0) {configObj.adsection=window.ssid;}CNN.autoPlayVideoExist=(CNN.autoPlayVideoExist===true) ? true : false;CNN.VideoPlayer.getLibrary(configObj, callbackObj, isLivePlayer);});CNN.INJECTOR.scriptComplete('videodemanddust');ReplayMore Videos ...MUST WATCH 'In walks the most gorgeous young girl': The moment Marilyn was discovered 01:00 Born Norma Jean Mortenson to a single mother who was institutionalized for mental health problems, the girl who came to be known as Marilyn Monroe was raised in a series of foster homes. By the time she hustled her way to the movie backlot -- and made it into her first truly noticeable parts in a one-two punch of films in 1950 ("Asphalt Jungle" and "All About Eve") -- she had done a lot of fine-tuning. This was not a simple and stratospheric rise, but a series of stop/start events. And the image of Monroe as a peroxide-haired bombshell did not spring forth fully formed. She was a very willing participant in the process of her star-making, from her name change to her dye job, her"Jell-O on strings" walk to the perhaps apocryphal story that she put marbles in the tips of her bra for added sex appeal. Monroe understood how to maximize her star potential. She worked with a personal makeup artist, Allan"Whitey" Snyder and agreed to a staggering range of promotional gimmicks at the behest of her studio. 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!Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !=='undefined' && videoPinner !==null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(false);}}},onCVPVisibilityChange: function (containerId, cvpId, visible) {CNN.VideoPlayer.handleAdOnCVPVisibilityChange(containerId, visible);}};if (typeof configObj.context !=='string' || configObj.context.length 0) {configObj.adsection=window.ssid;}CNN.autoPlayVideoExist=(CNN.autoPlayVideoExist===true) ? true : false;CNN.VideoPlayer.getLibrary(configObj, callbackObj, isLivePlayer);});CNN.INJECTOR.scriptComplete('videodemanddust');ReplayMore Videos ...MUST WATCH Hear Marilyn's response when confronted about a nude photoshoot 01:02 No matter what came her way, she was canny, ambitious and self-starting: far from the"little girl lost" cliché so often attached to her. In 1952 for instance, the discovery of Monroe's nude Playboy photoshoot threatened to hobble her climb to the top. The team of publicity men at 20th Century Fox insisted the photos would ruin her career, but Monroe -- wisely -- got out in front of the rumors. She openly admitted it was her and explained the reason was simply she was about to be evicted at the time and needed the money. It was a calculated risk, and it paid off: instead of ruining her career, the scandal poured rocket fuel on it. Mid-century America was generally a socially conservative place, but the va-va-voom powers of the pinup and the bombshell during the war years likely paved the way for a more risqué image of American womanhood. But Monroe's appeal was often referred to in the press with phrases that revealed the writers were usually men: things about her"three-dimensional" assets and her"chassis." Male journalists fawned over and belittled her in equal turn, seemingly incapable of understanding her intelligence and her looks might not be mutually exclusive. It would be decades before women journalists and writers began to truly examine Marilyn and the phenomenon around her, from Joyce Carol Oates to Gloria Steinem. But at the time, Marilyn must have felt very alone. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, once said all her talent was"above her navel and below her belly button." 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!Modernizr.phone && !Modernizr.mobile && !Modernizr.tablet) {if (typeof videoPinner !=='undefined' && videoPinner !==null) {videoPinner.setIsPlaying(false);}}},onCVPVisibilityChange: function (containerId, cvpId, visible) {CNN.VideoPlayer.handleAdOnCVPVisibilityChange(containerId, visible);}};if (typeof configObj.context !=='string' || configObj.context.length 0) {configObj.adsection=window.ssid;}CNN.autoPlayVideoExist=(CNN.autoPlayVideoExist===true) ? true : false;CNN.VideoPlayer.getLibrary(configObj, callbackObj, isLivePlayer);});CNN.INJECTOR.scriptComplete('videodemanddust');ReplayMore Videos ...MUST WATCH Photographer: 'Follow Marilyn, and you'll get the shot' 00:44 When she broke her contract with Zanuck and absconded to New York at the height of her popularity, she had grown fed up with the"dumb blonde" roles he'd been saddling her with. Actors had rebelled against top-down studio system control before -- Bette Davis had rebelled against the system and Olivia de Havilland won a suit against Warner Brothers in 1943, extending her contract with them continually. But taking a stand against a powerful studio was still a huge gamble, and often a tough one to win. The moguls tended to take it personally. When, in 1954, Marilyn announced the founding of Marilyn Monroe Productions, Zanuck panicked and suspended her contract, but she refused to come crawling back. Instead, she called his bluff, knowing just how popular she was with audiences, and refused to return until major changes were made to her contract with 20th Century Fox.How Marilyn took the male-led film industry and flipped it on its head Remarkably, by 1955, she won her battle with 20th Century Fox. Fox upped her salary and offered her script, director and even cinematographer approval on each of her films with them. This was essentially unheard of for the time, proving yet again that Marilyn authored her image and her career far more than the domineering men in her life. Maybe the turning point in our understanding of Monroe was best explained by Gloria Steinem, second-wave feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine. In a 1986 essay called "The Woman Who Will Not Die." Steinem writes,"Most of all, women readers mourned that Monroe had lived in an era when there were so few ways for her to know that these experiences were shared with other women, that she was not alone." For many women, Monroe represents a wound that never quite heals, and her quests to carve out her own identity and to be"taken seriously" are still a nagging thought in so many of our heads. Yet the buoyant defiance of her roles in films, like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," when her character says,"I can be smart when it's important. But most men don't like it," provide us endless solace. Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in pictures Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesAmerican film star Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait in 1954.Hide Caption 1 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesNorma Jeane Mortenson, who later changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, was born in 1926 in Los Angeles. Hide Caption 2 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesChildhood was very difficult for Monroe. Her mother, Gladys Baker, lived in a mental health facility after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She didn't know her father.Hide Caption 3 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesAs a teen, she lived at an orphanage and then with a series of foster families. The place where young Marilyn felt happy and safe was at the movies."I watched all kinds of movies like 'Cleopatra' with Claudette Colbert, and I'd see it over and over and over and over again," she said.Hide Caption 4 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesWhen Monroe was 16 years old, she married her neighbor, Jim Dougherty, who she barely knew. The marriage lasted four year. The marriage was the idea of her foster mother, Grace McKee."Grace arranged it. She and her husband were going to West Virginia, and they were going to put me in a home, or I could marry this boy who was 21," she said.Hide Caption 5 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesAt 19 years old, Monroe tried her luck with the Blue Book Model Agency."Norma Jeane looked like the girl next door, and I thought I could make her into something quite marketable in a short length of time," said Emmeline Snively, the owner of the Blue Book Model Agency."She was very beautiful in a clean-cut American wholesome way."Hide Caption 6 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesIn 1947, Monroe signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. She went to the studio every day doing photo shoots or taking acting classes. "I said, 'Why do you work so hard? The other kids that are under contract. I call sometimes at 11:00, 12:00, they're still sleeping from being out the night before.'"recalled Ben Lyons, casting director at 20th Century Fox."She said, 'Well, Mr. Lyon.' She said, 'I work hard because one day, maybe opportunity will knock, and I want to be prepared.'"Hide Caption 7 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesThe head of Columbia Pictures insisted Monroe make big changes to her look before he'd cast her in a movie. This is when she transformed into a platinum blonde. "It was the ultimate Hollywood look, the ultimate star image. It's almost unearthly. It's almost like an angel with, like, glowing hair," said actress Mira Sorvino.Hide Caption 8 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesWithin a month of signing with Columbia Pictures, 21-year-old Monroe landed her first starring role as a burlesque dancer in a low-budget musical. In the"Ladies of the Chorus," she played a chorus girl named Peggy Martin, who was courted by a lovestruck fan.Hide Caption 9 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe starred in several musicals. Picture here, she's taking singing lessons with jazz musician Phil Moore at the Mocambo, the famous West Hollywood nightclub, in 1948.Hide Caption 10 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe is seen sitting on a train to Warrenburg, New York, to present the keys to a new house to a winner of a Photoplay Magazine contest in 1949. Photoplay Magazine was an American film fan magazine. Monroe was on the cover in 1953.Hide Caption 11 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesShe was in several movies in 1950, including"The Asphalt Jungle" and"All About Eve." Seen here, Monroe is reading sheet music while sitting on a bedroom floor with a tape player on her side.Hide Caption 12 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesWhen she was out of contract, media-savvy Monroe used photo shoots to get her noticed. In this photo session, she's at the home of her first major movie agent, Johnny Hyde. He was one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood in the 1950s. "She loves to be in front of the camera," said photographer Nancy Lee Andrews."She's staging it, and the photographer, he's clicking it... Follow Marilyn, and you'll get the shot."Hide Caption 13 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe fixes her hair in front of a mirror in 1951. That year she had several supporting roles in comedies, including"As Young as You Feel,""Love Nest" and"Let's Make It Legal." "If you happen to have blonde hair, you're considered dumb. I don't know why that is. It's very -- I think it's a very limited view," Monroe said at the time.Hide Caption 14 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe wins a trophy at the"Star Of Tomorrow" Awards in Los Angeles in 1952.Hide Caption 15 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesBy the 1950s, Monroe was a household name. In 1953, she made history by becoming the first cover and centerfold of"Playboy" magazine. In this photo, Monroe is playing the drums with the Ray Anthony Band.Hide Caption 16 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesIn her biggest budget movie to date, Monroe starred in"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in 1953. In the musical comedy film, she sings the famous song"Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Hide Caption 17 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesIn"How To Marry A Millionaire," Monroe starred alongside David Wayne. The movie was Marilyn's third hit of 1953, earning Fox a total of $15 million, the equivalent of $150 million today."There are not many Hollywood actresses of that era that combined clear physical attractiveness and physical comedy of a slapstick style like she does in 'How to Marry a Millionaire,' where she's a bit blind and keeps running into walls," said film critic Christina Newland.Hide Caption 18 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesShe developed her sexy on-screen persona and become an even larger-than-life celebrity."She realized, 'People wanna come snap pictures of me. People wanna know about me.' She was sort of an original Kardashian in that way," said actress Amber Tamblyn.Hide Caption 19 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe and"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" co-star Jane Russell place their hands in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The musical comedy topped the box office in 1953.Hide Caption 20 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe and former Yankees baseball player Joe DiMaggio leave city hall after their wedding. After two years of dating, their marriage captivated the nation in 1954."He has a very sensitive nature in many respects. When he was young, he had a very difficult time. So he understood some things about me, and I understood some things about him," Monroe said. Hide Caption 21 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesThousands of US Marines stationed in Korea gathered to listen to Monroe sing."The highlight of my life was singing for the soldiers there," she said."I stood out on an open stage, and it was cold, but I swear I didn't feel a thing except good."Hide Caption 22 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesThis is the most iconic image of Monroe's career. While filming for"The Seven Year Itch" in New York, she posed over a subway grate as the breeze sent her dress flying. The crowd shouted"higher" each time a blast of wind lifted her dress. It took 14 takes and the scene was later re-shot at a studio lot in California. "We thought it would be over in a minute and a half. It was two hours of craziness," said Amy Greene, Monroe's friend, who was at the New York shoot. Hide Caption 23 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesWeeks after"The Seven Year Itch" shoot, Monroe and her attorney announced her divorce from DiMaggio."Our marriage wasn't a happy one. It ended in nine months, unfortunately. And I don't know what else to say," Monroe said. The flashy scene in New York was one of many straws that allegedly ended their tumultuous marriage."After about the tenth of the skirt going up, he began to tremble," said Monroe's friend Amy Greene."And I put my hand on his arm and said, 'Joe, it's just a movie. It's not real.' And he said, 'I realize that, but it's my wife showing off her panties.'"Hide Caption 24 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe is seen with singer Ella Fitzgerald at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood, California, in 1954."My very favorite person, and I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she's the greatest, and that's Ella Fitzgerald," said Monroe.Hide Caption 25 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe left Hollywood for New York in an effort to be seen as a serious artist. She wanted to stop being typecast as a dumb blonde, and she believed New York was where real art was being made. She embraced the city."It's the people. I like the streets. The atmosphere, I just like it," Monroe said. Seen here, Monroe leans over the balcony of the Ambassador Hotel in New York in 1955.Hide Caption 26 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesIn a photoshoot with Redbook magazine, Monroe posed by the subway in Grand Central Station in New York. She positioned herself as an everyday kind of girl."In fact, Marilyn never really did ride the subway, but the important thing is she saw herself as a woman who rode the subway," said biographer Elizabeth Winder.Hide Caption 27 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesHolding two telephones, Monroe poses at the 20th Century Fox film set. In 1956, she starred in the drama"Bus Stop." She played a saloon singer with an Ozark accent."She did the hardest thing to do. She chose to play it like somebody who is not very good at what they do but trying really hard to be good," said actress Ellen Burstyn. Hide Caption 28 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe marries playwright Arthur Miller in 1956."He treated me as a human being. And he was a very sensitive human being and treated me as a sensitive person also," she said. Correction: A previous version of this caption incorrectly stated the year Monroe married Miller.Hide Caption 29 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe blows out the candle on 30th birthday cake. Hide Caption 30 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe rides her bike with her third husband Miller. He's best known for writing the play Death of a Salesman.Hide Caption 31 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesQueen Elizabeth II meets Monroe at the Royal Command Film Performance in London in 1956. Monroe went to England to film"The Prince and the Showgirl" with actor Laurence Olivier.Hide Caption 32 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesPlaying Sugar Kane, Monroe sings and plays the ukulele in the movie"Some Like It Hot." The film is one of her greatest performances."When I knew I had the final shots, there was a moment of 'never again,'" said film director Billy Wilder."Well, all I can tell you is if Marilyn was around today, I would be on my knees, 'Please, let's do it again.'"Hide Caption 33 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesMonroe leaves Polyclinic Hospital in New York after a gall bladder surgery in 1961. As she was rolled out in a wheel chair, she was surrounded by crowds.Hide Caption 34 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesDuring the filming of"Something's Got to Give," Monroe swims in the nude. The 1962 movie was never completed due to Monroe's sudden death during production. In released clips, Monroe is seen playing a mother."It naturally brings a certain softness. You can't help but to wonder what could have been. And I'm sure I'm not the only person to have thought that while watching those scenes," said film critic Christina Newland.Hide Caption 35 of 36 Photos: Marilyn Monroe's life in picturesPresident John F. Kennedy (with his back to the camera), US Attorney General Robert Kennedy (far left), and Monroe on the President's 45th birthday. Monroe flew to New York to sing him a very erotic version of"Happy Birthday." She wore a beige rhinestone-encrusted dress. It's said the dress was so tight that she had to be sewn into it before getting on stage. "I was honored when they asked me to appear at Madison Square Garden. You know, I was a little worried about my voice, but it came out," Monroe said. The dress sold for $4.8 million in an auction 2016, breaking its own record as the most expensive personal item of clothing.Hide Caption 36 of 36 In the final analysis, it doesn't matter much to me whether we slap the label of"feminist" or"proto-feminist" on someone of her era. She did unquestionably pioneering things, and she was equally victimized and forced to tolerate shameless misogyny. What matters is her story and her work stand in proud monument to a deeper cultural understanding and embrace of women's agency and desire. Marilyn Monroe held great power, and in admiring her, so do we.For updates on CNN's Original Series and Films, sign up for our Keep Watching newsletter. Every Monday, you'll receive insider information, including exclusive notes from the hosts and filmmakers of your favorite films and series.