By SEAN DOOLITTLE
“To all the girls that think you’re fat because you’re not a size zero, you’re the beautiful one, it’s society that’s ugly.” — Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe is, inarguably, one of the most beautiful women of all time. More importantly, Marilyn Monroe is a role model for independent, strong women — a champion of positive body image, objector to slut shaming and symbol of today’s modern feminism movement. Sure, the above quote is a little trite, but Monroe’s message rings true, doesn’t it?
Well, it would, if Marilyn Monroe had ever said that.
The term “size zero” wasn’t even introduced until 1966, when British fashion model and very, very small person Twiggy burst onto the scene with her delicate frame and scary-big eyes, creating a need for extra-petite vanity sizes. Of course, Monroe had been dead for four years by this point and, save any possible Ouija board séances, could not have made these remarks. So what gives?
A short Google search for “Marilyn Monroe quotes” will provide you with so many pithy observations and witty aphorisms, including this particular quote, that you may mistake her for Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably seen some of them on Pinterest, Facebook or Tumblr: “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world,” “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” Not a single one was ever uttered by the beloved Monroe, but each has been consistently labeled and passed around as a Monroe-ism. She has garnered a place in the pantheon of celebrities that seem to attract a shocking number of misattributed quotes, joining the likes of Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Mark Twain.
Frankly, it’s absurd to think that Monroe said even one of the many quotes associated with her. Did she have a Hallmark greeting card writer script her each and every exchange? Do you honestly believe she would spontaneously drop bombs like “We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle” during a press junket? That sounds like something only Matthew McConaughey would say during an awards show after getting completely toasted.
I grant you that I may sound a little nitpicky. Does it even matter who really says a quote? The message is still worth hearing, isn’t it? Even if Marilyn Monroe never said those things, they are still Monroe-isms — things she could have said or that you could plausibly expect her to say. Monroe the woman has become so entwined with her popular image that the two have become indivisible. She has been reduced to a stock character persona that we can generalize self-fulfilling life quotes from. It is no longer about whether or not she truly said or did something anymore; all that matters is that the quotes and anecdotes associated with her are “in character” with her name.
How many Marilyn Monroe movies have you seen? Easier question: How many Marilyn Monroe movies can you name? Personally, my answers are two and four, respectively, and I’m guessing that’s above average in both cases. And yet, nearly everyone has a passing familiarity with the life and career of Marilyn Monroe. Or at least they think they do.
The thing is, we don’t know Marilyn Monroe. We hardly know Marilyn Monroe the actress, star of several hit movies in the ’50s. (If you haven’t seen Some Like It Hot, you’re missing out on one of the greatest farces of all time). We know Marilyn Monroe the icon, her dress billowing as she steps over a subway grate. We know the flirtatious Marilyn Monroe, whispering “happy birthday, Mr. President” in a husky, seductive voice. We know the hair, the beauty mark and the smile. We know the ”quotes.” We know Marilyn Monroe as a concept. As Patrick Bateman might say, there is an idea of Marilyn Monroe, some kind of abstraction. But the real Monroe simply is not there.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing more about Marilyn Monroe. I mean, she lived and died long before our time. Maybe you never saw one of her movies because you just never got a chance, or maybe you just don’t like black and white movies (*gasps*). There are hundreds of actors that you probably know of but never really know about. You may recognize Clark Gable or Vincent Price or Elizabeth Taylor, but only a small minority can claim real expertise in their film catalogues. In the case of Monroe, however, the problem doesn’t lie with the public’s general lack of familiarity. It lies with the rampant appropriation of Marilyn’s image — the cult of Marilyn — to justify one’s behaviors and actions.
Have you ever seen a Marilyn Monroe poster in a girl’s dorm room? Maybe you have one in your own room, right between Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and some M. C. Escher bullshit. That’s pretty much the female equivalent of the douche with a Scarface poster, Sports Illustrated pin-ups and some more M. C. Escher bullshit. I’m (mostly) kidding, but my point is that many people use Marilyn Monroe’s image as shorthand to express themselves. What is it that they think they are expressing, anyhow?
Like I said before, Monroe has come to symbolize a specific brand of female empowerment across the nation. Of course, she deserves the kind of respect that any individual is entitled to, that’s human decency. But to place an often-troubled actress on a pseudo-feminist pedestal because she died at the peak of her tabloid wave? The dude does not abide.
Around 2010, blogger Sady Doyle coined the term “Liz Lemonism” to refer to a brand of privileged feminism championed by “a certain variety of coastal city-dwelling, well-to-do, heterosexual, cisgendered women,” like Tina Fey’s 30 Rock character and, if I may say so, many students in Ithaca. Doyle states that Liz Lemonists cherry-pick feminism in a way that suits their own needs while ignoring the greater aims of feminism. For instance, a Liz Lemonist “doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism or trans-ally work to any huge extent, but she does do ‘body image’ (and oh, does she ever do ‘body image,’ without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cisperson she conforms to the beauty standard, and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on).”
Marilyn Monroe is not a feminist icon; Marilyn Monroe is a Liz Lemonist icon. She had a ton of things going for her: She was American, beautiful, famous, rich, able and white. She also happened to be a lady. I hate to say check your privilege, but come on now. The brand of feminism Monroe inspired applies only to the white women who have the least need for feminism to begin with. If you want a real feminist icon, I’d take a look at Malala Yousafzai, not Marilyn Monroe.
Let’s take a step back to the quote that opened this article, the body-image one-liner that ensures that beauty is within. Marilyn Monroe was, apparently, a size 16. Today, a size 16 is higher than average for an American woman —“plus-size,” if you will. Monroe was not a size 16. That’s a load of baloney. Monroe’s measurements were 35-22-35. A 22-inch waist! That was below average in the ’50s, and you better believe that’s over 12 inches below what is average today. Combined with her 36D bra size and her weight of 118 pounds, Monroe is decidedly not representative of the average body type. In fact, she’s probably closer to a size four by today’s standards. And yet, Liz Lemonists continue to tout Marilyn’s figure when discussing the issue of body image.
In an article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jessa Crispin indicts this brand of feminism as she skewers an anthology entitled, Fifty Shades of Feminism. This kind of feminism, she says, “becomes less a political philosophy and more of a justification for narcissism. “Every decision that each person makes can be explained away with “because of feminism.” Feminism becomes a sort of “filter to assist with the decision-making process,” that allows women to justify any of their choices, even if their decisions are objectively rude. Crispin states that, to these women, “’feminism’ becomes a word to slap onto a choice after the fact, as a way to protect a decision from any criticism.” Feminism isn’t something that should be used to justify what a girl wants to wear in the morning. Women haven’t fought for hundreds of years to wear jeans instead of a skirt. One choice isn’t more “feminist” than the other. Feminism is the right to choose, not the choice itself.
The quotes attributed to Marilyn Monroe exemplify this type of privileged feminism. Instead of concentrating on the root goals of the movement, like equality in education, political power, financial independence, reproductive rights and basic human agency, Marilyn Monroe feminists are concerned with the “window dressing” of feminism, the secondary, superficial goals. You have the right to feel that body image is an important issue, but not the right to feel that it is the only issue. We have a long, long way to go until we can truly say that feminism has succeeded, and we lose progress vying over the comparatively trivial “consolation prizes.” Feminism is concerned with a fundamental reordering of the power structure. Your right to be a size 16 is important, but it is the smallest concession the patriarchy can make to you. Feminism isn’t about feeling good about yourself, and to use it in this way is ineffectual and detracts from the solidarity that is necessary for it to succeed; it’s about changing society to provide equality for all women, no matter their age, race, orientation, socioeconomic status or religion.