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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
 “YOU DON'T SOUND STUPID TO ME”:
 THE PROTO-FEMINISM OF MARILYN MONROE

Near the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelie Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe, turns to her fiance’s father, Mr. Esmond, and explains why he should allow her to marry his son. Her logic is impressive:

Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You may not marry a girl just because she is pretty, but, my goodness, doesn’t it help? And if you had a daughter, wouldn’t you rather she didn’t marry a poor man? You’d want her to have the most wonderful things in the world and to be very happy. Oh, why is it wrong for me to have those things?

Mr. Esmond is stunned by her persuasive argument, and he stutters, “Well, I concede…,” but here he interrupts himself in dazed wonder, “Say…they told me you were stupid. You don’t sound stupid to me.” With a tender smile, Lorelie replies, “I can be smart when I want to.” Just like Lorelie Lee, Marilyn Monroe could be smart when she wanted to. A careful look at her life reveals that the dumb blonde stereotype is unfair; Marilyn actually enacted the proto-feminism of what several scholars have called the mid-century “transitional woman.”

In the 1940s, when thousands of women flooded into the working world, Norma Jean Dougherty took her place among them. Her husband, Jim Dougherty, had been sent to the Pacific and Southeast war zones as a Merchant Marine, and in 1944 Norma Jean went to work at the Radioplane Company in Burbank spraying varnish on fuselage fabric and inspecting parachutes. For this work, she received “excellents” on the company evaluations and was paid the national minimum wage: twenty dollars a week for sixty hours of work. One day, a crew of photographers from the Army’s First Picture Unit arrived at the plant to take pictures of women contributing to the war effort.

Norma Jean’s fresh good looks made their way all over the Army’s literature, and it was not long after that she quit her job at Radioplane, realizing she had a future as a model. Photographer after photographer attests to her professionalism. More than any other model they worked with, Norma Jean was relentlessly self-critical; she scrutinized contact sheets and negatives for the tiniest fault; she asked her photographers for advice. According to biographer Donald Spoto, she wanted “every image of herself to be brilliant.”

Her mother-in-law. Ethel Dougherty, did not approve of this new career, so Norma Jean moved out of the house they were sharing. She joined the Village School, a modeling agency in Westwood, and by the spring of 1946 her hard work had landed her on the cover of thirty-three magazines, including U.S. Camera, Parade, and Glamorous Models.

Norma Jean, realizing she had that special luminescent quality, decided she wanted to join the stable of starlets at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios on Pico Boulevard. An unmarried woman was more favorably regarded in this system, pregnancy during filming could be very troublesome, so she quietly slipped over to Las Vegas to get a divorce from Jim. According to Gloria Steinem in Marilyn, Norma Jean was determined and ambitious, and she was not going to let her arranged marriage to Jim, who didn’t support her career choice anyway, keep her from being successful in her chosen profession. She eventually signed with Twentieth Century-Fox and was dubbed Marilyn Monroe.

During her early years in the Hollywood system, Marilyn worked hard to become a star. When the studio was failing and did not renew her contract, she did not give up. She took acting classes at the Actors Lab and did occasional modeling work. When she was finally picked up by another studio, Columbia, she added daily lessons with a drama coach, Natasha Lytess, to her work load. Marilyn was never content to rely solely on her looks. From her days at the Actors Lab until the day she died, Marilyn was working with a drama coach.

At this point in her life, Marilyn met the executive vice-president of the William Morris Agency, one of Hollywood’s most powerful representatives, Johnny Hyde. They soon began an affair, and Hyde repeatedly begged Marilyn to marry him, but she refused. She had a single goal now: she wanted to be a star. She knew that her marriage to a very wealthy man more than twice her age would make her look like a bimbo and a joke which might prevent her from achieving her goal.

Thus, in 1949, on the eve of the 1950s, the decade in which women were leaving the workplace and returning to the domestic sphere, Marilyn Monroe steadfastly refused to do so. On the contrary, as 1950 approached, she could be seen jogging through the service alleys in Beverly Hills each morning and lifting weights to preserve her figure—two activities, as Spoto phrased it, “not commonly undertaken by woman in 1950.” She also enrolled in an evening course in world literature at UCLA which she attended in jeans—neither her college attendance nor her apparel were commonplace at that particular historical moment.

After Marilyn re-signed with Twentieth Century-Fox, she began taking acting lessons with Michael Chekhov, nephew of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and received her first leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock. After this film, her work in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire catapulted her to stardom, and in 1953 a photographer friend, Milton Green, suggested that she start her own production company after he heard her complain about the studio system — she was forced to play roles she didn’t choose and was paid an absurd salary considering what her films were making. So, in 1954, eager to change her image from the sultry, dumb, gold-digging blonde and perform roles with more depth, Marilyn Monroe defied the formidable Darryl Zanuck, left Hollywood in the middle of her contractual obligation to Twentieth Century-Fox, started her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, performed in a one-woman show for soldiers in Korea, and settled in New York to learn what she could by attending Broadway performances and studying with Lee and Paula Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

During this period, her desire to change her image — perhaps intensified by redoubled societal pressure to re-domesticate “Rosie the Riveter” following the release of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior and the Human Female and the launching of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (both in 1953) — led Marilyn into her second marriage. She married Joe DiMaggio who represented the wholesome, all-American, heroic image she wanted herself. Unfortunately, this marriage did not last long. He wanted her to retire, to wear less revealing clothing, and to be an accommodating housewife. Spoto stated, “A traditionalist, [DiMaggio] resented her income, fame and independence.” When she resisted the role he had designed for her, he became abusive. By October of 1954, they were already separated with a divorce pending. She would not give up her career, and she would not endure an abusive husband.

During her time of growth in New York, Marilyn also read widely and wrote poetry. The following is one of her better works:

“To the Weeping Willow”

I stood beneath your limbs
And you flowered and finally
clung to me,
and when the wind struck with the earth
and sand—you clung to me.
Thinner than a cobweb I,
sheerer than any—
but it did attach itself
and held fast in strong winds
life—of which at singular times
I am both of your directions—
Somehow I remain hanging downward the most,
As both of your directions pull me.

Here Marilyn reveals her anguish over the contradictory pushes and pulls between such issues as societal values, her husbands’ demands, and her own desires. This contemplative mood was a theme in New York; Marilyn was exploring her intellectual side, the side that wrote poetry and attended serious theater, and the second husband she chose, Arthur Miller, unveils her need to change her image once again and align herself with theater intellectuals.

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe Productions negotiated a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox for its first project. Together, they brought the hit Broadway play Bus Stop to the screen. The lead role in this project was exactly the kind of work Marilyn wanted to do.

The second project her company undertook was The Prince and the Showgirl. For her leading man, she chose the most “serious” actor in the world: Lawrence Olivier. She negotiated a deal with Jack Warner, MCA, and Olivier’s production company again in open defiance of Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox. Indeed, Spoto has argued that the eventual “collapse of the studio system and its ownership of actors owed much to her tenacity and to the success of efforts exerted by her, Greene, and his attorneys.” Wisely, she also kept control of 51% of MMP, so Greene, the attorneys, or Zanuck could not seize power. On January 30, 1956, Time magazine announced, “There is persuasive evidence that Marilyn Monroe is a shrewd businesswoman.”

While filming The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn earned the praise of one of the supporting actors, Dame Sybil Thorndike. Thorndike was one of the legendary actresses of the English stage, Shaw had even written St. Joan for her decades earlier, and she saw talent in Marilyn. Several weeks into filming, she tapped Olivier on the shoulder and said, “You did well in that scene, Larry, but with Marilyn up there, nobody will be watching you. Her manner and timing are just too delicious…We need her desperately. She’s the only one of us who really knows how to act in front of a camera.”

Marilyn had worked with the best in the world and more than held her own. Finally, in 1959, Marilyn’s talent was recognized worldwide when she won her first major award—the Golden Globe from the Foreign Press Association as best actress for Some Like It Hot.

After filming The Misfits, Arthur Miller and Marilyn divorced. She was tired of financially supporting the broke playwright and insulted by the role he had written for her in that film. In one scene, Roslyn, Marilyn’s character, expressed her dismay over the imminent slaughter of horses by throwing a tantrum. Marilyn commented:

I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything, so I have a fit — a screaming, crazy fit. I mean nuts. And to think, Arthur did this to me. He was supposed to be writing this for me, but he says it’s his movie. I don’t think heeven wanted me in it.

Marilyn was also insulted by the film’s director, John Huston, who treated her like an idiot and always addressed her as “dear.” Thus, in 1962, the independent Marilyn moved back to Los Angeles by herself and bought her own home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood for $77, 500. Unfortunately, Marilyn died that same year.

For decades, irresponsible biographers like Norman Mailer have represented Marilyn Monroe as nothing more than weak, psychotic, junkie, nymphomaniac, idiot. I have tried to read her life in a different way. True, Marilyn was sometimes mired in the ideology of the past: she married men to gain an identity she wished for herself; she was over-reliant on her sexuality for success in her career. But, at the same time, she displayed real agency by divorcing three unsupportive husbands who interfered with her career and her self-esteem, by fighting for her modeling and film success, by continuing to perfect her art by taking acting classes long after she was a big star, by battling Darryl Zanuck to have more control over her own destiny, by starting her own production company, by buying her own home, even by jogging through service alleys, lifting weights, and wearing jeans. All of these things were accomplished six years before the first feminist protest at the Miss American Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and eight years before the First Congress to unite Women in New York.

In his book, Graham McCann quotes Ella Fitzgerald saying that Marilyn “was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times” after Marilyn fought with the owner of the Mocambo Club to let Fitzgerald sing. In the 1950s, Hollywood nightclubs did not invite non-white artists to perform. When Marilyn learned that her idol had been denied any discussion of an engagement at this club, she phoned the owner of the club and told him that if he booked Fitzgerald, she would take a front table every night. With this move, Marilyn placed herself on the cutting edge of civil rights. Fitzgerald was booked, and Marilyn was indeed at that front table every night.

Marilyn was able to transcend many of the traditional boundaries of her era and display the proto-feminism of the “transitional woman.” Also, her actions reveal a person who was far more than the dumb blonde she often played in films. Anthony Summers tells the story in his book Goddess, when asked if her friend was dumb, the actress Shelley Winters replied, “Dumb? Like a fox was my friend Marilyn.” As the biographers of the future sort the distortions from the facts about Marilyn’s life, I have a feeling they may be left like Mr. Esmond at the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes saying in dazed wonder to the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, “Say…they told me you were stupid. You don’t sound stupid to me.”

March 2003

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