Hello, Norma Jeane.

You know what grinds my gears?

Last Sunday would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 88th birthday, born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926. This much we can establish as a fact. She was an enormously famous model and actress, married and divorced three times, sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, and is immortalised (among other places) in one of Andy Warhol’s most famous pop-art canvasses. These are also indisputable actualities. But there’s one quote, ostensibly taken from Monroe, that seems to take centre stage on every other woman’s Facebook profile descriptor:

“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

I know, I know, this topic has already been done to death by countless others, but it’s better to have something written at all than something truly original and insightful. That’ll come with time, hopefully.

Anyway, I’ve seen these words take pride of place on several friends’ “About Me” sections over the past few years. But the evidence for Monroe having said this at any point in her life is… tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. In a relatively brief Google search I can find no source for it, even as something said in character from a film. But it’s all over fan pages and blogs, some of which already discredit it. Allow me to add my not entirely original voice.

Firstly, the quote itself, regardless of to whom it is accredited, is obnoxious. It encompasses a tacit assumption that a woman reserves the right to be neurotic or downright unreasonable without expecting repercussions. And what is “at her best”, then? The woman described gives no allusion as to this. It leaves the uncomfortable conclusion, in my mind at least, that a man is supposed to desire a woman no matter how unscrupulous her behaviour, no matter how fundamental her personal flaws. To play along for a moment with this notably sexist notion – if a man were to describe himself as above to a woman, would it resonate the same? Or would she tell him that he can take a hike until he addresses at least some of his unscrupulous behaviour and/or fundamental personal flaws?

Secondly, why is it fashionable to attribute this to Marilyn Monroe, of all people? She was, it is fair to say, renowned for a lack of punctuality and cooperation on set, but she was also a perfectionist, insisting on multiple takes for even single lines. Her mother was forcibly sectioned when she was a child, she suffered multiple alleged sexual assaults as an adolescent and multiple miscarriages as an adult, and she had frequent public disagreements with her spouses. So is it really likely that she would have proclaimed herself to be “insecure” or “out of control” like some kind of battle scar? Would anyone? It smacks far more of an immature person attempting to justify their own insecurities by attaching them to a successful public figure’s name. Which is fine if it helps them through their own problems, but it’s disingenuous for everyone else.

Even – or, perhaps, especially – fifty years on, most conversations regarding her that I come across come to the depressing lowest-common-denominator of her looks. One side of a social media argument presents her as an example of “curvy” girls from ye olden days being more attractive than “skinny” celebrities of the present, or simply that she had more “class” than any of the “whore” modern celebrities, provoking overheated exchanges about body image whilst completely ignoring her as a personality altogether. (At least it is no longer a common piece of “trivia” that she had eleven toes – a rumour by any other name, it is derived from a single photograph in an early modelling shoot on a beach, in which a tiny clump of sand resembles an extra digit on her left foot. A cursory look at any other photos from the shoot would dispel this urban myth altogether.)

What of Marilyn Monroe as a human being, then? Would it not be inspiring to the modern woman to know she worked in a munitions factory during World War II? Is it not elevating to learn that in her later career she controlled her own production company, negotiating profit shares from all of her movies, excluding herself from single-studio contracts, and invoking the power to reject any directors or scripts she did not want?

Then there’s her literary interests. Ulysses by James Joyce is a tremendous book, one of the most densely woven and challenging texts of the 20th century, if not ever. Even hardened bookworms find it tough going – I’ve made it through five hours of the audiobook and find it tortuous. Marilyn Monroe read the entire thing, cover to cover. Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings illustrates the disparity between public persona and private personality that Monroe struggled with on a near-constant basis:

“She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.”

The stinging irony of Marilyn Monroe is that the trait that made her famous is the very same she riled against being characterised by. As a counterbalance to some of the nonsense put about, here’s a quote that we can definitely say came from her during an interview for Life magazine, published just two days before her fatal drug overdose:

“That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing… I just hate to be a thing”.

If you’ve read this and you have the faux-Monroe quote in your profile, do yourself, Marilyn Monroe’s memory, historical pedants, and womanhood at large a favour by removing it immediately.

Adam

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