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Duly Noted

Wednesday, Jan 11, 2012, 11:03 am

Iconoclast Lee Siegel Breaks Taboo, Says Marilyn Monroe was Sexy

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Bigdmia, Creative Commons.

Lee Siegel complains in the New York Review of Books that "My Week With Marilyn" doesn't have any sex in it.

He thinks there's some sort of larger conspiracy afoot to deny Marilyn Monroe's sexuality. He writes peevishly:

Monroe might have been one of the most sexual beings who ever lived, but the portrayals of her, even by disillusioned observers, sooner or later descend into a sanitized ideal.

The sex is overtaken by sentimental treacle, or heroic fantasy, or defensive over-analysis. In his book on Monroe, Norman Mailer, for all his worldly candor, concluded that “she was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin.” Gloria Steinem envisioned a hypothetical post-feminist Monroe: “student, lawyer, teacher, artist, mother, grandmother, defender of animals, rancher, homemaker, sportswoman, rescuer of children—all these are futures we can imagine for Norma Jeane.” Relying on testimony from male acquaintances who knew Monroe, Diana Trilling claimed to discover a “considerable factitiousness in Marilyn Monroe as a sexual figure.” (Trilling then goes on to provoke the reader’s curiosity about the writer by asserting that Monroe “glamorized sexuality to the point at which it lost its terrors for us.”)

As I said in my review, "My Week With Marilyn" didn't pick the most interesting week of Monroe's life to dramatize. The script is based on Colin Clark's memoir of the time he spent with Monroe while she was filming the "Prince and the Showgirl" with Laurence Olivier.

Siegel found "My Week With Marilyn" implausible because it chronicled a whole week in which Marilyn Monroe, though surrounded with men, did not have sex with any of them:

The part of the film that seems most detached from any plausible reality about Monroe is the aura of chasteness in which the movie envelops her. In the end, she seems relieved not to have sex with the young Clark. Sex becomes just one other of her many afflictions: abortions, miscarriages, abuse at the hands of predatory men, the madness buzzing in her head. In this PG-rated characterization of Monroe, she spent her life trying to escape the nets of sex Hollywood threw over her, only to find that, like belonging to the mob, you cannot leave the Dream Factory unless you are willing to give up your life.

That week, we see Monroe grappling with a professional crisis, endstage addiction to downers, a marital breakdown, and a miscarriage. Since she's unable to get out of bed when she's not on the set, her only potential love object is a 23-year-old third assistant director who, for she all she knows, is a virgin. No wonder there's no sex in this movie. Why is this so implausible to Seigel? Does he assume that a truly sexual woman would be interested in sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone?

It's odd that Seigel would implicate Norman Mailer, of all people, in the conspiracy to desexualize Marilyn Monroe. In context, Mailer's line about "the angel of sex" is not about innocence, it's about Monroe's image of constant, cheerful, undemanding sexual availability to men, on men's terms: "She could ask no price. She was not the dark contract of those passionate brunette depths that speak of blood, vows taken for life, and the furies of vengeance if you are untrue to the depth of passion, no, Marilyn suggested that sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her. [...] 'Take me,' said her smile. 'I'm easy. I'm happy. I'm an angel of sex, you bet.'"

Was it all an act? Monroe biographers have wondered ever since. It must have been to some extent, because, as we all know, angels of sex aren't real. Nobody is actually continually, instrinsically delighted to serve you with no strings attached, not the greeter at Wal-Mart, not a stripper, not your mother.

Mailer wisely refuses to create a false dichotomy between the image and the woman. He's not impressed by the Norma Jeane Baker vs. Marilyn Monroe cliches. She cold be open, playful, and lusty. But she was a person with needs, ambitions, and limits of her own. In "My Week With Marilyn," we see how manipulative and demanding she could be. Mailer is no feminist, but he is blunt about the fact that, as an aspiring Hollywood starlet with little education and few connections, Monroe was expected to sleep with powerful men to advance her career. A true angel of sex wouldn't fuck for professional advancement. "Angel of sex" would be its own credential.

Mailer is equally upfront about the fact that Monroe enjoyed sex and romance for their own sake and defied many of the restrictive sexual mores of her era. An angel of sex might fuck for fun, but it would be less than angelic to pursue some men and reject others, as the real Marilyn did.

Siegel thinks that discussions of Monroe's intelligence detract from discussions of her sexuality:

It’s too bad that the question of sex is so strangely repressed when talking about Monroe. Instead attention is focused on her love of books, her intense desire to become a serious artist by studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, her attachment to powerful intellectual figures like Miller, Elia Kazan, Strasberg, the poet Norman Rosten, and her last psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson. These mostly Jewish figures seemed to supply to Monroe the paternal wisdom, authority, and family feeling she had never known. Their status as immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who remade themselves seemed to strike a resonant chord in the divided self that was Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe’s intelligence was real, and her wish to flee the temptations and compulsions of the body for the life of the mind poignant, but one thing is certain: her interest in Joyce’s Ulysses or Camus’ The Fall had nothing to do with her longevity on the screen. It was, above all, her sexual allure that made her so magnetizing. This is why the absence of unsentimental discussion about her sexuality is so disappointing.

Siegel conflates Monroe's sexual allure and her sexuality, as if it were a foregone conclusion that those were the same thing. "My Week With Marilyn" is all about Monroe's sexual allure. Almost every scene shows someone gaping at her. Most of the laughs come from seeing Monroe vamping and men slobbering.

What we don't see, and shouldn't automatically expect to see in a movie about Monroe on the brink of physical and emotional collapse, is lust for her 23-year-old babysitter. "My Week With Marilyn" is a lousy movie, but at least it doesn't twist the historical record to make Monroe into the angel of sex.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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