Arts Week 2018: Marilyn Monroe – An Unlikely Feminist?

Social worker Benjamin Meißner has had a lifelong fascination with Marilyn Monroe since he saw one of her movies as a boy and has been a member of her German fan club Some Like It Hot since it was founded in 1992. He attended Birkbeck’s Arts Week lecture while visiting London on holiday from his home in Kiel, Germany.

 

While I was in London, I was delighted to attend the event Marilyn Monroe: an unlikely feminist? which took place at the Birkbeck cinema. Gabriella Apicella who is a screenwriter and studied at Birkbeck herself, hosted the event, while Catherine Grant, Professor of digital media and screen studies at Birkbeck, gave a lecture about Marilyn as an actress. She showed film clips of some of her movies and interviews, and the focus was on her gestures and body language. She slowed down the footage so you could discover how much choreography there is going on in just a few seconds. Catherine selected the opening scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn and Jane Russell both wearing the red dresses. By viewing it in slow motion, you became aware of how much acting there is going on. It is known that Marilyn worked very hard – Jane Russell once said in an interview that Marilyn was the first on the set and the last one to leave. Marilyn went through the dancing numbers with choreographer Jack Cole again and again.

Catherine next compared the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend numbers performed by Marilyn with those later in the film by Jane Russell. By watching them together, Jane’s performance seemed almost grotesque because it is so exaggerated.

Catherine also noted the queer elements of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the final scene, Marilyn and Jane are so much the centre of attention, one could be forgiven for thinking they were married to each other.

Host Gabriella then presented the highly-regarded author Michelle Morgan who has written several books about Marilyn and other Hollywood stars. In her latest work, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and The Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, Michelle discusses Marilyn’s influence on women’s liberation. Marilyn was ahead of her time in many ways, Michelle pointed out. Especially when she left Hollywood in 1955 for New York, taking acting classes and founding her own production company with Milton Greene.

Michelle explained how Marilyn became stifled by her image as the ‘fluffy blonde’. It seemed that some people just wanted to see her in these kind of roles, which left Marilyn herself very unsatisfied as an actress. Michelle illustrated how pervasive – and enticing – this image was by pointing out how a British electric company sent out its bills with a photo of Marilyn because they knew that people would pay attention to it and would open the envelope!

During a Q&A with the audience, Michelle was asked if Marilyn still continues to be a significant role model almost 56 years after her death. Michelle believes she still has an enormous effect. “We can still learn so much from Marilyn”, Michelle observed. Everyone has their own interpretation of Marilyn and there are still many aspects to discover. With so many people fascinated by her after all these years, it is interesting to consider the sort of influence she would have had if she was around today in an era of  social media networks.

Benjamin during his visit to London, at the Proud Gallery’s exhibition of Marilyn photographs by Milton Greene

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