Originally posted at Shameless.
Marilyn Monroe is often held up as the antidote to the idea that only thin can be beautiful. “Marilyn was a size 10/12/14,” goes a common refrain (though sizing basically means nothing these days, so what does that even prove?). There have been a couple Marilyn Monroe memes floating around Facebook in the past couple months, and both are troubling. The focus is on Marilyn’s curves, and how her swimsuit clad body is different from what movie stars look like today (oh, the tyranny of the “Best Beach Bodies!” issue). What’s supposed to be an empowering message to women – you don’t have to be a Victoria’s Secret model to be beautiful – is completely undermined by two much older memes: divide and conquer and the male gaze.
In the first photo, Marilyn is compared to another woman in a bikini, who is much thinner. The text reads: “This [pointing to Monroe] is more attractive than this [pointing to the other woman].” While I can totally get behind the title “fuck society,” and add “and its stupid expectations” for good measure, there’s nothing anti-establishment about what’s being done here. This is a common tactic, in which women are pitted against each other, so that we lose sight of the real problem: namely, society. If women are fighting amongst ourselves about who is more “beautiful,” if we compare ourselves to other women endlessly, we don’t have time to notice that we’re trapped in a hamster-wheel of low self-esteem. Society hopes that you’ll buy things, to try and make yourself feel better. In the meantime, it’s hoped that we as women won’t critically examine what beauty is, what’s being sold to us, and most importantly, who profits from all this. Fuck Society, sure, because society tells you that if you’re not extremely thin, you’re worthless. However, extremely thin women? They’re still people. Further, bodies are just bodies. They have no intrinsic worth, no moral value, other than what we assign them. The thought behind this comparison photo is to turn the dominant paradigm on its head, but what it really does is reinforce that for one woman to be good, another must be bad. And that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere.
The second is the same photo of Marilyn, this time alone in the Motivational Poster style. The text reads: “PROOF: That you can be adored by thousands of men, even when your thighs touch.” From the start this would seem like a better message. No comparison photo, no pitting women against each other. For some reason, though, this photo troubles and angers me more than the first one does. Because here’s the thing: you are worth more than what men think of you. Marilyn Monroe was, to put it mildly, very sad, very often. She was a sex symbol, and thus, stopped existing as human being, a regular girl. Almost everything that fucked up Marilyn’s later life had to do with being “adored” by men. Men used her, or deified her (and that’s a hard come-down for those dudes when they found a human being in their bed the morning after). Political brothers purportedly passed her around like a toy. Conventional wisdom, political conspiracy aside, has it that Monroe killed herself. Being “adored by thousands of men” didn’t stop her demons from consuming her. It angers me to no end that, again, in the name of self-esteem we’re going to make a poster girl (literally) out of a woman who was notoriously down on herself.
I want very much for us to stop thinking that there is only one body type that is acceptable. I would prefer the focus be on health, rather than appearance. The Monroe Meme seems about the furthest thing from healthy. This is a woman who abused alcohol and sleeping pills later in her life, this is a woman who (probably) died due to depression. But, hey, as long as someone thinks she looks good, I guess that’s what matters.
If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.