To men, wrote Norman Mailer, her image was “gorgeous, forgiving, humorous, compliant and tender… she would ask no price.” She was the child-woman who offered pleasure without adult challenge; a lover who neither judged nor asked anything in return. Both the roles she played and her own public image embodied a masculine hope for a woman who is innocent and sensuously experienced at the same time. “In fact”, as Marilyn said towards the end of her career, “my popularity seemed almost entirely a masculine phenomenon.”
Since most men have experienced female power only in their childhoods, they associate it with a time when they themselves were powerless. This will continue as long as children are raised almost totally by women, and rarely see women in authority outside the home. That’s why male adults, and some females too, experience the presence of a strong woman as a dangerous regression to a time of their own vulnerability and dependence. For men, especially, who are trained to measure manhood and maturity by their distance from the world of women, being forced back to that world for female companionship may be very threatening indeed. A compliant child woman like Monroe solves this dilemma by offering sex without the power of an adult woman, much less of an equal. As a child herself, she allows men to feel both conquering and protective; to be both dominating and admirable at the same time.
For women, Monroe embodied kinds of fear that were just as basic as the hope she offered men: the fear of a sexual competitor who could take away men on whom women’s identities and even livelihoods might depend; the fear of having to meet her impossible standard of always giving – and asking nothing in return; the nagging fear that we might share her feminine fate of being vulnerable, unserious, constantly in danger of becoming a victim.
The fifties also shaped her public life. Even Jean Harlow had been allowed more toughness and self-direction in the postsuffrage freedom of the 1920s and 1930s, but Marilyn was rewarded for the childlike compliance, and the big breasted beauty that symbolized women’s return to home, hearth, childbearing and togetherness after World War II. Then, women who had tasted independence in the wartime work force were being encouraged to go home and let returning veterans have the jobs; to have children to make up for wartime losses; to be consumers of peacetime goods and keep the factories going. Marilyn was made into a symbol of what a postwar woman should be.
Even in the privacy of the operating room, the public’s expectations followed her. A nurse wondered aloud whether Marilyn was “blonde all over,” as Marilyn herself had once joked to the press. Perhaps in response to the nurse’s disillusionment, the bleaching of her pubic hair was later added to her hairdresser’s regular ritual of making her acceptably blonde. Lena Pepitone reported that Marilyn also bleached her pubic hair herself, and once burned herself so painfully that she had to stay in bed with ice packs.
And there were other rituals. She slept in a bra in order to preserve the muscle tone of her breasts, and told a woman friend that she put one on immediately after making love. She was often late for appointments because she completely redid her makeup, and even had her hair shampooed and reset several times, in her nervousness that she look exactly right. She stayed soaking in hot perfumed baths long past the time she was supposed to be out and dressed. As she wrote, “Sometimes I know the truth of what I’m doing. It isn’t Marilyn Monroe in the tub but Norma Jeane… She used to have to bathe in water used by six or eight other people… And it seems that Norma can’t get enough of fresh bath water that smells of real perfume.” She would call friends for reassurance on the smallest details of what to wear, even whether to shampoo her hair. Towards the end, a friend reports, Marilyn was also taking hormone shots to retard aging.
Source: Marilyn Norma Jeane – Gloria Steinem, 1986