Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Marilyn Monroe Died for Our Sins

I've just begun reading what looks to be an interesting book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell (Holt, 2004).  Churchwell's an academic, and her aim is not "to reveal the real woman behind the image, the truth behind the myth", but to tell "the story of the stories of Marilyn Monroe" (10), the mythology that has been constructed around her. 

So far, she's doing a good job.  For instance she notes the popular trope that Monroe was a "natural" woman, perhaps the last sex symbol to to be "'allowed' to be 'womanly': ... 'She would be told now to go on a strict diet and sent for liposuction, because we are no longer supposed to look womanly'" (28).  This particular version comes from an essay by Marge Piercy, who's one of my favorite writers, but flat wrong this time: she knows very well about whalebone corsets, and has written about the days of her mother's youth, when flappers bound their breasts and tried to have boyish figures.  As Churchwell shows, Monroe was attacked throughout her career for being messy, "overripe," overweight; Churchwell quotes a 1953 anti-fan letter which denounced Monroe for being fat, and "waddl[ing]" (29).  Once again, nostalgia is just amnesia turned around.

But this bit brought me up short:
Monroe also posed for what were then euphemistically referred to as "art" photographs, which was a code for pictures of nudes (the pinup would tend to be in a bathing suit, or at most seminude).  Art pictures were not pornographic; in fact, the difference between art photography and pornography at that point was whether pubic hair was visible; art pictures would reveal breasts, and perhaps nipples. (Playboy would make history when it first published a picture in which the model's public hair was barely visible, in January 1971) [36].
I'm not sure about this.  I think the distinction Churchwell wants to draw is between "pornography" and "obscenity."  Pornography is as imprecise a term as obscenity, of course, but I think Merriam-Webster's definitions would still fit the 40s and 50s, the period Churchwell is referring to: first,  "depictions of erotic behavior ... intended to cause sexual excitement"; second, any material that "depicts erotic behavior ... and is intended to cause sexual excitement."  The third is more metaphorical: "depictions of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction."  I suppose that even just standing there buck nekkid could count as "erotic behavior."  In this sense, even the pinups were pornographic.  But the big legal controversies of the twentieth century involved the legal category of obscenity, and many lines were drawn in the sand, only to be erased and replaced with newer ones.

What causes sexual excitement is highly variable and subjective, after all: those relatively chaste pinups of girls in swimsuits were meant to produce sexual excitement, so as to remind Our Boys what they were Fighting For.  It's a commonplace, which may or not be true (though it's supported by a famous episode in James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922), that in the Old Days of long skirts, a man could be excited by the mere sight of a woman's ankle, even though it was covered in stockings.  Half a century later, young women still chanted, "We must / We must / We must work on our bust / We better / We better / So we can wear a sweater!"  A pair of breasts covered -- though not concealed; rather enhanced -- by bra and sweater could still excite a man.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the European edition of Playboy, whose models had smaller breasts and bigger hips than the US ideal, also broke the pubic hair barrier before the American one did.  I could well be wrong.  And this isn't important to the interest of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, I'm just thinking.