“We are all born sexual creatures. It’s a pity so many people despise and crush this feeling.”
Elton John, gay and proud, had written his famous single ‘Candle In The Wind’ in 1973, dedicating it to the great Marilyn Monroe, celebrating her short-lived yet whirlwind of a life. The era in which Marilyn Monroe thrived was the era of conformity. The ‘American Dream’ was being chased relentlessly by people who pictured perfect Sundays in houses with picketed fences, surrounded by happy families. With the advent of the Cold War, paranoia and terror set in, as it had only been five years since the Great Wars subsided; the marginalised were treated with hatred and contempt. Yet the 1950s saw the dazzling Elvis woo his audience while other extraordinary actors popularised films, earning themselves fame. Amidst the hyper-masculine domain, there existed a female cultural phenomenon who was the epitome of innocence and seduction, the perfect example of the Victorian pre-requisite of a “virgin nymphomaniac”- the ethereal Marilyn Monroe who became the object of affection for people all around the world, with her honest and vulnerable persona, was a trailblazing icon in her truest sense.
While some might recognise Marilyn Monroe for her iconic subway stunt where she stood on a grate trying to prevent her white dress from being fluttered in the wind, it is pertinent to note that she is a lot more than the commercialisation and commodification of her images that take place decades after her death. She was always way ahead of her time, championing the cause of the LGBTQ+ community. While her image is a favourite among the gay community with many drag queens impersonating her in drag races, Monroe herself was very vocal about the issues and the rights surrounding gay people. In a conversation with the lesbian president of her fan club, Jane Lawrence, Monroe was quoted saying: “When two people love each other, who cares what colour or flavour or religion they are? It’s two human beings. It’s beautiful. Love is beautiful. It’s that simple.” Marilyn Monroe was never afraid of extending her support to her friends who were struggling with their sexuality. “People who aren’t fit to open the door for him, sneer at his homosexuality. What do they know about it? Labels. People love putting labels on each other. Then they feel safe,” Monroe had said in reference to her friend Montogomery Clift facing unimaginable harassment and torment for coming out of the closet. “People tried making me into a lesbian. I laughed. No sex is wrong if there is love in it,” she added.
Marilyn Monroe is the epitome of femininity and sexuality and has been referred to as the legendary blonde bombshell, known by the signature mole, fluttering eyelashes adorning half-lidded eyes as well as the exquisite fashion sense that complemented her conic wanton image. Her persona became a pop-cultural phenomenon and even decades after her death, she prevailed as an overwhelming influence in the industry. However, unbeknownst to all, despite the attention and love that was showered on her, Monroe was often marginalised and pigeonholed into the box where she had to play the part of a “dumb blonde woman”. She was hyper-sexualised and often struggled to come to terms with her identity and sexuality. Monroe’s relentless strife against the male-dominated stereotypes being imposed on her as well as her struggle to find acceptance resonated with those who were having an identity and sexuality crisis. Monroe did not hesitate to welcome her gay friends with an open embrace, striking a chord with the community and becoming an instant favourite.
Monroe’s history of abuse starts from a very nascent age. It is inspiring to see how this spirited lady defeated all the odds that stood in her way to become a global sensation. Marilyn Monroe was born in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, as Norma Jean Mortenson to an impoverished Gladys Pearl Baker. Her mother was mentally unstable and often took ill yet provided her daughter with a stable and happy childhood. Marilyn was put under foster care initially, before living with the lodgers in their house, the Atkinsons while her mother was taken to the sanatorium, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Monroe was sexually abused which led her to become a nervous, withdrawn girl with a heavy stutter. She was later sent to an orphanage where she felt like an abandoned pariah.
Even after she received a legal guardian in form of the Goddards, she was subsequently molested which led her to move again. Monroe has often credited these traumatising incidents for having inspired her to take up acting. She said that since she was well-versed with how to put up with the “grim” realities of the world, she understood that this is what acting was and wanted to pursue her dream. Despite her mother’s vain efforts, Monroe’s trauma from a troubled teenager helped for her resilient personality and helped build her sensibility. Divorced thrice, with rumour mills abuzz about her having an affair with the United States President John F. Kennedy, Monroe met her tragic end at only 36 having overdosed o barbituates. She has 30 films, 50 songs and various modelling assignments to her name and via her vivacious persona and ethereal beauty sauntered into the hearts of millions worldwide.
Monroe has been the subject of various conspiracy theories and rumours where people have prodded into her personal life to understand the mystery that the icon hid behind her subliminal smile. Eccentric, witty and fashionable, Monroe has become a phenomenon that reinvents itself and is open to interpretation with every passing generation. During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Marilyn Monroe was a topic of discussion yet again due to the undying support she had extended to the people of colour during her times which was quite unusual. A rebel against prejudices and stereotypes, Monroe projected her frustration in positive ways as she had no autonomy over how her persona was cultivated in showbiz. As her persona had been sculpted to appease the male gaze, Monroe’s childish voice would reek of naivete and innocence. Given the nickname of “the girl with the horizontal walk”, Monroe wore white to accentuate herself and often had public wardrobe malfunctions which became the talk of the town for days. Monroe, who was not unaware of the effect she had on men since childhood, managed to present a myriad of emotions on a seemingly innocent face while embracing her desires and sexual needs. The “dumb blonde role” that was assigned to her was something the young and witty Monroe would continue to battle until the very end. In the 1950s, she was enlightened enough to call out the blatant objectification of women. When called a “sex symbol”, she said: “I never quite understood it, this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were those things you clash together! That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of.”
Marilyn Monroe knew what it felt like to be unheard and silenced. She was tired of playing the overused sex roles and wanted to break out of it; yet was bound by contracts and bogged down by the moguls. Monroe, who was in complete support of her gay fans, surprised Jane Lawrence when she did not flinch on hearing that Lawrence was a lesbian. Monroe congratulated Jane on finding herself a special someone by saying, “She’s lucky because you’re the best, kiddo.” Lawrence even recounted how she stood up to Joe DiMaggio for lesbian rights as the latter had overheard their conversation and was livid.
Monroe’s sexuality has been the subject of focus for the media. People have often wondered if she was a lesbian or a bisexual. Monroe was a flirtatious and sensual heterosexual sex symbol which made it difficult for her to step out of the closet and amass for herself a Sapphic repute that would negatively harm her public persona. Her relationship with acting coach Natasha Lytess was often brought under the radar as she always insisted that Lytess, who was a lesbian, accompany her which made many believe that she might have indulged in a dalliance at some point. There were also rumours about Monroe trying on newcomer-quality cast-offs in Joan Crawford’s bedroom. Her close proximity with Barbara Stanwyck was also brought into public consideration and Monroe was often deemed as the lipstick lesbian by the gay community. Monroe had once said, “A man who had kissed me once said it was very possible I was a lesbian because I apparently had no response to males—meaning him. I didn’t contradict him because I didn’t know what I was”.
A sensation, an icon and the symbol of female sensibility and sexuality, what made Marilyn special, according to Cynthia Nixon, is that she had a “healthy sexual curiosity. She didn’t see sex or the human body in terms of sin. Yet Hollywood, which exploits sex for profit, is an institution that backs the socioreligious norm”.
As a woman who was restrained by the boundaries of the heterosexual image thrust on her where she was to win over the straight white men and gain unbridled affection from them, Monroe was loved and adored by the gay community. Ira Levin rightfully concluded that nonconformity on part of the general mass is plausible; being a superstar, it is relatively difficult for one to be themselves in the truest sense. Her relationship with Lytess was hampered by the Studios; this was the culmination of the fear, insecurity and paranoia of the male gaze being replaced by a female gaze where a woman would seemingly find solace in the arms of the same sex than the opposite. Marilyn, who was confident and intelligent and embraced her sexuality and body, most likely understood how difficult it would be for her to out herself. It would be the epitome of the modern-day witch-hunt; so, according to Amanda Donohoe, Monroe, “instead of possibly being happy with a woman, she had to go through grief with a series of men—husbands and lovers—who done her wrong”. Hence, she stuck to providing undying support to the LGBTQ+ brethren, becoming a gay icon, her smiling face and compassion becoming a badge of honour for the community. Monroe’s failed relationships led her to become a loner and recluse, fuelling her addiction problem.s her broken heart, the pressure of concealing her identity resulted in her “possible suicide”. Yet another gay martyr, interestingly, her birthday itself coincides with the first day of the Pride month. Monroe prevails as a feminist pop-cultural icon, a gay icon and her story is poignant and immortalises her struggle as a closeted woman, who we can only assume, rests in love within the land of rainbows, five decades after her tragic and untimely demise.
“If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere.”