By Yanis Iqbal
June 1, 2022, was Marilyn Monroe’s 96th birth anniversary. Though our neoliberal age of hyper-commodification has only entrenched her image as a sex symbol, the political dimensions of Monroe’s life tell a different story of subterranean radicalism. Born in 1926, outside of Los Angeles, California, USA, Monroe grew up as a working class child during Depression years. She spent her childhood moving in and out of foster homes in Los Angeles, living for a few years with her mother who had reclaimed her until the latter was dragged off, watched by her daughter, to a state mental institution. When Monroe was sent to an orphanage at the age of nine, she stated that she was no orphan, since her mother was still alive – an argument that she consistently repeated throughout her life.
Monroe’s traumatic childhood is something that is easily ignored by people. Her rise to fame in the world of cinema was quickly interpreted by the pro-bourgeois ideologues of her time as a clear evidence of the “rags to riches” narrative. But Monroe was completely opposed to this romanticized erasure of the extremely real deprivations that she had to face due to the structural injustice of the capitalist system. In 1962, she wrote in her notes, “The lack of any consistent love and caring. A mistrust and fear of the world was the result. There were no benefits except what it could teach me about the basic needs of the young, the sick and the weak.” “I have great feeling for all the persecuted ones in the world.”
When Monroe – as a poor starlet – used to be invited to Hollywood parties as a piece of sexual object to be ogled, she felt disgusted by the card games that men played, where they casually risked thousands of dollars. “When I saw them hand hundred and even thousand dollar bills to each other,” Monroe remarked, “I felt something bitter in my heart. I remembered how much twenty-five cents and even nickels meant to the people I had known, how happy ten dollars would have made them, how a hundred dollars would have changed their whole lives… I remembered all the sounds and smells of poverty, the fright in people’s eyes when they lost jobs”. This life-long identification with the proletariat was reflected in Monroe’s lifestyle.
After her death, the total value of her clothing and personal belongings was estimated at $690. Instead of owning several mansions – a practice that was common among Hollywood stars – the first house Monroe ever owned was a small, modest place in Los Angeles, which was still being built at the time of her death. This de-valorization of the cultural and material universe of the rich was the result of her ability to think critically about her own social background. However, such thinking was antithetical to the objectifying manner in which she was portrayed in movies. Her cinematic character involved the strategic separation of sexuality from intelligence, beauty from brains, giving rise to her widely-held perception as a “dumb blonde”. As Abbie Bakan elaborates:
“Consistently she was cast in roles so naive as to be unintentionally funny, roles in which she drove men to unusual antics, drove them beyond their normal controls. The characters she played were normally single, the prizes to be won at the end of the movies by the conquering males; usually she was working class, portraying the Hollywood mystique of uncultured animal instincts which women of middle-class ‘intelligence’ could not offer so freely, and universally incapable of depth or intelligence or growth. Marilyn Monroe was almost never allowed to play the kind of role she – and millions of working-class women – hoped to achieve in real life. This was the ‘fame’ she had won.”
The stifling nature of Monroe’s Hollywood career meant that she was naturally attracted to counter-hegemonic political positions that promised to liberate humanity from the alienating effects of capitalism. She openly defended the Communist Party members who were under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. For her, the following reason was sufficient enough to associate with members of the Hollywood Ten and with trial victims like Arthur Miller: “They’re for the people, aren’t they?”. In 1955, she applied for a visa to visit the Soviet Union, after which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started surveilling her.
According to FBI files, Monroe was in close contact with Frederick Vanderbilt Field – an American leftist residing in Mexico, who had been disinherited by his wealthy family due to his radical views. Several months before her death, she took a trip to visit Field in Mexico. In his autobiography, “From Right to Left,” Field admired Monroe’s strong commitment to the cause of human liberation: “She told us about her strong feelings for civil rights for black equality, as well as her admiration for what was being done in China, her anger at red-baiting and McCarthyism and her hatred of (FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover.”
In 1960, Monroe became a founding member of the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy; that same year, she was elected as an alternate delegate to the state’s Democratic caucus, where she unambiguously declared her pro-Castro views on Cuba. Monroe’s sympathy for anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles derived from the oppressions that she was grappling with. In a conjuncture characterized by the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Monroe linked her commodification by media moguls to the racism against which the Blacks were fighting. It was, she said, “easy to understand the slave system when you’ve been through the star system”.
Christine, a young Black woman whom the Manchester Guardian journalist Bill Weatherby met at a party in the Southern States in the early 1960s, stated that Monroe was the only white woman she truly respected. “She’s been hurt. She knows what the score is…I never could identify with any other white movie star. They were always white people doing white things.” The famed Black American writer James Baldwin, too, identified with Monroe. When Monroe was asked about how her social status as a white, blonde sex symbol would impact her reception among Blacks, she replied, “I don’t want to be a symbol of anything. Blacks can sometimes see through appearances better than whites.”
On issues of sexuality, she was similarly progressive, willing to question Hollywood’s privileging of heterosexuality as the only legitimate form of love. Years before the emergence of the queer movement, she defended the gay actor Montgomery Clift against press harassment and ridicule: “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.” “No sex is wrong if there’s love in it.”
Today, when sexual commodification continues to package Monroe as a docile body meant for capitalist consumption, it is imperative that we emphasize the emancipatory orientation of her life. Far from being a dumb blonde, she was a woman from a proletarian background who was deeply conscious about the brutal ways in which capitalism repressed universal desires for common flourishing. In order to hide this crucial aspect of her personality, the bourgeoisie wants us to remember “Monroe…as a cheesecake smile and a cleavage.” This thoroughly dehumanizing depiction of Monroe needs to be replaced by a comprehensive perspective that insists on carrying forward her continually suppressed longings for an active revolution against the passive structures of capitalism.