Politics & Policy

The Feminist Betrayal of Norma Jeane

Adapted from The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture

A student, lawyer, teacher, artist, mother, grandmother, defender of animals, rancher, homemaker, sportswoman, rescuer of children — all these are futures we can imagine for Norma Jeane. If acting had become an expression of that real self, not an escape from it, one can also imagine the whole woman who was both Norma Jeane and Marilyn becoming a serious actress and wise comedienne, who would still be working in her sixties, with more productive years to come. But Norma Jeane remained the frightened child of the past. And Marilyn remained the unthreatening half-person that sex-goddesses are supposed to be. It is the lost possibilities of Marilyn Monroe that capture our imaginations.

– Gloria Steinem, foreword to Coffee with Marilyn, by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Marilyn Monroe, then, though her work brought and brings delight to literally hundreds of millions of people, although she created for herself one of the most revered icons in show business, had an impossibly successful career, though she did this through persistence, talent, hard work, and guts, must be dismissed by the wiser, nonworking Left, which finds her neither a serious actress nor a comedienne. She did not, sadly, fulfill the vision which Gloria Steinem had for her, because she was not an intellectual — she was an actual worker.

In a more equal world, a top-down world, a world of equality (as envisioned and enforced by the Left) Ms. Monroe might have been taken in hand (by whom?) early on, and cured of her unreal escapist self (her talent), and still be alive playing Mother Courage in some Resident Theatre somewhere.

Can this be feminism? A dismissal of the greatest comedienne in the history of the screen because her work did not meet the high standards of Gloria Steinem?

Is it possible that the wise Ms. Steinem mistakes the performances of Marilyn with the person? She does conflate, and seems to connect causally, Marilyn’s screen persona with her use of sleeping pills, suggesting that she killed herself (an open point) because she was “denied the full range of possibility” and, so, was forced to disappoint Gloria Steinem.

Would Ms. Steinem be happier if Marilyn had lived to play Medea and Queen Elizabeth? Is she ignorant of the working lifespan of an actress? Did she never laugh or smile at one of Marilyn’s performances? Of course she did, but now she wants to throw it in reverse and, having derived enjoyment from her work, derive further enjoyment from her superior sad understanding of Marilyn’s essential “slavery.” Marilyn, though vastly wealthy, though widely accomplished, though revered worldwide (and to this day), was somehow a “slave to men.” Why? Because she was a woman, and acting, thus, was somehow not “an expression of her real self.”

What balderdash. Shame on you, Ms. Steinem, for promoting hypocrisy. For anyone who might be foolish enough to nod along with your sanctimony will, along with you, the next time they watch one of Marilyn’s films, laugh and smile; you, then, are promoting a dual-consciousness, an indictment of that which one enjoys, of a legitimate pleasure brought about through the work and the talent of an actual human being, who, in your sad lament, you belittle and patronize. Were or are you smarter or more talented than Marilyn Monroe? Make me laugh.

[And note, Ms. Steinem, that it is not the job of an actor to “express her real self.” (Which of us knows what his real self is?) It was her job to entertain the audience. That was her job. And she did it as well as anyone who ever acted. What entertainment has ever come from your beloved solipsism? Would you go to see such a performance — an evening of someone “expressing her true self”?]

And where was the Left, and where the feminists, during President Clinton’s savaging of Juanita Broaddrick, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Susan McDougal, and Monica Lewinsky? These women, who suffered, if anyone has ever suffered, “workplace harassment,” were dismissed from consideration by the Left, who mentioned their struggles not at all; and Monica Lewinsky, a Nice Jewish Girl from Brentwood, working as an intern in the office of the most powerful man on the planet, was treated to the silence of the feminists as she was accused, by her employer, the President of the United States, while he was committing perjury, of being unbalanced and, perhaps, of having had a “bad childhood.”

How, by the Left, can this be excused? It cannot. But it may be partially explained — Flowers, Jones et al., were dismissed by the Left not merely because they accused the Left’s avatar, but because of their class. They were, to the Left, “trailer trash,” and so, de-facto, undeserving of a hearing let alone a defense. The feminists of the Left were voluble in their indictment of Justice Thomas, in Anita Hill’s, at best, “he said, she said” controversy; using racist language and innuendo against him unheard in this country in decades.

They supported Tawana Brawley’s improbable claims of rape up to, and, indeed, past the point at which they had been proved fraudulent and her testimony found perjured. But what of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne by drowning? What feminist spoke up for the dead victim? Or against the man who drove her to her death? He remained an icon of the Left for the rest of his life. Are those feminists, then, spokespersons for the Rights of Women? Demonstrably not. They are not even spokeswomen for the rights of Liberal women — Ms. Kopechne was working for a Democrat, as was Ms. Lewinsky. They are advocates only of the positions of the Left — at whatever cost to women. If feminism does not consist in the actual defense of actual women, what in the world are those people talking about?

— David Mamet is a Pulitzer prize–winning playwright, author of Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and others. This essay is excerpted from The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, by arrangement with Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., © David Mamet, 2011.


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