“People had a habit of looking at me as I were some kind of mirror instead of a person”, Marilyn Monroe wrote in her autobiography, My Story: “They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts. Then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one”. If Monroe functioned as some kind of mirror, then what, beyond lewd thoughts, did she reflect back? In Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe, Amanda Konkle observes that Monroe “united many of the contradictory discourses of the postwar period” – specifically, those about marriage, women’s sexuality and gendered double standards.
The details of Monroe’s life long ago became legendary: there was the difficult childhood as Norma Jeane Mortenson, bouncing between foster homes and orphanages; the high-profile marriages to the baseball star Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller; the “dumb blonde” roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955); the discovery of her dead body in her bedroom, after an overdose of barbiturates, at thirty-six. But Konkle is not interested in revisiting these stories, opting instead to look at how Monroe’s career reflected the social concerns of her time.
Monroe’s films, as light-hearted as they might seem, have a didactic side, Konkle argues. In some of her earlier films – We’re Not Married! (1952) and Niagara (1953) – Monroe plays ambitious bombshells who are sceptical of marriage. In the iconic classics Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), she is a bubbly working-class woman who hopes to secure a wealthy husband. Different as these stories are, they have common concerns. They warn men about confusing lust for love, lest they be ensnared in matrimony; they advise women to think of marriage as a way to advance themselves economically, but not to let love of money trump all. Monroe’s breezy wit, however, makes these films more than mere vehicles for social instruction. It is often assumed that she only appealed to men – but the vulnerability and humour she brought to her performances, Konkle writes, attracted women, too.
Monroe’s personal life is treated lightly in the book, only emerging when Konkle writes about her struggles to be taken seriously. The book tracks how she negotiated with Hollywood to eventually become a producer. “To the oftrepeated charge that Marilyn is stupid”, as the novelist and film reviewer Isabel Moore observed in 1952, “the answer is that no-one can be stupid and get to the top in one of the toughest cities in the world.” At the time, however, such endorsements were the exception rather than the norm. Konkle’s book reverses the gaze and reminds us what we are missing when we take our entertainers to be more vapid than they are.