ANATOMY OF A SEX SYMBOL by Sheila O’Malley
“Maybe I’m a sexless sex goddess.” – Marilyn Monroe to Life magazine journalist Richard Meryman, 1961
The sexiest woman in America didn’t have an orgasm until the last year of her life. Despite her famous love affairs and marriages, not to mention the fact that she was the symbol of sex to millions of men worldwide, Marilyn Monroe’s inability to enjoy sex was something she was open about to close confidantes (male and female) and her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson. Greenson counseled her extensively on what was called, in the common parlance of the time, her “primary frigidity”, and Monroe worked very hard with him to overcome her sexual issues.
As a young girl, Marilyn Monroe was treated as a sexual object before she was ready to handle the implications of it, a common problem with girls who develop early. Her beauty blossomed very young, and it ended up being her ticket out of anonymity and pain. For that reason, she never resented her looks. It was her work as a pinup before she was even under contract that got the attention of the fans.
In movie after movie, Monroe showed up as the eager yet innocent sex goddess, the naif in a cruel world who somehow managed to maintain her hopeful spirit, her sense of humor. Many of these movies were interested in demeaning or humiliating her, punishing her for the fact that she elicited desirous feelings in men. The Seven Year Itch, while mostly famous today for the skirt-blowing-up scene, is a nasty piece of work which puts Monroe in the unenviable position of being portrayed as a circus freak of sex appeal. Tom Ewell plays her ogling downstairs neighbor, and the way he views her shows the attempt to turn her sexiness into something dirty and lewd. She is so “hot” that she has to keep her underwear in the freezer.
Other movies, like Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and River of No Return treat her persona with kindness and affection, allowing her to operate in a more human space, where her sexiness is just a fact of life, like a mountain range or the ocean. The interesting thing about The Seven Year Itch is to watch Marilyn Monroe deftly avoid all of the entrapments of the script. She plays that part with wide-eyed insouciance and joy, and she is the one who has the last laugh.
Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that he was once at a party with Marilyn Monroe when she was a young starlet. She was surrounded by men, and one of them reached out and pulled down her dress, exposing her breast in front of everyone. And how had Marilyn responded to this openly harassing act? She laughed. There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that Monroe was so used to pleasing others that pleasing herself (ie: telling the guy to buzz off) would never occur to her. The other way to look at it is that she always managed to psychologically wriggle out from underneath both the movies and the people who wanted to shame her for being so pretty, so sexy, and so obviously “stupid”. They didn’t understand that she was always in on the joke. She heroically laughed off the harassment, and licked her wounds in private.
Her unerring sense of timing as an actress (as director Billy Wilder said, “She always knew where the joke was”) helped her escape the more nasty-minded underbellies of some of her films, but the sneers behind her back were near-constant. When she moved back to New York to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, she was laughed at. Monroe said, “Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don’t expect me to be serious about my work.”
When she first moved to New York, she gave a press conference announcing her intentions to form a production company (unheard of at the time for an actress under contract) and develop her own work. She expressed interest in adapting Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov into a film. One of the reporters present called out, kiddingly, “Do you know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?” Monroe did not balk outwardly at the insulting question, but instead asked the reporter in return, “Have you read the book? There’s a wonderful part in it for me. A real seductress.” No wonder she found it difficult to come out of her dressing room on occasion, facing hostility like that on a regular basis.
It is commonly known that Monroe was victimized and abandoned as a child, leaving her with an abyss of need inside of her, but she took that victimization and turned it into a weapon and a strength. As an actress, she did not hide her need for love; instead she willingly let it flood out of her eyes into the camera and into the eyes of her co-stars in a way that is still startling to witness today when watching her best performances, in Don’t Bother to Knock, or The Misfits or Some Like It Hot. She projected this bottomless need outwards to such an intense degree that men around the world wanted to sleep with her. Photographer Ernest Cunningham once asked her how she did it and got an illuminating answer:
I worked with Marilyn Monroe. A rather dull person. But when I said “Now!” she lit up. Suddenly, something unbelievable came across. The minute she heard the click of the camera, she was down again. It was over. I said, “What is it between you and the camera that doesn’t show at any other time?” She said, “It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”
There may have been some element of a protective smokescreen there as well: by presenting herself as the sexiest woman in the world no one would ever guess her private anxiety about the reality of her body. She said in 1962, the year of her death, “I am a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they have made of me and that I have made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy’s the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it.”
Her honesty in that statement is breathtaking (she admits her shared responsibility in making her own “image”). Her childlessness haunted her, her miscarriages, the sense that she was far too damaged for any man to really love her, the sexual abuse she had endured (as a child and as an adult), all added up to a feeling that the body so loved by so many was a mysterious “other”.
In this respect, she is like so many women. Female sexuality is a delicate and yet powerful force, and claiming it as our own, in this world where it seems to demand that we share it, exploit it, expose it, is not always easy. Marilyn was convinced she wasn’t made like other women. Her body wouldn’t do what other women’s bodies did. Maybe she expected “bells to ring and whistles to whistle”, too. One wonders what her lovers thought about all of this, or if they were just too busy making love to the Image as opposed to the real woman to even notice that she was obviously faking orgasm. Monroe told her psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson, “Speaking of Oscars, I would win overwhelmingly if the Academy gave an Oscar for faking orgasms. I have done some of my best acting convincing my partners I was in the throes of ecstasy.”
What could have been in her lovers’ minds? Were they so enraptured with themselves for having bagged the sexiest woman in the world that they didn’t take the time to make sure she was also pleased? I wonder, too, if Monroe, fearful that her secret would be revealed in bed, would cut herself off from the possibility of actual pleasure before it even began, and just start her Oscar-winning performance immediately. She was a pleaser. She was proud of how she pleased men. It had made her famous. But it left her alone, when it came to actual sex with an actual man.
I was a little bit like Marilyn Monroe (without the international sex symbol part). I was a pleaser, and cut off from my own sexual feelings very early. I made it my business to be a good lover, but that was only to shield the fact that I had never had an orgasm and didn’t even know where to start. The shame burned, when I allowed myself to pay attention to it at all. But I was lucky. In my late 20s, I found a man who treated my issues with kindness, humor, and patience, making the whole thing like a game, as opposed to some horrible crisis. He had zero ego in the sack. He just wanted me to be happy.
It wouldn’t be until much later that I would wonder why more of my boyfriends hadn’t been like that man. Ultimately, I had to take responsibility for my own sexuality, that is true, nobody could figure out my own body for me. My ignorance about sex was something I was ashamed about, but really it is an indictment of the culture. I couldn’t see that at the time. And the men who treated my not having an orgasm as a personal failure, who pressured me, who criticized me, were also operating out of ignorance. The man who came into my life who changed that game entirely did not treat sex as a mystery, or as something that could even be understood at all. He just liked to play around, with no end goal, no proper order (the standard “First the girl comes, then the guy comes” order of things was always a torment for me!), and what worked for one girl wouldn’t work for another. He got his knowledge through trial and error, but also an openness towards the female experience and its ups and downs. There was no “right” way to do it. Although I wish I had met him earlier, I am glad I met him at all.
It’s embarrassing to come into your own so late. It leaves you on the outside of life, permanently, a glass pane between you and everyone else in the world. Everyone talks about sex. Everyone jokes about it, shares stories, it is understood that we all ‘do it’. There are millions of women out there who feel banished from that shared kingdom. The culture is not set up to help them. As we stand in line at the grocery store, women’s magazines shriek at us to “give him the best sex of his life”, to “show him that one move that will blow his mind”, and if you already feel banished from the world of pleasure then such messages create an alienation that is almost complete. The whole point of sex seems to be to get HIM off.
Marilyn Monroe, a product of 1950s America, is still the ultimate representation of female sexiness. How much more intense must the sex trauma have been for Monroe, who was the veritable symbol of sex for millions? “Of course she loved sex,” everyone thought. “Look at her body!” (As though one has to do with the other.)
I always loved her movies, and had read a lot about her. But when I first learned that Marilyn Monroe had not had an orgasm until well into her 30s, and had finally overcome the mental block under the guidance of her psychiatrist, I wept tears of relief for myself. Maybe it would be okay for me, too? Maybe I could find a way to embrace the fact that there was nothing wrong with how my body was made, that there was a possibility for me to experience that mysterious (to me) “little death”. I had been certain that something was wrong with my actual apparatus, that the pleasure-part was left out or something, and I had no language to even talk about it. I was expected to know myself better, and I had no space for experimentation until I met the man I mentioned, who was relaxed, humorous, and kind. I had always wanted a role model for this particular aspect of my experience, and to find it in Marilyn Monroe, someone I already loved, was very moving. So few people talk about the issue openly, then or now.
“People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts, then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.” - Marilyn Monroe
Monroe told her psychiatrist that she felt, ultimately, like a fraud: with a sensual surface and a chilly interior, unresponsive to any stimulation whatsoever. Through her work with Greenson, she began to open up and to heal. In notes taken from one of the tapes she made for Greenson (released decades after Monroe’s death), Monroe talks to her psychiatrist about having her first orgasm:
“I never cried so hard as I did afterwards. It was because of all the years I had never had one. What wasted years. How can I describe to you, a man, what it feels like to a woman? I’ll try. Think of a light switch with a rheostat control. As you begin to turn it on, the bulb begins to get bright, then brighter, and brighter and finally in a blinding flash is fully lit. It is so good… Doctor, I worship you.”
How sad that she would discover that no, there were no “bells and whistles”, just her own God-given right to pleasure, so close to the end of her life.
After years of faking it, Monroe experienced the real thing. The pain in her one comment (“What wasted years”) shows her regret, her grief. While the “wasted years” are, indeed, sad, what is even sadder is that Monroe did not stick around to make up for all of that lost time in what would have been the second half of her life, had she not died. The healing had actually begun. But it would remain incomplete.
When working on a film, Monroe kept directors and crews waiting for hours while she holed up in her dressing room, staring at herself in the mirror. What was she looking for? Marilyn Monroe was second to none in crafting and perfecting her persona. Every element of her “look”, her hair, her makeup, her clothes, she engineered with a specificity and a cold eye towards what “worked”. John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s acting mentor, made the insightful observation: “It was clear that she was aware that she had created a female character in the tradition of the sad sack tramps of Chaplin and Keaton.” It is not always easy to step into your fantasy of yourself, to take on the persona you have created. Monroe’s looks were so startlingly beautiful and sexy, that on days when she felt low or panicked, it took an act of sheer will to step into that “sad sack tramp” comedienne she had courageously created for herself. The exterior was what was valued in Monroe. Staring at herself in the mirror for hours, while keeping entire crews waiting, was not vanity. It took time to get the interior and the exterior in alignment.
Male sexuality is primarily exterior. There is no great mystery for young men about what they need to do to relieve the tension. But women’s bodies are interior. If you somehow miss the memo that all joy comes from the clitoris (and many of us do), or if you are embarrassed to investigate yourself, then your entire sexuality can remain an interior and mysterious operation. You can’t access it, you can’t see it. Marilyn Monroe’s movie magic was in her ability to take her emotional interior and make it palpably visible to audiences. In so doing, her actual interior was ignored, for years. Staring at herself in the mirror was an act of searching, perhaps, an act of anxious exploration. What is it that they see in me? And can I see it in myself? Can I actually feel, in myself, what it is that others see in me? But where to even begin?