Interpreting Marilyn

February 21, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Posted in Feminisms | Leave a comment

Over at Feministing, Jessica worries about the troublesome portents of dressing another young, troubled celebrity as Marilyn Munroe:

New York Magazine is running a nude photo spread of Lindsay Lohan posing as Marilyn Monroe in the last shoot she would do before she died. And I am appalled. Not because Lohan is pictured nude – to each their own on that front – but because there seems to be no awareness whatsoever about how this spread fetishizes the death and downfall of women in the public eye.

In many ways I completely agree; I’m not sure any young celebrity should seek to emulate such a tragic icon, either through their words or deeds or by stripping off for a facsimile of a classic photoshoot. But at the same time, I can’t decide whether this shoot is fetishising the downfall of celebrity women or reacting against it. One of the key parallels between the Lindsays of our day and the Marilyns of the past is that the same noxious ghouls who either exploited or failed to protect Norma Jean are still very much a fixture of our corrupting celebrity culture. They pressure these girls to stay young and beautiful, to throw themselves under every available camera and to attend high-profile parties where they are never more than arms-length away from drink and drugs. Even if things go horribly wrong (see the tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith), they’ll still make a healthy profit. Then there’s the pack of paparazzi wolves that chase speeding cars, documenting every drink-driving offence, every all-night bender, every wardrobe malfunction. In their very public private lives, these celebrity starlets seem at the mercy of a media that is, in varying degrees, intrusive, vindictive and misogynistic. Now compare that to the reality of this photoshoot. Unlike Marilyn, Lindsay Lohan didn’t just allow the photographer to walk into her hotel room whilst, drunk and mentally unwell, she romped and writhed through reams of film. He made a request to her staff, her staff asked the star, and the star showed up with an entourage and agreed to do it on her own terms. Most importantly, she was in control.

The tragic symbolism of Marylin Munroe is such that it makes any attempt at emulation of her, particularly at a moment when she was most vulnerable, look deeply troubling. But it strikes me that the fetishisation of troubled beauty is much more prevailant in the papparazi scuffle – the trashy tabloids and celebrity magazines that hound and hassle and prejudge these girls every day – than it is in an upmarket photographer’s studio.

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