I Am Not Your Role Model
Ginger Murray Whore Magazine
"Is she a good role model?", is a pervasive question these days and one applied to just about everyone from Miley Cyrus to Beyonce to Nobel Peace Prize nominee Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai. Even Marylin Monroe, 20th century sex goddess of the silver screen, has been dragged into the fray despite it being a relatively recent concept.
And that is where I want to begin.
I first encountered Marilyn Monroe in a large, hard cover book of photographs resting on my mother’s top shelf. It lived on that top shelf because many of those photos were of Monroe in the nude. I was six years old. One could actually argue that it was my first exposure to pornography. I was fascinated, excited, and a little thrilled by awareness of my transgression. Initially.
But as I continued to look at that book over the years what was once titillation became curiosity and a little bit of awe. There was just Something about Her. It was not that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and having, by then, watched a number of her films, certainly not the most talented person I had encountered. But she was wholly unique. Not any of the other notable goddesses, Carol Lombard, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth (though marvelous in their own right), could evoke that almost indescribable but undeniable Glow that Monroe had. It was as though light favored her over all else. Screens shivered when she crossed them and static electricity crackled in her wake. You could not, not watch her.
Norma Jean aka Marilyn Monroe grew up in poverty and in a dysfunctional household with a mother who was severely mentally ill. She was sexually abused. Plastic surgery was a significant aspect of Norma Jean’s transformation into Marilyn. It is said that she never had an orgasm during sex. She did indeed, pop pills, have an affair with a married president and died an inglorious death. She was decidedly, flawed. Flawed and also, just a little bit miraculous to achieve what she did considering from whence she came.
Despite my interest in her, I never wanted to be Monroe. I didn’t even want to be like Monroe. She is not one of my heroes nor do I even, necessarily, consider myself a fan. Rather it is that I find her intriguing. She is a cipher of our mid-20th century American desire and decay, a gorgeous enigma and one that continues to confound.
There is a brilliant essay by Truman Capote where he recounts an afternoon spent with Monroe after a mutual friend’s funeral. The deceased, Shakespearean actress Constance Collier, had said this about Monroe, “there is something there. She is a beautiful child. I don’t mean that in the obvious way—the perhaps too obvious way. I don’t think she’s an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has—this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence—could never surface on the stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight: only a camera can freeze the poetry of it. But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow or harlot or whatever is mad.”
The essay reveals a side of Monroe rarely depicted, a tortured but also possibly a profound trickster, self aware and possessing some ephemeral stuff that flashes out in moments (a thing that could be called wisdom). It also captures achingly her sadness. A sadness that eventually contributed to her death.
Monroe’s story is not one of triumph. But that does not ultimately, matter. My self-image, life goals, ways of becoming in the world were neither provoked nor harmed by the existence of Monroe. She simply, fantastically, was which is why I find those bizarre memes of her so disturbing and cruel.
She suffered enough in her actual life and then, because of this whole Role Model obsession, she has been dragged back up and eviscerated for not being a shiny, virtuous and respectable representation of womanhood. There are those who emulate her look, value that she was a beautiful woman who was not even remotely thin according to our modern standards, enjoy her movies and find relatable qualities, and then there are some who believe her legacy should be destroyed and left to lie under a marquee that screams, “Slut!”
That is the whole problem with this Role Model debate. Underneath its seeming, (also legitimate) feminist interest in promoting positive paths of achievement and success for women lurks insidious, controlling judgement.
"How dare you twerk Ms. Cyrus! You are turning our precious little girls into rapacious whores!" In reality, she is likely more a precocious pawn and not an agent, a creation born of our collective miasma of desire, shame, and Pop weirdness. Or maybe Cyrus is merely a young woman who is trying to find her way in our strange and sometimes, terrifying culture of consumption.
Do we need more Elizabeth Warrens, Patti Smyths, Angela Davis’, Malala Yousafzais’ and Sojourner Truths? Absolutely. Do we need more female lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists, engineers, dock workers, poets and fighters? Yes, yes we do.
And we will get them more and more even if Rihanna wears a see-through dress or Monroe stands over a subway grate. All we have to do is keep pushing the limits of what is possible and give our strength to young women everywhere. We do a great disservice to these women when we treat them as victimized, vapid sponges unable to discern the world around them and make out a place in it. Many young women are actually far more fierce, smart, savvy, and inviolable than we often give them credit for. These fierce young woman are also often fearful, foolish and flawed, just like the rest of us. The Human Condition, n’est-ce pas?
And so, I will not be their Role Model. I will not tell them who their Role Models should be. I will not even tell them that they need Role Models. Instead, I will believe in and support their great capacity to become exactly, uniquely and gloriously, themselves.
Ginger Murray is the editor in chief of Whore! magazine, a journalist and performance storyteller. She was also a columnist for the SF Weekly and the creator of the cabaret series the Cat's Pajamas. She has appeared just about everywhere and done just about everything, including a stint as a talking head on the History Channel, an interview subject of In Deep with Angie Coiro and a strutter upon the stage with the likes of La Pocha Nostra and Red Hots Burlesque.
She is an avid lover of bad girls, thinkers and radical idiots.