Even previous to the proliferation of print media in the early 1900s, images of women were used to symbolize and narrate ideas, values and stories. As cinema expanded into a global pastime, public fascination with the stars grew. The studios assisted this fascination via the creation of gossip and fanzines, often engineered towards constructing glamour for their stars and promoting upcoming films. In the case of the female stars, their stories and images gave both men and women a site for fantasy. Sure, men could aspire to talk like Tyrone Powers and perhaps even use Brylcreem to slick their hair in a similar fashion, but the ‘look’ of the male star was not thrust into male consciousness as something to be aspired to or re-created via right consumption. On the other hand, women were encouraged to colour their hair like the stars and utilize cosmetics and clothing to create selves that resembled the silver screen beauties. Images of the popular stars became iconic – ideals that circulated socially, creating myth and fantasy. It is interesting to note that Marilyn Monroe grew up idolizing Jean Harlow, using the studio-mediated fantasy of Harlow to escape her loneliness and poverty. For Monroe, celebrity symbolized acceptance, something she seldom experienced in her childhood. Born to a mentally ill, and mostly absent, mother and an unknown father, Monroe moved between foster families. Although nothing overly horrible occurred in these homes, the sense of being unwanted bore down on Monroe, seeing her emotional development freeze. Thus, Monroe, is best seen as a melancholy little girl.
Monroe’s vulnerability is recognizable to most women. The desire to be wanted, loved and seen in the fullest sense. Monroe was introverted and bookish, a dirty secret many women harbor in a society where women are meant to be for others. Her charisma drew people to her and at times, stardom overwhelmed her. Fame was irony for Monroe – people adored her, yet those closest abused her and belittled her. She was seen as difficult by studio professionals, despite other actresses, such as Elizabeth Taylor, making far more audacious requests. Men saw her as the ultimate fantasy, as constructed in some of her films – made for their pleasure and attuned to their needs. Monroe says, in her autobiography: “The truth is, I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them…when they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them”. This characterizes an inherent problem of femininity. Our faces, affects, postures, smiles, bodies, clothes and all the other accessories combine like hieroglyphics to construct a social character for others to read. But these texts do not have clear meanings, so when they inevitably collide, resentment, bitterness and disappointment boils to the surface.
The feminine social mask is heavy with preconceived ideas. Subtexts of pornography, domesticity and stereotypes underpin each mask. Expectations are placed upon women to fulfill roles they never asked for or considered – and at times, we wonder how all our other attributes are marginalized into nothingness as the focus on our appearance gains precedence. Then we may question whether we invite the male hands that linger, fondle or touch. We will be discussing big thoughts, scientific theories or philosophical musings, caught in the furious hot stream of the moment; or we will be ankle-deep in white daisies, at the foot of an elm, enjoying the sun on our skin – and then, from nowhere, the sex thing is an unwelcome and horrid explosion, a hard slap across the cheek. It occurs to us…we are The Girl.