“Shall I Be Her?” Finding Marilyn and Monroe in My Week With Marilyn (2011)

The world never recovered from Marilyn Monroe. She remains the quintessential blonde beauty, the perfect image of youth and naivety. We continue to see versions of her again and again in contemporary media. She is like this frail ghost trailing behind the word beauty. Perhaps because she never lived long enough to get away from this toxic image.

Our culture loves Marilyn because she died. That is a horrible thing to write, but it’s true. We treat her like a mute Venus, an object of desire and admiration. It is not like she can defend herself now. Media primarily focuses on one version of Marilyn, specifically as a tragic and gorgeous image. We are more interested in gazing at her than hearing from her. In other words, we treat her as if she were a persona, not a person. The parts of her life which don’t fit this silly blonde narrative get left out. For instance, Marilyn’s articulate poetry, drawings, intelligent journal entries, and extensive reading habits are often forgotten. I believe that this work is as noteworthy as her legendary performance as Marilyn Monroe.

The film My Week With Marilyn illustrates how Marilyn could switch between person and persona. Much like her image today, the Marilyn in the film has trouble balancing her identity with her social identity. As she describes, “All people ever see is Marilyn Monroe”, and everything she represents. This means that Marilyn cannot assert herself without performing, or switching to, this famous character. Her anxiety in the film stems from this difficult position, as she is afraid to drop this persona and disappoint everyone.

Performing Monroe

The Marilyn in the film wants to become a great actress without fully realizing that her everyday life is already a performance. During production of The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn negotiates with male gaze while also trying to assert her needs. She deals with a lot of anxiety on set, mainly because she is never sure if people want her persona or if she can be herself. As a result, people start describing her as a diva and as a “lost little girl”, both of which are extremely dismissive. They make it seem like Marilyn is simply confused or silly, rather than painfully observant and self-aware.

For example, after she escapes set for a day, she visits Eton College with Colin Clark. There are multiple instances in this sequence which imply that Marilyn is deeply depressed and stuck in a toxic relationship with her image. She even hints that Hollywood has become an extension of the abuse she underwent as a child.

These moments of sincere observation and critical thought are often interrupted by Marilyn Monroe fans. When she comes across such a group, Marilyn turns to Colin and asks “Shall I be her…Marilyn?”, before turning to the crowd and doing a little dance. They all laugh and smile, and in that moment, the perceptive Marilyn we just encountered transforms into Marilyn Monroe. She puts on her persona like a mask.

This scene suggests that Marilyn is fully aware of her performative identity, and that she is similarly aware that society only wants her to be that constructed person.

Who Owns the Image?

That said, in the moments where Marilyn talks about how anxious and sad she is, the characters around her get bored or assume she is faking it for more attention. This is primarily because they don’t want to think about Marilyn as a real person, with real emotions and thoughts. I would argue that this is where the film sort of fails Marilyn. In order to demonstrate just how powerful Marilyn Monroe was, and remains, the film gets swept up with this ideal. It wants us to fall in love with Marilyn, but a version of her which is still dictated by male gaze.

The moments where Marilyn talks about her personal life are always shown from a male perspective, specifically one who is in love with her. The only reason that someone is listening in these scenes is because they are so enamored with her, not because they want to help. In fact, we get very few scenes of Marilyn interacting with other women. She has a few conversations with the other actresses, but they are always on edge with Marilyn. There is one scene where Sybil Thorndike defends Marilyn’s performance, but it is very quick. Her interactions with acting teacher Paula Strasberg are similarly brief, and the other characters often talk about how much of a problem the teacher is.

As much as I enjoy the film, it feels like by negotiating with male gaze, the film succumbs to it. It sort of fetishes Marilyn’s personal troubles and treats them as something Colin has to negotiate in order for Marilyn to fall in love with him. It puts Marilyn up on a pedestal as this iconic figure, but that is part of the issue. She remains as inaccessible and mysterious as ever.

The film gives us little glimpses into Marilyn’s identity and trauma, but because of this domineering male gaze, nothing comes of this. Her anxiety is always seen from the outside, and we never really hear from Marilyn without this male presence.

Then again, the film is not actually about Marilyn. It is called My Week with Marilyn, emphasis on the ‘my’. The film is about someone else’s experience with Marilyn, someone who is just along for the journey. It is a biopic, but one which reflects our modern treatment of Marilyn. Yes, the film introduces more depth to this character, but not using Marilyn’s perspective or voice.

There have been a few Marilyn biopics, but these generally succumb, even more so, to either glamorizing Marilyn or fetishizing her trauma. Although My Week With Marilyn does not come from Marilyn’s perspective, it is one of the more sincere biopics about her life. It seems to genuinely care about its subject, and perhaps this outside focus is an intentional way to highlight how Marilyn is typically characterized. And, perhaps, Colin’s perspective in the story demonstrates that this chain of male gaze will ultimately destroy Marilyn, as everyone is so busy watching and needing her, that no one notices that she needs something else.

If you are interested in learning more about Marilyn’s life from her own writing, I highly recommend the 2012 documentary Love, Marilyn.

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