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On Marilyn Monroe’s 95th Birthday, Are We Still Looking Up Her Skirt?

A 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn in Palm Springs is causing a stir. It's great to honor her, but do we have to do it by showing her underwear?

A few years ago, I spent time under Marilyn Monroe’s upswept skirt. It was actually under that giant 26-foot-tall sculpture by artist Seward Johnson that called Palm Springs home between 2012 and 2014. She’s depicted in the memorable white billowy dress from The Seven Year Itch.

I was in a Pilates class outside on the grass, not far from her tighty whities briefs. I’d been entranced by her, especially since I wrote about her for CBS in my twenties, but something felt a little off.

She loomed above me, a caricature, based on the well-wrought image that Marilyn herself created of the sexy young bombshell. She knew this persona was an exaggeration but compelling nevertheless. Here she stood as something grossly gargantuan or epic—depending on how you looked at it.

Now, after a road trip to other sites around the globe, including New Jersey, Australia, and Connecticut, the sculpture is being brought back to the desert city amidst much controversy.

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The Marilyn Mystique and Controversy

Both men and women have always been attracted to Marilyn Monroe. Gone since 1962, Marilyn still rates as one of the top dead celebrities and moneymakers, according to Forbes.

What’s fun, nostalgic, or iconic about featuring a giant young woman with her skirt blown above her waist?

Yet, despite our recent reckonings about sexual harassment and assault, during cancel culture and since the #Me Too and #Times Up movements, some people still want to crudely use her.

Aftab Dada, managing director at the Palm Springs Hilton and the head of PS Resorts, worked diligently to bring the sculpture, entitled “Forever Marilyn,” back to town. He and others want to prop her up to generate tourism and dollars. He says the work makes people happy.

Elizabeth Armstrong, former director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, says it’s sexist and promoting the statue objectifies Marilyn. The current director, Louis Grachos, agrees. Fashion designer and local boutique owner Trina Turk formed a group that opposes the placement on Museum Way, as it blocks a view and violates local ordinances. 

I agree with the naysayers. What’s fun, nostalgic, or iconic about featuring a giant young woman with her skirt blown above her waist? And allowing people to hang out there? It’s demeaning. Why didn’t I realize how wrong this was before?

Sculpted Sexism

When the towering 34,300-pound statue returns to Palm Springs, scores of kids and adults who exit the museum will be smack dab in front of Marilyn’s underwear—pseudo-art and objectification all wrapped up in one sexy package. Visitors to a city known for its mid-century modern architecture will be exposed to something memorable all right. 

According to NPR, photographing up a real woman’s skirt in California could get you slapped with a misdemeanor charge. What’s the charge for taking photos and selfies underneath a young woman who is deified in painted steel and aluminum?

I feel guilty, like I should apologize to Marilyn. Even in 2021, people are still taking advantage of her.

Was Marilyn Monroe a Feminist—in Her Own Way?

Marilyn Monroe statue
The Original

Yes, I accepted the sex symbol thing. But do people know the blazing star always tried to better herself? Marilyn studied literature at UCLA and read Whitman and Joyce. She married Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller, no slouch in the brainiac department who found the oft-mocked star witty.

Photographing up a real woman’s skirt in California could get you slapped with a misdemeanor charge.

Do they realize that she supported Ella Fitzgerald and civil rights? She read the room and forged a successful character. From the wiggle to the breathy voice, Marilyn created a sex goddess and cultural icon that endured.

Time called her a “shrewd businesswoman.” She unshackled herself from the bimbo parts she was contracted to play through the studio system—no small feat at the time. She was savvy about generating enough publicity to force the studio’s hand. She also became only the second woman to head her own production company.

She was no dumb blonde. Trailblazing feminist Gloria Steinem once told The Guardian, she thought Marilyn “would be a card-carrying feminist” if she were around now. Because “her experiences were ones that feminists often speak out on: sexual abuse, sexual victimization, a mother’s madness.” She was also courageous, speaking out about herself and others.

Whether we label her feminist or not, she taught women like us to own our story and our power.

What Would Marilyn Think?

It’s understandable why Palm Springs’s business community wants to exploit the City’s close association with her to generate revenue, especially after the city’s tourism has taken such a huge hit from the pandemic. She’s followed by over 13 million people today according to her official Facebook page. And I have no doubt that seeing Marilyn does make people happy.  

Who knows? Marilyn may be watching from heaven thrilled with the return of “Forever Marilyn” and cheering the supporters on. But I’m not.

Her legacy needs to be revisited so we honor her in a more nuanced way. She was manifestly broken, but effervescent, kind, sweet, and very smart. Let’s rethink how we admire her.

Build statues, but don’t stand under her dress.

Happy Birthday, luminous, clever, and mesmerizing Marilyn! No matter what happens with the statue, we will remember Marilyn Monroe as larger-than-life and her undying magnificence. She’s inspired us since the camera first found her, that day in 1946 that photographer Joseph Jasgur took photos of Norma Jean Dougherty. And he didn’t need to shoot up her skirt, either. He knew a bright star when he saw one.

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By Barbara Field


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