SHE WANTED TO BE LOVED
Female Celebrity Narcissism Then And Now
She wanted to be loved.
And I guess she thought that if she was a movie star, she would be loved.
Everyone loves Marilyn Monroe. Children, adolescents, adults and the elderly all revere this woman and there are some obvious reasons why: she was undeniably charming, both innocent and sexy, beautiful, funny and famous. But her death, to me, is not shrouded in mystery because the facts aren’t lining up, or because her end was laden with conspiracy. An unexpected, “tragic” and “mysterious” death is truly part of her legend; only recently a few venturous writers and researchers have attempted to sift through what records remain to understand who this woman was, and why she died. I think why and how she died is the very reason for the imposed “mystery” in the first place; to label her death as such is a method of distraction from a very disturbing fact: that this was an unhappy woman, that beauty and success was not the sum of her soul, and that she wanted desperately for something she could not find.
Left: Monroe by Stern in June 1962; Right: Lohan by Stern February 2008
There is no questioning; the admiration of Monroe simply is. It is one of the highest compliments for a young starlet to be compared to her. Lindsay Lohan was ecstatic to be the model for recreating Monroe’s famous last nude photoshoot with Bert Stern for New York magazine. (Her mother was equally ecstatic and brought along Lindsay’s younger sister to watch and presumably “learn.”) On her reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim Kardashian explains that, although she was hesitant at first to pose nude for Playboy, when she learned that Marilyn Monroe did the first-ever celebrity and premier issue, she was convinced it would be a good decision. (If the show is any true snapshot of reality, what Hef failed to mention to Kardashian was that Monroe didn’t pose for the magazine, but for photographer Tom Kelley, three years earlier. She only received $50 for the shots and Playboy published them in 1952.) Paris Hilton reveals in her Paris, Not France documentary that her workaholic schedule deprives her of sleepy time such that she will doze off during hair and makeup, and that someone once informed her that Marilyn Monroe did the same thing. This anecdote is shared with a sense of pride, the same quality with which all other young and beautiful tarts gush about the late legend. To be famous like Marilyn, to be beautiful like Marilyn, to speak in a baby voice like Marilyn… To be Marilyn!
Left: Monroe, December 1952; Right: Kardashian, December 2007
But, to truly be like Marilyn, what about popping pills and champagne like Marilyn? Feeling depressed and lonely like Monroe? Being an orphan, a victim of child and sexual abuse like Marilyn? Coming to work late like Marilyn? Or how about not showing up at all? It is an aspiration that, I fear, is no different than the suspicion quoted above, that Monroe “wanted to be loved…. she thought that if she was a movie star, she would be loved.” Modern starlets equate Monroe qualities to her likeability, but, like the majority of the late-legend’s worshipers, they don’t consider the comparison much deeper. To be like Monroe is to be loved like Monroe. But to be like Monroe also is to suffer, and that isn’t exactly an equation for success. It might just be one of doom.
The fate of Lohan may be all the proof we need. But she is oh-so-obvious. She was chosen for the photoshoot because Stern witnessed a struggle in the young actress, one that reminded him of his first subject.
But for a more interesting comparison, let’s take Hilton. She translates most seamlessly to a modern Monroe due to the fact she banks on the very same persona that was created when Norma Jean was renamed Marilyn Monroe. “The dumb blonde.” Hilton and her close friends confess that in person and in “real life,” whenever that is, she is quite different than what everyone else sees. But, her sister Nicky complains, there has to be a time to stop. She worries that her sister loses track of herself in her dumb blonde charade, continuing her act of delightful vacancy in moments when she should instead be acting herself. That is, no doubt, the problem Monroe battled every day before choosing to exit this world: she was slowly becoming her character, partly because it was what people expected and adored, mainly because it was who she thought she should be. But for such a troubled, lonely girl, losing herself to a character was losing her original wish: her character was loved, not her true self. And that – her own identity – is what she constantly lacked; self love was what she truly needed. She never found what she was looking for because she was looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place.
Left: Monroe after perhaps a glass of champagne; Right: Paris supposedly too drunk to walk
There is such a back-and-forth debate, a wide expression of both love and hate for Hilton. She most likely wishes she could be loved unanimously as Monroe. But, she and her corporate team fail to realize, Monroe was loved then and loved now for very relative and specific reasons. In her heyday, she was the epitome of sensuality when a pop culture “sex symbol” was both new and exciting. Her appeal was not for young girls and teenyboppers; her fans were largely men and, to everyone’s surprise, adult women who found her personality both charming and childlike, even enigmatic. No doubt, these female fans unconsciously were drawn to a fellow woman-in-need. They sensed her pain without knowing. And in her wake, it is her struggle that attracts us most; we are almost blindly drawn to her memory, often unaware of why but certain it is most profound.
Unfortunately for Hilton, porn stars and overexposure of the female body have perverted our senses to any so-called sex symbol, setting up unfair and often hypocritical boundaries between “sexy” and “slutty.” And even if Hilton committed suicide or was ousted in an accident or plot, her time on earth has been too controversial and too uninspiring for the making of a legend as positively loved and cherished as Monroe’s. Certainly some Hilton-haters out there would soften as the news of her death would remind them of their own mortal frames, but surely the poll results are obvious: she does not captivate adults as her role model once did. Her spirit does not speak to us; she fails to draw us in and sparkle with that angelic light Monroe so naturally emitted. She appeals mostly to young girls and a large Japanese fan-base with the promise of material happiness, things shiny and pink. Sure, she makes public statements crafted to sound humble and innocent. But they are tired and seemingly untrue, especially when the sarcasm and nonchalance leak through. Her documentary aims to reveal the true Paris, so as to let the world know that she is smarter than she seems, that she is highly self-aware and takes her job – whatever we might call it – seriously, and that her life is not by any standard a fairytale. Those truths are shared to gain our sympathy and respect, but they do quite the opposite. It was so much easier to digest Paris as dumb. But instead, she is a greedy liar. It’s as if she has no soul.
The difference between the two women has nothing to do with their intellect. As far as anyone can tell, judging as best as possible through the dumb blonde personality they both put forth, one was as smart as the other is now. Their disparity lies in how we perceive the source itself of their personae. We see that Hilton is very conscious and very willing to lie to the world. It is her method of earning a living, a living she proudly proclaims she has created all on her own, without help from her parents or trust fund. But the problem we have with Hilton is not whether or not she works or works hard. We despise that for all that work and all that money she is doing nothing requiring much authentic skill or talent, nothing useful to society as a whole. Taking photos and hawking merchandise is shallow. Her motives appear purely selfish. Her dumb blonde persona is nothing new; she is both copying Monroe and trivializing what was a much more complex and psychological character. Monroe did not become “dumb” and “blonde” just because she thought it would make her money; in fact, she was recorded saying she had no interest in money whatsoever, proclaiming instead that she “just wanted to be wonderful.” She wanted to shine, she wanted her moment. She wanted a pat on the head, or even the bum, and she found the means to achieve this. It was not second nature; it was her nature, for she was convinced she needed it – this attention. Like water.
“Wonderful” in the 1960s required different criteria than today. We now chastise women who have nothing to offer but good looks and a bubbly personality. Lawyers and doctors are the heroes we want our daughters to look up to. If a hotel heiress were an option, she would have to devote herself seriously to something more than posing in designer clothes and starring in reality television. And, most importantly, she should not feed off of the Monroe persona – not any persona. We demand originality, and we protect Monroe fiercely from being tainted. Which reminds us: what about Lohan, then? Her drug and sex addictions are certainly reminiscent of the secret life of Monroe, and her family’s dysfunctional appears never-ending. But Lohan fails to truly channel Monroe in our eyes because her “suffering” looks more like acting out; it translates to us as immaturity. Lohan hasn’t learned from Monroe and the many other examples of Hollywood train-wrecks, and for that, she cannot earn our sympathy.
What we want to see, what we secretly crave, is to witness Monroe reborn but avenged; to witness her counterpart rise from the ashes and heal herself, reign victorious over the circumstantial and societal chains that held her true heart captive. We don’t want just another dumb blonde. We want the original, and we want her to become smart, to be natural, and, please – god – to be finally happy.
It is a nostalgic wish, a delusion. We are drawn to Monroe because we are stunned by such a brilliant and beautiful woman’s internal pain. She comforts us, in an odd way, because she reminds us that no amount of money or fame will buy happiness. But when we consider the source of Monroe’s depression and her personality type, we must realize that our attraction to Monroe is founded upon the very same reason for our judgments of Lohan, Hilton, Kardashian and their counterparts. The passage of time distorts our comprehension – “glamorous” but in an old-Hollywood sense, “vintage,” “quaint,” “classy” – indeed, a wonderful woman, chiseled in time. In reality, Monroe’s image at the time was trendy, contemporary, and incredibly sensual – the figure of a sexpot. As much as she is loved by women now and since her death, at the time of her life, she was as provocative and threatening to other women as the celebrities of today. Most importantly: she was unstable and prone to acting out. As an orphan and abuse victim, her issues of abandonment, neglect and trauma stunted her emotional growth, and she was forever a child. All of her behaviors were crafted – most likely, unconsciously – to warrant her attention. It is for this reason she plowed through men, both sex partners and husbands, and suffered from anxiety and insomnia. Her private life was, in fact, private in her time. Its details are still fragmented in comparison to today’s obsessive and invasive celebrity culture. But we know enough to paint a grim picture of her persona: Monroe, simply put, was narcissistic, just like our current clan of attention-whoring female celebrities.
Narcissism makes us think of bad people who think too highly of themselves. But it is really a personality type rooted in self-loathing, triggered often by trauma in childhood. The desire for attention is based on a deeper dissatisfaction with oneself. It may be difficult to associate such an intense level of insecurity with modern celebrities who appear to be extremely flaunting on camera. But we must read between the lines. In Kardashian’s case, we don’t have to; she has admitted, “I’m such a perfectionist I don’t think I’m ever really comfortable,” going on to cite her thighs as a point of contention. Her thighs would make her normal and relatable, but terms like “perfectionism” and “comfortable” paint the same grim picture as Monroe: neurotic, obsessive, perpetually unsatisfied and constantly seeking validation. Monroe could shine on screen and the red carpet, then go home to her sleeping pills. With new technologies that literally place the cameras in our modern leading ladies’ bathrooms, there is no private corner in which to weep. They crave the attention, and it completely suffocates their identity, producing a narcissist on hyper drive. We are not seeing the whole person; we are seeing an ego. Always made up, always poised, always conscious of one’s image. They just want to be loved.