So this charming image keeps popping up on my newsfeed:
Sure, it’s just Facebook, but it’s representative of a much larger problem: women hating other women. Men have posted this, but plenty of women have too. Women who I thought were progressive and above this kind of petty behavior. I have made the grievous error of letting myself be disappointed by people’s actions on Facebook. AGAIN. AND AGAIN.
Let’s examine the image. On the left, Marilyn Monroe. Unarguably one of the most beautiful women of all time, in her classic pose, done up and dressed for a professional photograph. On the right, there’s a woman taking a casual photo making a goofy face. Yeah, you’re going to see a difference between them.
And sure, the duck face thing isn’t as sexy as some people may think, and it looks like she maybe went overboard on the bronzer, but that doesn’t make her representative of all modern women. Or worthy of widespread scorn. Everyone is entitled to get dressed up and take silly pictures. There are plenty of embarassing shots of me that you could compare to an iconic starlet’s photo and say, “What the fuck happened to women?”
But this image completely erases the strides women have made in the past half century — not to mention Marilyn Monroe’s problematic issues with her own objectification and identity. Today, women have (mostly) legally protected abortion rights, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and mandated maternity leave. We have women running Fortune 500 companies and writing best-selling books and making blockbuster movies and contributing to society in a way that most women, in Monroe’s time, simply weren’t allowed to. Yes, some women worked back then, but they were considered incendiary outsiders or ball-busting women destined for spinsterhood. Or they were poor women/WOC who worked minimum-wage jobs to support their families.
Marilyn Monroe was beautiful and done-up most of the time because she had to be. Looking pretty was her job. For most women, it was the only thing they were allowed to contribute to society. As an article in The Guardian said that for feminists, “(Monroe) became a potent symbol of how bad things were for women in the ’50s, when the job options were simple: housewife or sex kitten.” I don’t know about you all, but I’d rather have the opportunities of the woman on the right.
So why do women keep posting this image? It’s like saying, “Haha, yes, women today are terrible! If only we focused more on our looks instead of doing what we personally enjoy!” It’s internalized oppression at its most casual: a Facebook status. I don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s OK to hate on a complete stranger (the woman on the right) because of her looks and what they represent. Or why anyone thinks their fellow women need a reminder that they should strive for classic good looks over personal fulfillment.
And what does it say about women on a larger scale that so many of us pine for the days of Marilyn Monroe? Women are bemoaning the loss of the “golden age” of femininity, when Marilyn Monroe exemplified the ultimate woman: sensual, stunning, desired, and widely beloved. Sure, she died of a drug overdose at 36, and suffered psychological distress from a lifetime of objectification and exploitation, but hey, she was really pretty!
Gloria Steinem said Monroe was acutely aware of how the patriarchy shaped her image, and she resented it:
She was the child-woman who offered pleasure without adult challenge; a lover who neither judged nor asked anything in return. Both the roles she played and her own public image embodied a masculine hope for a woman who is innocent and sensuously experienced at the same time. “In fact,” as Marilyn said toward the end of her career, “my popularity seems almost entirely a masculine phenomenon.” (source)
Monroe died just before the beginning of the women’s rights movement. Steinem said that if Marilyn had survived to see it, she would have been a card-carrying feminist.
At the FEM 08 conference, feminist author Germaine Greer said that “what worried her about the future of women’s equality and feminism was women’s own misogyny.” Rossje Hasseldine quoted that in an article for The F-Word, and added:
Women’s misogynist behaviour towards each other exposes something deep and dark within women’s relationships. Underneath the popular image of women being good at relationships lies a reality that blocks our ability to support, protect and fight for each other. Something is causing women to hate each other, to feel jealous of each other and to tear each other down. Something is teaching women to use the language and weapons of patriarchy against each other…
It makes sense that women would internalise the language and gender beliefs that taught our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers what ‘good’, ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’ women look like and behave like. It is very hard not to internalise this sexism because the consequences of rejecting it, especially in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ days, was to be ignored, criticised or rejected as a ‘bad’ woman. For many, internalising the language and beliefs of patriarchy was an economic necessity.
Actually, internalizing oppression and misogyny can be harmful to your mental health. In a study titled “Internalized Misogyny as a Moderator of the Link between Sexist Events and Women’s Psychological Distress,” researchers examined how 274 heterosexual women processed internalized misogyny, self-objectification and passive acceptance. They found that internalized misogyny increased the level of psychological distress that women experienced based on sexist things that had happened to them. So yes, internalized misogyny does exist, and it’s making us all feel worse about ourselves. By buying into the idea that Marilyn Monroe was the ideal woman, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
In her last interview before her death, Marilyn Monroe said, “What I really want to say: That what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers. Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe.” (source)
Marilyn Monroe believed in equality, and suffered from a patriarchal society that only valued her for her looks. Instead of asking, “What the fuck happened to women???” maybe we should be asking what the fuck happened to human decency. Marilyn Monroe understood the need for kinship in modern society, and now people are holding her up as an example of what modern women should aspire to — while conveniently degrading one another.
Like I said, I saw this picture pop up on my Facebook newsfeed a couple of times. I commented, saying it wasn’t very funny, and that women have made a lot of strides since Monroe’s time. As a result, I got called “thin-skinned,” “one of those feminists that make women look bad,” “oversensitive” — the usual crap you get when you try to stand up for yourself in a Facebook slapfight. But I don’t regret saying something. Maybe next time, those people will think twice before cavalierly dismissing the entire women’s liberation movement. Or before turning Marilyn Monroe into a paradigm of perfect womanhood when, in reality, she was desperate to be valued for her beliefs and for her brain. She didn’t want to be made into a joke, and that’s exactly what this picture is doing.
Elie Wiesel once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” He probably wasn’t talking about Facebook — probably — but it rings true for me. Don’t let your high school friends and casual acquaintances degrade women with this image. If you can’t find the words, use Monroe’s: “What the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. We are all brothers.”