The U.S. Post Office, as curator of the national postal aesthetic, has a spotty record at best.
One season they wow us with a spectacular series like vivid landscapes from the fifty states, or with American heroes like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. The next season they trot out the latest addition to their "White Guys in Neckties" series, most recently foisting upon us a Machiavellian prince like Richard Nixon.
Tricky Dick's post-mortem image has been sufficiently cleaned and polished to permit his placement in the Post Office's gallery of reconstituted saints. Presidents, it seems, are given special pardons, even for high crimes like the death of over a million Vietnamese.
And where would presidents and gangsters be without their consorts and molls? How fitting then, that on the heels of Tricky Dick, the Post Office has now offered us a stamp of Marilyn Monroe. Is it mere coincidence that, in a time when the Year of the Woman has been trumped by the Year of the Angry White Male, we should have officially thrust upon us the Angry White Male's favorite ¸ber-babe? Was there a clause somewhere in the Contract On America, reclaiming the straight white male's holy right to ogle and visually fondle the quintessential 1950's pin-up girl, America's favorite before all this Women's Lib stuff?
Try and understand who this poor troubled young woman really was: nÈe Norma Jean Baker, a molested orphaned child. Grew into a shy awkward teenager, who noticed that her large jiggling breasts captured the attention and admiration she'd missed as a child. Turned struggling actress and model, she posed in the flesh to make ends meet. Finally she became the most celebrated of all the post WWII pin-ups, known for her simpering and sighing bimbo roles in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. Jettisoned to fame and fortune, the consort of a president, a baseball idol, a celebrated playwright. Five broken marriages, a fondness for alcohol and pills. Suicide at the age of 36.
An odd remembrance for a postal gallery of heroines and heroes, to be sure. But no odder than Elvis (the Younger Version) or Tricky Dick. Sojourner and Harriet, no doubt, are sliding over to the other side of the bench, wondering if they're in the right place.
The MM stamp display in the post office lobby, complete with a slice of cleavage and that famous inviting smile, bears the following inscription: "Classically beautiful, Marilyn Monroe set the motion picture standard for glamour and sensuality."
Classically beautiful? Monroe confided often in various interviews and conversations about the agony of her "classic beauty" -- the constant diets, bleaching of her hair, the famous JFK inaugural dress so tight she could hardly breath, and a host of other "beauty" practices long on distress and discomfort and short on sensuality. If nothing else, classical beauty and glamour is artificial, expensive and difficult to achieve. It establishes a hierarchy of beauty -- a kind of "free trade" for female appearance -- prodding all women to compete against each other for the grand prize.
Yet another poll has shown an alarming number of 8 year old girls already on diets, trying to achieve that "classic beauty." American society still does not accept all body shapes and sizes, instead pinning its notions of female beauty to a particular shape and size. One that looks like Marilyn Monroe. Or Cindy Crawford. Or Naomi Campbell. Or Madonna looking like Marilyn Monroe, recycled clichÈs being profitable in an age hankering backward.
Here's a simple notion: Marilyn Monroe is no one to immortalize, but Norma Jean Baker is. The story of that little girl growing into a young woman, struggling to survive in a sexist culture that (still) wants its women shaved, bleached, puerile, torpedo-breasted, thin, trussed up and packaged for viewers to ogle and fondle, is a story that we all need to come to grips with.
Let's have a postage stamp that shows, not the colonized Marilyn Monroe, but the youthful dark-haired Norma Jean. And print an inscription on the stamp that says: "Warning -- Beauty May Be Hazardous to Your Health." That's the real story of Marilyn Monroe a.k.a. Norma Jean Baker, that we should be teaching to eight year old girls
Rest in peace, Norma Jean.
Steven Hill is a straight white male and a journalist.
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