Marilyn Monroe and the Deceptive Nature of the ‘Rags to Riches’ Narrative
If you were to Google the phrase “rags to riches”, it would return hundreds of inspirational articles about Ed Sheeran sofa surfing and Chris Pratt living in a van. When you read these articles, it feels as though you are supposed to compare yourselves to these stories of hardship and uplift. However, it isn’t just the stories we read online that appear keen to sustain this “rags to riches” cliché. Here´s the case of Marilyn Monroe.
Everywhere you go, we are all subtly sold this notion that we too can be like Chris Pratt if only we are prepared to sleep in a van. Everything is “aspirational” nowadays, whether you’re posting a picture of your breakfast on Instagram, or going to university to try and get a degree (and definitely not spending three years rinsing your student loan dry, pushing sambuca shots on, at best, acquaintances and eating curly fries down at the SU).
Thinking about the familiarity of this “rags to riches” narrative, nobody is more familiar – and has been consistently more familiar to contemporary Western audiences for the best part of a century now – than Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe is… well, she’s the type of figure that needs no introduction.
Marilyn Monroe, an icon
She is, in the truest sense of the word, an icon. A secular deity really, in the sense that her image is everywhere. It’s in our living rooms, on the front of pencil cases; it’s there when you open a magazine and when you drive to the supermarket. She is in the art we admire, the music we engage with. She’s like the McDonald’s of women. Which is a strange simile, I know, but bear with me.
Despite the prevalence of her image in popular culture, nobody I know can really put their finger on why her image is still so ubiquitous in the twenty-first century. There were many screen sirens equal, or almost equal, in stature during her lifetime.
Dorothy Dandridge, Natalie Wood, and Sophia Loren, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the name Dorothy Dandridge does not quite elicit the same instant recognition that even the initials “MM” generates. That is not to say that Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren do not still have an enduring legacy in the twenty-first century, because they very much do.
Anyone that doubts me should flip over to Sky Arts sometime because if I have to see another documentary on the making of Rebel Without A Cause, I may have to phone Sky and forcibly break out of my contract with them.
I remember once, I was in class working in pairs, analysing some obscure extract from Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (if you’ve never read Spectres of Marx, it’s just a light-hearted romp). Whoever I was working with noticed that I had an image of Marilyn on my phone – specifically a studio still from one of her first pictures, Asphalt Jungle, with Bette Davis.
They said, “huh, so you like Marilyn Monroe, right?”. I thought it would be weird (and untruthful) to turn around and say no at this point, so I told them that I did. Then they said, “that’s interesting, so can you tell me something – why do people still love her so much? I never really got the obsession”.
However, I wasn’t able to answer them. I didn’t get it either – why I found her so fascinating and had done for all these years without any real break in my preoccupation with her.
The truth is that there were many other stars at the time who equalled her in terms of beauty and talent. This is not to diminish Marilyn’s achievements, which were numerous, but she was certainly not the only glamorous and talented actress of her generation.
However, what set Marilyn apart from others was the prominence of her “rags to riches” backstory. At the time, many articles were written about the nature of her upbringing, being ferried between foster homes, and married off at the age of sixteen.
Journalists marvelled at just how far she’d come from such humble beginnings. Now she was Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous women in the world, notorious for being overtly glamorous and sexual to a degree that was almost unheard of in her time.
Anyone that has ever bothered to read more about her will know that such a description barely scratches the surface of – in reality – this deeply thoughtful and empathetic woman, but that was certainly not well known during her lifetime.
I realise now that it is the spectacle of her life that attracted me to her. It is the mythologisation of her biography that was so irresistible to me. In the developed world we are taught to, almost subliminally, seek out this narrative of uplift in the majority of the media we consume.
The more you think about it, the more you notice it. From conversations about what you want to be when you grow up, to sitcoms about groups of friends struggling to find their feet in the middle class after having spent their childhood being working class – it’s everywhere we go.
Whilst it might seem like a bit of a leap to go from comedy shows about the pitfalls of social mobility to the enduring iconography of Marilyn Monroe, the two are actually much more closely related than you would initially think.
This narrative of alternating struggle and success is so pervasive within society that it is almost invisible. From the age that we learn to walk and talk, we are told that we can do anything – go to the Moon, become the President of the United States and even look like Barbie.
There are no limitations. Or, at least, that is how we would like small children to think about themselves. As we grow older, we assume that these narratives dispel themselves through age and knowledge. In reality, they don’t really go anywhere at all. They simply become more insidious.
They present themselves in the celebrities we look up to, the images we see in adverts, and the conversations we have with our friends and our parents. Those who govern us and are responsible for the many facets that constitute our society, from the education system to the economy, want us to believe that the aspirations we have are inherently achievable. That if you work hard enough, you too can become Chris Pratt.
Societal struggles are normalized and subordinated in favour of a narrative that claims that if you really put your mind to it, you too could fulfil your dreams. You too could become, not only a productive member of society, but an aspirational one too.
However, the “rags to riches” paradigm that we strive towards glosses over the fact that whilst society tells you you can be anything, it also creates hurdles that must be overcome. Society tells you that being a woman shouldn’t hold you back; however, it is also societal norms that dictate what women should and shouldn’t do. Society shows ways through which racism can be ultimately overcome.
However, it is also society that continues to recapitulate the conditions through which institutionalised racism is created. These “rags to riches” stories may at first appear comforting and even motivational. In reality, they are merely stories, tales of individual circumstances, cherry-picked to make it seem as though the problem lies in the individual. You, in other words.
These stories of how 50 Cent literally got rich or died trying, or how Ed Sheeran became an acoustic-pop sensation after busking in subways for years, are indeed heart-warming. Nevertheless, they also contribute to a sustained disavowal of the circumstances that breed inequality.
This is not to say that either Ed Sheeran or 50 Cent are at fault here. No, the fault really lies in those who believe that these individual stories discount the legitimacy of the struggles of all those who have not rocketed to superstardom by the age of thirty. The problem lies in the fact that we are all too keen to close our eyes to systemic inequality.
Society supports the supremacy of the individual so that it can wilfully ignore the wellbeing of the masses. By holding up Marilyn Monroe as a figure to be desired and emulated, we are contributing towards a system that uses the success of the individual to disavow the problems that prevent the majority from ever reaching our goals.
The State would much rather have you think that the problem is with you, rather than to change any of the circumstances by which the ruling elite got to where they are today. It is through the prevalence of icons such as Marilyn Monroe that we begin to see ourselves as enterprises, as individuals who can also better themselves, become socially mobile. However, it also leads us to deny the State’s responsibility for any hurdles in our way.