The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
November 18th, 2010
The whiteness of Marilyn Monroe offers a case study of the interaction between race, sexuality, gender, and class in the formation of individual and cultural identity. Surveying the historical meanings of white as an influence on blonde whiteness, this study of Monroe proposes that historical contexts, individual agency, and the close analysis of specific written and visual texts all need to be taken into account in studying the concept of whiteness.
In one of the twentieth century’s most famous photographs, Marilyn Monroe stands over a subway grate in New York City. A puff of air through the grate blows her skirt up, exposing her legs and underpants. She is a vision in white: her hair is platinum blonde; she wears a white dress, white underpants, white high-heeled sling-back sandals, and large white button earrings. With her head held high, a smile on her face, and lier body seemingly in motion, she resembles an exotic butterfly, evoking, as her friend Truman Capote put it, “the dream of being able to fly.”1 Absorbed in blissful auto-eroticism while holding down her skirt, she both exudes eroticism and transcends it, both poses for the male gaze and escapes it, both ratifies American Puritanism and mocks it (see Figure 1).
She might be an angel, a spun-sugar figure on top of a cake, or the “White Goddess” of Western representation, evident in figures like Eve and Venus. She resembles a Petty or a Varga girl-popular pinups in the 1930s and 1940s drawn by George Petty and Alberto V’argas. She brings to mind a working-class woman on a date at Coney Island negotiating the fun house ramp as puffs of wind from under the ramp blow up lier skirt.2 William Travilla, who designed the dress Monroe wears in the photo, visualized it as highlighting her beauty against the grayness of New York. “I’m not going to have my precious baby standing over a grate in a dark dress,” he stated. “I want her to look fresh and clean.”1
The famous photo was shot in September 1954, during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. In the movie, Monroe plays a model-called only “the girl”-who moves into the upstairs apartment in a New York browns tone above Tom Ewell, who plays a designer of erotic book covers and advertising copy tor a pulp fiction publisher. When Ewells domineering wife leaves for a cooler climate during New York’s summer heat, he turns lustful, fantasizing himself as a sexual lotliario. But, small and dog-faced, he has difficulty approaching real women. Once he meets Monroe, she becomes the subject of his fantasies, and they have a series of encounters tilled with sexual innuendo. The skirt-blowing scene occurs when they exit from a movie theater after viewing The Creature from the Black Lagoon. To cool off from the summer heat, Monroe stands over the subway grate. A train passing underneath supposedly produces the puff of air that blows up her skirt, although it actually comes from a wind machine beneath the grate.
Released in 1954, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is about a scientific expedition to the Amazon River that discovers a pre-historic “Gil-man” living in a lagoon beside the river. Before the expeditions members hunt the creature down, he carries off the female scientist to his lair, in good King Kong fashion. As Ewell and Monroe leave the movie theater, she tells him the creature did not frighten her. Instead, she felt sorry for him. “He wasn’t all bad,” Monroe states. “I think he just needed a little affection-a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.”
The creature from the Black Lagoon was one of many monsters that menaced humans in the science fiction films of the 1950s. Scholars have interpreted those monsters as symbolizing Cold War fears: of Communism, homosexuality, the African American rebellion, male anxiety, and, above all, nuclear destruction.4 On the one hand, the radiant Monroe in the Seven Year Itch photo seems an emblem of the optimistic 1950s, with its affluence; advanced technology; renewed belief in the innocence of the United States as the savior of democracy in World War II; and burgeoning sexual revolution, evident in the December 1953 launch of Playboy, which featured a nude photo of Monroe as the first centerfold. Yet, Monroes link to the Black Lagoon creature implies a connection to the paranoia of the 1950s. Was the figure of Monroe in The Seven Year Itch photo intended as an antidote to those fears? Does she represent the figure of beauty from the Beauty and the Beast legend, whose innocent sexuality could tame any threat? What does the photo suggest about race, class, and gender in an era fraught with concern about those issues?
Whiteness Studies. To probe the Monroe image, I begin with its most obvious aspect: Monroes whiteness, which was important to her look throughout her career. There was her light skin and her dyed blonde hair, sometimes golden, sometimes platinum. She often dressed in white in her films as in her regular life. There was also her all-white dressing room at Twentieth Century-Fox, her white baby grand piano, and her apartment in New York decorated in shades of white, reminiscent of the sumptuous white sets of 1930s films. In the kind of sexual double entendre that was typical of her public statements, Monroe asserted: “I want to be blonde all over.”5
As a twentieth-century icon, the white Monroe merits investigation. Moreover, she raises the subject of whiteness in general, which has interested scholars in numerous disciplines for several decades. In the field of film studies, recent analysts of female whiteness have focused on deconstructing film genres and individual films more than on individual performers, with the exception of Mae West and ethnic stars like Dolores del Rio, Carmen Miranda, and Rita Hayworth, whose Spanish features were reshaped to look Anglo-European. Less attention has been paid to blonde, light-skinned female stars.6 Moreover, despite the many studies of Monroe, no scholar has fully examined her whiteness.7
Addressing the issue briefly in an impressive essay on Monroe and sexuality, Richard Dyer asserted that her whiteness symbolized the racist belief in the superiority of whites over blacks. He noted the importance of the White Goddess in Western representations, the Western dualism between white as pure and black as evil, and the position of the white woman as a prized possession of white menas in King Kong. In his path-breaking White (1997), Dyer extended his argument about the racist ideology implicit in the Monroe image to Western civilization in general, producing an analysis that challenged the prevailing myopia about racism. Dyer’s pioneering work has been central to whiteness studies. Yet, ten years later, it may be time to revisit his thesis.8
It is possible that most blonde, fair-skinned Hollywood actresses, like Dyer’s Monroe, represented a racist ideology. Yet, without further investigation, that conclusion is premature, for it slights differing historical contexts, the agency of the women involved, and cultural categories other than race. In 1992, Stuart Hall cautioned that “issues of race are constantly crossed and re-crossed by the categories of class, of gender and ethnicity.” In 2003, Daniel Bernard! further charged that whiteness analysis was riven by “stress cracks,” including “binary arguments, essentializing assumptions, and reductive explanations.”51 Since 2003, whiteness studies have become increasingly sophisticated in combining other categories with race, although race remains dominant.10 In response, 1 propose to review the meanings of white-as a color and in terms of its sexual, social, aesthetic, and historical meanings aside from race, especially as related to Monroe. I do not mean to imply that race is subordinate in cultural definitions of whiteness or that it does not occupy a hegemonic position in relation to other categories. Rather, my analysis is intended as a dialectical response to existing studies, in order to deepen the analytic possibilities.
Monroe and Whiteness: An Overview. Monroe became a film star as the civil rights movement gathered momentum. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools, was announced in May 1954, three months before production started on The Seven Year Itch. The Montgomery bus boycott began in December 1955, some fifteen months later. Most Hollywood producers acquiesced to the prevailing racism, especially given right-wing attacks on the industry for Communist leanings and the continuing power of the Production Code, which prohibited the depiction of open sexuality and of cross-race relationships in films. Yet, the brash and irreverent Billy Wilder produced and directed The Sevan Year Itch and, along with George Axelrod, wrote its screenplay, based on Axelrod’s play. A Jew who immigrated to Hollywood from Hitlers Germany in 1933, Wilder was a leftist rebel and a trickster known for slipping sexual allusions past the censors.11 Monroe’s defense of the Black Lagoon creature as only needing love may have indicated a positive attitude toward racial difference. And her pose with her skirt flying up, especially with the phallic train underneath, might be interpreted as burlesquing her sexuality.
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