“Forever Marilyn,” or Forever Exploitation?

When sculptor Seward Johnson’s 26-foot-tall tribute to Marilyn Monroe came under public scrutiny after last month’s unveiling in Pioneer Court in Chicago, he knew there would be a blow-up of one sort or another. Forever Marilyn recreates on a grand scale the iconic scene from the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch when Monroe’s character, known only as “The Girl,” stands over a subway grate and allows her skirt to be blown up around her, titillating the “itchy” married man beside her. Forever Marilyn titillates a new generation while claiming to celebrate the blonde bombshell’s life and career. But does this sculpture extend the Hollywood legend or just repeat the same exploitation that contributed to Monroe’s tragic death?

When Billy Wilder decided to make a film version of George Axelrod’s Broadway play, he kept the male lead—Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman—but jettisoned Vanessa Brown in favor of Marilyn, who had already wowed the public (especially the men) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Brown was beautiful enough to play Jane to the King of the Jungle in Tarzan and the Slave Girl, but Wilder needed nuclear-powered sex appeal. As can be seen in this clip, Marilyn’s “Girl” made a reference to “hot pants” during the scene that censors felt stepped over the line the rest of the film carefully walked. Hollywood legend holds that baseball star Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s husband at the time, watched the filming of the scene, which required multiple takes, and grew more incensed with every moment. DiMaggio’s anger came from jealousy, of course, but also from seeing his wife exploited. Seeing that episode recreated 26 feet tall today would have made the Yankee Clipper’s head explode.

"There is something about her pose,” Johnson says in defense of Forever Marilyn, “the exuberance for life without inhibition, which is quintessentially American. It expresses an uninhibited sense of our own vibrancy." Johnson asks the viewer to see Forever Marilyn as a monument to freedom, specifically sexual but also freedom in general. Throwing in “quintessentially American” was a nice touch, too, as if looking up Marilyn’s skirt were a patriotic act. I can see Johnson’s argument, but I can’t bring myself to buy it.

It hasn’t been a good year for public art. Oliviero Rainaldi’s quirky statue of Pope John Paul II drew the ire of Italians hoping for a more realistic, less idiosyncratic tribute to the pontiff. Whereas Rainaldi sinned in straying too far from realism, Johnson goes astray by working too realistically. If he had just sculpted the billowing skirt of “quintessentially American” freedom, Johnson would have struck the same blow for freedom without the crass, cheap, exploitative elements that make me wish Forever Marilyn was in an obscure corner of Las Vegas than in the heart of a major American city. I believe that Rainaldi’s statue will eventually win people over, but I doubt that Johnson’s Marilyn will ever win universal approval. Since Forever Marilyn is ironically scheduled to sit in Chicago only until next spring, it may never even get the chance to gain acceptance. Sadly, but poignantly, the sculpture seems as disposable as the star it portrays. Marilyn Monroe enjoyed her fame and consciously contributed to the persona Johnson celebrates. Monroe realized far too late the price she paid and died a victim of her own celebrity. Forever Marilyn seems a cruel reminder of how one famous woman became objectified literally to death, and a monument to the objectification of unheralded women that still takes place today.

[Image: Seward Johnson. Forever Marilyn.]

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