Looking for Marilyn

I was roaming around on YouTube today, as I often do, and I came upon a famous and rather iconic moment in U.S. cultural history: Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Watching her performance, it became clear to me that much of the wonderful humor Marilyn brought to that moment arose from the way she understood – and beautifully conveyed – that on some fundamental level JFK was as much of a sex symbol as she was.

Recall that the two preceding U.S. presidents had been Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower – both highly respected in their way, but definitely not sex symbols. Suddenly, along comes this handsome, charismatic and brilliantly articulate man, with warmth, humor, and a smile to die for. If we were to rank cold war era politicians the way we rank current movie stars, Kennedy would be roughly on a par with George Clooney.

And it struck me that the erotic charge of that moment finds a parallel in the kind of feeling that I sense toward Barack Obama within the popular culture. I’m not talking here about his particular policies – whether you think of him as a liberal or as a centrist. I’m talking about the man’s extreme charisma, his relaxed brilliance and ability to clearly communicate and discuss ideas without breaking a sweat. And of course the fact that he has a kind of lanky elegance, a comfort within his physical being, that we rarely associate with politicians.

Ronald Reagan had an equivalently powerful charisma. Even if you utterly disagreed with his policies, you realized that the man was completely comfortable within his own skin. Although, as a man of seventy even when first elected, he served as a father figure in the popular mind, rather than a sex symbol.

Bill Clinton had great charisma, but it was always a little complex – there was a feeling of conflict lurking just below the surface, even from the beginning – a sense of some kind of inner struggle beneath the poise and smooth southern charm, as though a part of him didn’t quite believe he deserved to be president.

But president Obama has that gracious quality, that lèse majesté of natural and confident leaders, which adds up to the kind of sex appeal that JFK brought to the office. There’s something about Obama that calls for a happy birthday song from Marilyn. And, like JFK, his response to such a tribute would gracefully convey the humor of the moment (in contrast, try to imagine either president Bush responding with easy humor to a winkingly sexy birthday song from Marilyn – such a moment wouldn’t make sense to them).

I’ve been trying to imagine that moment, Marilyn Monroe singing to the heart-throb president, transposed to today, to 2009. There’s only one thing I can’t quite figure out: If Barack Obama is – in the culturally iconic sense – the JFK of our time, then who is the Marilyn of our time? Do we even have one?

7 thoughts on “Looking for Marilyn”

  1. Of course we have a modern Marilyn! It’s Germany’s Angie Merkel!
    (Now picture her lap-dancing Barack at the G7.)

    History does NOT repeat.

  2. hi ken,

    i could imagine

    *) Alicia Silverstone – she acted first in musicvideos of Aerosmith (together with Liv Tyler), and she has that kind of sexual smile that makes someone melt away 😉

    *) “Mary Stuart Masterson” – she acted in films like “Benny & Joon”, “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Some Kind of Wonderful”. ok, she never was in the news like Marilyn was, and it’s quite still about her now, but never the less, i still think she has some potential.

    …thinking of more… 😉

  3. Angela Merkel? David, I am humbled. You clearly have a far more unique and vivid fandasy life than I could ever hope to aspire to. 😉

  4. @Ken:
    Do you agree with me that Marilyn’s evident fragility, is it what makes her so sexy in this moment?

    I always ask myself why does power and success make men sexy, but women fragility?!

    @ David:
    Thank god, I can’t imagine Angela Merkel being a Marilyn. 🙂

  5. Yes, Dagmar, I completely agree about Marilyn. She had a magical air of vulnerability about her. I was one of her best and most irresistable qualities. In her best performances, such as in the role of Sugar Kane in “Some Like it Hot”, that quality tended to make the entire audience fall in love with her.

    I don’t think the rule about men/women is universal. Yes, it’s a strong tendency, but there are lots of exceptions. Brad Pitt’s performance in “Thelma and Louise” is one (his character had no power beyond his enormous sexual charisma), as is Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” (sexy as hell, and not at all vulnerable).

  6. 😀
    Okay, you saw through me! (I’m actually infatuated with Joschka, but he’s no longer on the front stage… and getting fat agian ;-).

    I only partially agree with the vulnerability aspect of Marilyn’s attraction…
    I’m not sure how consciously the ‘portrayed’ aspect of her vulnerability pushes those buttons in men’s heads. Vulnerability is part submission (born of need) and part gratuity. Read; she’s playfully putting herself on a silver platter. Highlight: playfully. Does her attraction stem from knowing that she’s just playing and will dump said longful man after short bout. That equals “no consequence”. Mabe even a bit of self-pity. (sic: the domina Emma Peel wearing sheep’s clothing?) Then there’s the aspect of notoriety – everyone knowing she’s this combination… (nope, not going there.)

    Closing the arc from Marilyn and Angela to sex and power, I recall studies of perceived attraction where viewer’s were asked to judge the attractiveness of a women in a painting. Some of the images were manipulated so that the head position was less tilted, sic: less subversive. The portrayed women was immediately perceived as being less attractive in these cases. I remember noting that all these art-historical beauties originally had tilted poses.

    Perhaps its a sign of the times that there is no Marylin wooing Obama… but an affectionate, supporting wife.

  7. @David
    I read those studies and I experienced some of it on a photo session I had as I was told to put my chin deeper so that I look nicer – actually he said less dominant and arrogant.
    As you can imagine I had some discussions with the photographer. 🙂

    And to your comment on Michele Obama:
    I would prefer women to follow their own career and not end up as a supporting wife. I would have more fun to see Michelle Obama on the cover of a lawyers magazine talking about her profession instead of a vogue cover giving a home story. Just imagine nobody talking anymore about her naked arms and her dresses, but talking about the last lawsuit she won.

    I guess it will take some time until those kind of times will be there…:-)

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