Thursday, February 21, 2008

Monroe and Lohan: Is there anything worth talking about?

Okay, so here's an interesting parallel for discussion: Marilyn Monroe versus Lindsay Lohan? The question was raised recently, as Bert Stern, famous for photographing Monroe during "The Last Sitting," decided to recreate said monumental event using Lindsay Lohan as a stand-in. Let's try to do what we do here, and dig under the cheesy provocation and sensationalism for some meaning. In this case, there's quite a bit to discover.

I think the metaphor is obvious, after all. Just as with Marilyn, Lohan is a Hollywood starlet, famous for her charm and her body and infamous for her spotty background and bad behavior in the public eye. Marilyn's last photoshoot was looked upon in light of her death, which occurred shortly afterwards; Lohan herself has been plagued with addiction and rehabilitation, and with the attendant paparazzi attention, and her rendition of the photoshoot will be colored by her own recent controversies.

Now, very few of us will be willing to buy Lohan as a new Marilyn. At the most basic level, this return to Monroe's farewell seems like a stunt, something that's been done before, and Lohan seems fairly soulless compared to Monroe, who has a whole mythology and legacy behind her. After all, Lohan is just one of a handful of Hollywood A-List brats currently in the headlines. Marilyn is a one-of-a-kind historical figure, and that's what makes her photoshoot meaningful and culturally relevant.

Another point that needs visiting... something that's important to any feminist critique of the occasion... is that Monroe's portraits seem so honest, at least to our jaded postmodern eyes. She isn't a plastic replica in those shots. She isn't surgically altered or airbrushed, and nobody was able to hide the vulnerable look in her eyes. The whole package -- the flawed soul -- is coming from Marilyn herself, the source of the legend.

Lohan's body looks painfully fake by comparison, and it's the kind of fake that I hope some of us are getting tired of. She's got big boobs, sure, and I'm not one to complain about that, but her figure is boyish, with no hips and scarce buttocks. Stern is obviously shooting for a modern fashion eye, trained by ready-to-wear and Twiggy and Calvin Klein, and it seems like a tired mockery of Marilyn's curves and slight pudge. In that regard, if anything, we can look at these two photoshoots as a lesson in how homogeneous and inauthentic our ideals of beauty have become. Silicon boobs and airbrushed skin, boy-hips and blond wigs. Yawn.

But this can't just be a long opportunity to Lindsay-bash. There's enough of that going on. I want to step back and note something important that a lot of the commentators aren't saying.

Why are these original photographs of Marilyn so important to us? Why do I have the automatic urge to reject Lohan's attempt at the role?

It's because Marilyn is a myth and a legend for our current culture. Her self-destructive habits are part of a beautiful, flawed panorama of life and success and hardship, and we're willing to see her as a whole person, and to see her bad behavior in perspective. She certainly deserves it.

Unfortunately, we're not able to give this benefit to the struggling, self-abusive starlets of our day. Lohan's not healthy, and she's a shitty role-model, but she's faced with a whole culture that's intent on demonizing her and exposing her shortcomings. What chance has she ever had to make us happy? Do these girls have to endure the slings and arrows of stardom, and simply have faith that some day, after they've OD'd, we'll look back on them and see their unique beauty and vulnerability, and read it as a positive contribution to our cultural heritage? What hope do they have that one day we'll forgive their idiocy and irresponsibility, just as we've forgiven Marilyn's?

Maybe the lesson here: enjoy the photos, and stop being so hard on the girls who are stuck in the molars of a culture that's trying to consume and devour them.

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