Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Seven Year Itch

When I started this blog not long ago, I made the decision that my posts would be primarily text-based, that my writing could stand alone and I didn't need to include pictures and photos to catch the eye. I stand by this decision, but, as you can clearly see from the photos above, I've found an exception to the rule.

These photos are publicity stills from The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe essentially portrays temptation; she plays a nameless girl (IMDB actually credits her as playing the role of "The Girl") whose sole purpose in the plot is to serve as a physical manifestation of the married man's urge to commit adultery. All three of the photos above similarly reduce her identity to simply that of an object of male sexual desire. This famous image of Monroe holding her dress down against the updraft coming from the subway grate creates an atmosphere of sexuality and hedonism that surrounds and envelops her like a thick fog.

The idea of an attractive actress serving as a sex symbol is hardly foreign to me. Contemporary Hollywood markets nearly everyone - both male and female - who stars on the silver screen as some sort of sex symbol. What was surprising, however, was that, while now there's a certain consistency in between the portrayal of sex in the still and the moving image, in the 50s there was a distinct disconnect. While Angelina Jolie will "act sexy" in both still photos and in her movies, Marilyn Monroe - it seems - could only do so in the former and not the latter. Perhaps this is an obvious observation to make given the more stringent governmental restrictions placed on the film industry in regards to the depiction of sex and sexuality at that time, but nonetheless the gap between the Marilyn Monroe persona promoted by the publicity stills shown above, one of barely contained sexuality, and her characterization in the film as an airhead hick who is blissfully unaware of her more than ample seductive powers was startling to say the least. My familiarity with the Marilyn Monroe legend - her infamous affairs, her frequently referenced birthday performance for JFK, her Playboy centerfold - only served to compound the surprise I felt at her role in this film.

What was more surprising, however, was the protagonist's reaction to her. By today's standards, her character acts totally unenticingly; she is completely unflirtatious and unsuggestive. In fact, her behavior as the girl upstairs reflects not the character of a lusty sexpot, but rather that of the naive sexual innocence of a prepubescent girl. Nonetheless, the protagonist - who, significantly, does have a name - is enticed, aroused, nearly driven mad with passion. Her identity - in terms of both her name (or lack thereof) and her personality - it seems, is entirely unimportant; it is the sight of her body and her body alone that drives him to seriously consider committing adultery.

By privileging the male gaze as the sole expression of sexual attraction, the film reduces Monroe's role in the moving picture to that of the still picture. She is only there to be looked at; anything like a name or a personality would only get in the way. This idea, of course, is none too surprising in the context of 1950s American culture, but it is interesting when compared to some popular reactions to the treatment of sex in the media today. Unlike in The Seven Year Itch, the portrayal of sex and sexual attraction now is far more overt than it once was and, as a result, there is a conservative backlash decrying this indecency. Having seen this movie, however, I am now more sure than ever that contemporary cinema is less indecent now than it ever was. Although today's movies may be more graphic than ever before, by allowing for women to express their sexuality through more than just their physical appearance, their characters have finally come to represent real people and not just living objects to be looked at. The cinema of the 50s may have presented movies that were far less shocking to the eye, but, in so doing, reduced the female characters to a sub-human status. This disrespect shown to Marilyn Monroe - quite possibly one of the most significant screen actresses to have ever lived - and her character in The Seven Year Itch is far more indecent than any sex scene, no matter how graphic.


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