Why Marilyn Monroe and Sylvia Plath Go Hand in Hand

On what marks the sixtieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death (a suicide, an accident or a murder, depending on who you ask), there seems to be more interest than ever in the icon that captivated the world and incited a sexual awakening within a repressed American culture. From Kim Kardashian effectively dancing on Marilyn’s corpse by forcing her ass to squeeze into the Jean Louis dress that Monroe wore to JFK’s birthday celebration to Ana de Armas appearing in a highly controversial “biopic” about the star, there remains no shortage of the ultimate movie star’s presence in our collective consciousness despite how many decades have passed since her demise. 

Nonetheless, as the generation that was alive during her heyday starts to die out, perhaps one can consider the most “evergreen” link to Monroe in terms of “contextualizing” her is another rather rightly depressed white lady, Sylvia Plath. It’s no coincidence that Plath killed herself barely a year after Monroe, and at only six years younger. For both women came of age in a particularly oppressive moment in American history. While each had the “freeing” benefit of being “coastal” women, Marilyn on the West and Sylvia on the East, it didn’t mean they weren’t still subject to the intense and pervasive form of patriarchy at large during their youth, most markedly during the McCarthy era. And yes, the 1950s served as the decade during which both women would achieve their career peaks. 

Granted, some would say one of Plath’s apexes was 1962’s “Daddy,” written a year before her suicide. And there are those who would argue endlessly in favor of 1961’s The Misfits as being among Monroe’s finest work (in spite of how hard-won completing production was). That she came across as being at the height of her ability to strike the titillating balance between the Madonna/whore spectrum that men do still so love to employ as a barometer for their erections. One that has probably not been seen since Britney Spears burst onto the landscape with the “…Baby One More Time” video and spent the better part of her early career “confusing” people with her sexual persona and “what’s the big deal?” attitude about it. 

As for Marilyn’s own well-known “Daddy issues,” they were cut from a different cloth than Plath’s, whose father was a little “too present” for her taste. Even if he did die early on in her childhood. Nonetheless, she was still haunted by him well into adulthood as she came up with the immortal lines to crystallize how she had escaped one oppressor and run right into the arms of another (Ted Hughes) by declaring in “Daddy,” “Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” Marilyn appeared to suffer the same fate with her own coterie of lovers and husbands, particularly Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. While one might have embodied “brawn” and the other “brains,” both were total tits in terms of how they treated Monroe. And so, as usual, the attractive but “too complex” woman ends up alone. Even Plath was summarily alone in that Primrose Hill abode regardless of being married with children.

This aspect of Monroe, her vulnerability, her perpetual loneliness, is what Plath writes about and characterizes so well in her work, whether poetry or prose. And obviously, The Bell Jar is chock-full of paragraphs and aphorisms that feel as though they could have been ripped from Monroe’s diary. Take, for instance, the fact that Monroe was at constant war with the “joys” of being beloved worldwide as a result of her fame and the desire to settle down and just live a quiet life as someone’s “ball and chain” after having a few kids. Esther Greenwood would describe such a phenomenon as, “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

So it would be the case for Marilyn (and really, any woman, constantly told she can either have a career or a family… even to this day). For she was a dichotomy in every way, including being a sex symbol who found sex to be rather unpleasant and unenjoyable. Worse still, she could never seem to maintain a pregnancy as at least some “fruit” of that ostensibly fruitless labor. Eerily enough, Esther uses a dead baby analogy in her characterization of what the bell jar actually is: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Evocative descriptions of this nature would resonate endlessly with those in adolescence. A time when depression somehow feels at its most palpable (ask Billie Eilish). Oh, if only we knew how much worse it could get. And yet, as Olivia Rodrigo said, “If someone tells me one more time, ‘Enjoy your youth’/I’m gonna cry.” The presumption someone is existing in a supposed “ideal state” is often what makes it even less so to a person, who then feels guilt (in addition to their joylessness) for not experiencing “happiness.” As Esther puts it, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” So, too, was Marilyn. Because she was the “biggest star in the world.” The “little people” not understanding the curse that came with such a blessing. 

As the details of Marilyn’s tragic and isolating existence came to light while she was alive and even more so after her death, the manner in which Monroe (just like Plath) seems to embody some emblem of tragedy porn has only cemented itself over the decades. Especially when it comes to how much she “speaks to” white women (see: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Madonna—all of whom have emulated the actress frequently in their careers). And, talking of the term “tragedy porn,” let’s not forget Lana Del Rey as another white lady “love child” of both Monroe and Plath, even stating of the former in a song, “Marilyn is my mother.” But a publishing imprint called Clash Books seemed to think Sylvia was more her mother when they put out a themed anthology of short stories called Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath. And yes, Del Rey has already found Plath as an inspiration for her foray into poetry (featuring the unfortunate rhyme of “Plath” with “path”), which comes off more uncomfortably for the reader than the listener who instead hears her referred to in “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it” via the lines, “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/24/7 Sylvia Plath/Writing in blood on the walls/‘Cause the ink in my pen don’t work in my notepad/Don’t ask if I’m happy, you know that I’m not.”

And neither was Monroe. Indeed, she wasn’t much of anything after enough years in the spotlight, not when numbed-out on her alcohol and barbiturate diet (Judy Garland knew the plight). Maybe this was a point in her existence when, like Esther, she might have even romanticized death. The way so much of art rendered through the hands of the white and depressed tends to (as Billy Corgan said, “I’m in love with my sadness”). Like when Esther muses, “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” This is likely when a person of color would be obliged to pop out and say, “Bitch please, it isn’t that serious.”

It is perhaps only that other “depressed white chick” author, Susanna Kaysen, through the voice of Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted, who wants to remind those riveted by Plathisms like, “Dying is an art… I do it exceptionally well” that, “When you don’t want to feel, death can seem like a dream. But seeing death, really seeing it, makes dreaming about it fucking ridiculous.” And in that spirit, maybe the greatest distinction between Plath and Monroe is that the latter’s death has the dubiousness surrounding it to be deemed accidental.

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