Some Like It Hot: Corroding the Golden Age with Erotic Capital

A lot happened in the second half of the twentieth century:  McCarthyism, the Korean War, Elvis and the Golden Age of television and film, when Marilyn Monroe became famous in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch. As famous as Golden Age films are, the treatment of actresses on set by men in positions of power is a large part of what now defines the productions of this era. Stories of addiction, sexual abuse and suicide surrounds the era with a sense of morbidity and pain, and the extent of it has drawn attention to the power dynamics that exist within the film industry today.

‘Erotic capital’ is the collective total value of an individual’s physical, social and cultural traits, and this total is supposed to determine an individual’s desirability. Whilst it is difficult to quantify a specific amount, subscribing to this theory supposedly gives women some degree of power and autonomy in male-dominated power structures. Women with higher amounts of erotic capital are thought to be more likely to get promoted and have an easier time finding partners. It’s not a matter of “sleeping your way to the top”, but rather the theory tries to get rid of the negative connotations this phrase has and emphasises that women have some control over men. Yet, it does not recognise that a woman’s total erotic capital is determined by patriarchal structures, and so any “power” that erotic capital supposedly gives women is only done so because she ascribes to patriarchal concepts of beauty. Whether she is able to use that power is also controlled by men through social norms and values. Here is, consequently, a question about whether erotic capital gives women as much power as is believed.

So, how much power did these actresses have? Any power or choice that actresses may have had during their careers was, arguably, due to years of having to put up with various forms of abuse. The men in their lives sought to control them in various ways.

In the end, Marilyn Munroe was seen as nothing more than a sex symbol. She had three marriages and an affair with JFK, but none of them lasted longer than 5 years. It could be assumed that these men used her for their own gain and cast her aside when they no longer needed her. In fact, when Arther Miller was brought before the HUAC because he was thought to be a communist, and was held in contempt of Congress, he should’ve been given a fine, imprisoned or both; instead, he accompanied Marilyn, Miss America, to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl. DiMaggio was better known than Monroe at the time of their marriage, but during the filming of The Seven Year Itch he is reported to have physically assaulted her on finding out about her iconic skirt scene. Marilyn campaigned for JFK, but was famously sewn into a dress in order to sing happy birthday to him upon his request. She died of a drug overdose weeks later.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is possibly the most feminist film I’ve seen, as it shows the resulting “benefits” of possessing large amounts of erotic capital. This film is an acceptance that at the time of its production, women had little financial freedom and so were almost completely dependent on men for financial security. ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ is a message to women on how to best use the tools at their disposal. In The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn is once again the pretty girl with whom everyone falls in love with. However, she’s not a temptress as such, she’s just a pretty, charming girl who helps the main character realise the value of his wife and family. It is the man, not Marilyn, who has problems with self-control. Yet, this is also the film that has the famous scene where Marilyn’s skirt blows up and it does not add anything in particular to the plot except to show off her legs.

Behind the ‘blonde bombshell’ an array of personality and emotion is on display that testifies Marilyn’s talent as an actress. Despite the manufactured image that executives wanted the public to adore, Monroe finds a way of presenting herself as more than just a paradigm of beauty. She takes each role and makes them her own, and that is something that erotic capital can’t measure.

Acting should not leave women traumatised. And it’s not like men in positions of power suddenly stopped abusing that power after the Golden Age ended: Weinstein was Hollywood’s best kept open-secret. Erotic capital theory, whilst it is designed to give women autonomy in structures where they traditionally have very little power, does not fully take into account the negative aspects – how abuses can very easily occur and how women feel pressured, especially when they’re first starting out. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe had a vast amount of erotic capital but they were only able to use it after they had been taken advantage of; and so any degree of power they had does not make up for the abuses took place. The Golden Age is known for how glamorous everything seemed, but in remembering it simply for the glamour means failing to take into account the human cost.

[Katerina Schwartz – she/her]
[Artwork credit: Joanna Thomson]

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