If You Had Kim's Money, Would You Have Worn Marilyn's Dress?
Gender aside: What do you think it would say about you if you did?
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For me, there was an aspect of sacrilege
About anyone other than Marilyn Monroe wearing her “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress.
I’ve read a lot about the controversy surrounding Kim Kardashian’s decision to wear the dress to the 2022 Met Gala. How the reality star had to lose weight to fit into it. How folks online claimed, erroneously, that Kim had damaged it. How the whole thing became a talking point for anyone with a smartphone and a social media account.
Such a lot of chatter. Such a lot of noise
Now that the furor has died down a little, I’ve been asking myself the question in this headline. If I had Kim’s estimated net worth of $1.8 billion, would I have opted to wear one of the most iconic dresses in modern history? Just because I felt like it? Just because I could?
This is a game I sometimes play when I look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Every once in a while, I pick up a copy of the Robb Report’s Best of the Best issue and look at the pictures of real estate, jewelry, cars, cigars, tech gear, clothing, and other toys. Then I look at the price tags and ask myself, “If money were no object, would I really want this?”
Most of the time, the answer is a resounding No
When I was involved in mass media, I had a taste of the so-called “good life.” And I’m not gonna lie. It felt good to be picked up in limousines, live in stylish digs, sign autographs, and dine fashionably late at fancy restaurants. Creature comforts are nice.
It’s also true that never in my life have I felt such a profound sense of emptiness. I don’t know Kim Kardashian, and I’m not here to judge her. But I do know that filling my life with acquisitions was an attempt to distract myself from the emptiness I felt inside. And the loneliness that came with it.
Few things are worse than being surrounded by others, all clamoring for proximity to the flickering light of celebrity, however faint, when no one knows or loves you for who you are.
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Not bashing her
Like I said, I don’t know Kim Kardashian, and I don’t know how it is for her. Her soul has its journey, and I have mine. But when I looked at the brouhaha over Marilyn’s dress, I felt the whole thing was just wrong.
Here’s why. A while back, I found an interesting correlation between philosopher William James’s idea of the “material self” and ancient African philosophies. Material things we think of as inanimate actually carry a particular energy, which for want of a better word, is a kind of spirit or soul.
If I buy a Cartier watch, it’s a made thing that carries with it the integrity and craftsmanship that went into its creation. (Remember Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine?)
But if I wear a Cartier that was handed down by my grandfather to my father and then to me, that watch takes on a different energy and meaning. It has been changed by the way my ancestors’ lives interacted with it. In a way, the watch carries part of them too.
This was the problem with anyone other than Marilyn Monroe wearing that iconic Happy Birthday dress.
Anybody who knows anything about Norma Jeane Baker who became a sex goddess knows that she was a tortured soul. “I never wanted to be Marilyn,” she said. “It just happened. Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane.”
I’ve watched the Happy Birthday, Mr. President video several times and feel she was a long way from home when she sang to President John F. Kennedy on May 29, 1962.
In fact, it was a low point in Marilyn’s life. Her last two films had bombed. She had been fired from her latest movie for holding up production. Her love life was a sham.
Ten weeks later, she was dead at age 36
Either by suicide, or if you believe the conspiracy theories, by some other unsavory method.
By putting her body into that dress, Kim Kardashian messed with its mzimu, a Swahili word meaning spirit. When Kardashian mixed her DNA with Marilyn’s, she altered its essence. In a way, she desecrated it. She may not have damaged its seams and rhinestones, but she did alter the meaning of the dress.
And for what?
Now it is no longer only the dress Marilyn wore to Madison Square Garden that night. It is the dress Kim felt entitled to wear because she had enough money and influence to do so. But given that the dress is a testament to empty fakery, why would anyone want to embody that?
What are you missing in your life that makes you want to be Marilyn Monroe, a female impersonator, as Gloria Steinem called her, ill-at-ease in her own skin?
I feel bad for Kim because I know a little about how it feels to be so caught up in a image-projection that has nothing to do with who you really are.
This why I do my own reality check from time to time, asking myself if I would have done the same thing.
Each time, the same answer comes back to me. I hope I would be able to find some other way to distract myself from the staggering emptiness of my own existence. And maybe learn to confront what Sartre calls the essential nothingness, which lies “coiled like a worm,” at the center of all things.
But it’s not easy. It wasn’t easy for me to think of who I might be without the gaze of others always reaffirming my identity. We’re programmed to think of that’s what we should want from life. But that’s what Sartre means when he says, “Hell is other people.”
What we really want is freedom from that gaze
One of the main characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a famous actor who grew up on a small Canadian island where everyone knew everyone else.
And the claustrophobia of that, I can’t tell you. I just wanted some privacy. For as long as I could remember, I just wanted to get out, and then I got to Toronto and no one knew me. Toronto felt like freedom.
Ironically, his success as a Hollywood movie star imprisons him again. Fame means he can’t go anywhere without being recognized. The size of his metaphorical island has grown exponentially, but the lack of freedom squeezes him into an identity he cannot escape.
He dies onstage playing King Lear, a man who winds up saying, “They told me I was everything. Tis a lie.” Both learn too late that they have made the wrong choices.
I sincerely hope Kim Kardashian finds that true freedom has nothing to do with the license to wear Marilyn’s dress. And everything to do with letting go of your illusions and learning to love yourself as you are.
That’s not a step you can take by just snapping your fingers. It takes energy and resolve and a willingness to confront your deepest fears. But however long it takes and upon whatever path it leads, that’s a step worth taking—I believe it’s a step worth taking.
©2022 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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