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Posts Tagged ‘Marilyn Monroe’

This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

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I’ve been thinking about Shannon’s post from Tuesday about the Mad Men finale, when Don Draper chose Pretty over Smart — even though Smart was herself quite Pretty.  Now, I tend to think that Don went from rock star to weenie when he proposed to his 25-year old secretary on a sex-charged whim:   He rendered himself ordinary, morphing from interesting to cliche faster than you can say “I do,” by buying into that age-old distinction between pretty or smart.  But that’s another story.

Nonetheless, I found it somewhat synchronous that Maureen Dowd’s column in Wednesday’s New York Times also touched on that same dichotomy:  beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart.  Elite or Just Folks.  She starts with a riff on Marilyn Monroe, who was sexy, but wanted to be smart:

The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages. There was no more poignant victim of it than Marilyn Monroe.

She was smart enough to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book — a history of Goya or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Heinrich Heine’s poems. A high-brow bunny picture, a variation on the sexy librarian trope. Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.

Marilyn was not completely in on the joke. Scarred by her schizophrenic mother and dislocated upbringing, she was happy to have the classics put in her hand. What’s more, she read some of them, from Proust to Dostoyevsky to Freud to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln (given to her by husband Arthur Miller), collecting a library of 400 books.

Miller once called Marilyn “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

That last one breaks your heart, right?  Dowd then segues nicely to her real point:  the false dichotomy, cooked up by the women of the far right — on Sunday, she dubbed them the Mean Girls — who have set up a political either/or between the Smart Kids and, you know, the Rest of Us:

At least, unlike Paris Hilton and her ilk, the Dumb Blonde of ’50s cinema had a firm grasp on one thing: It was cool to be smart. She aspired to read good books and be friends with intellectuals, even going so far as to marry one. But now another famous beauty with glowing skin and a powerful current, Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable.

You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.

At least you’re not one of those “spineless” elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley.

We can hoot and laugh all we want.  But I wonder:  How many of us hold ourselves back because somewhere along the line, we bought into life according to the Cool Kids:  Beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart. Straight A’s or prom dates.  Are we still trying to follow the code of some mythical arbiter of high school Cool?  Is that one of the reasons so many women talked themselves out of majoring in math?  Or opted for Physics for Poets?  Or stick with a job in a cube versus one that takes you outside the building because, well, it’s pre-approved?

Do we still let that mythical arbiter of Cool define who we are — and make our choices to fit, whether those choices involve a white picket fence — or Zooey Deschanel bangs and/or a couple or three tattoos?

The tastemakers may change, but the habits die hard.  No wonder we second guess ourselves.  Or, like poor old Don Draper, let silly stereotypes cooked up by Someone Else dictate who we are and who we want to be –  rather than making the discovery on our own.

If we did make that inner trek, we might find out that we’ve got beauty AND brains.  We’re sexy AND smart.  And, you know, we’re even good at math.

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