It might be a shocking confession, akin to admitting I don't care much for chocolate and don't know a Jimmy Choo from a Louboutin, but I'm just not into Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. If I see one more black and white photo selectively tinged with pink and sporting a quote from one of the two, I’m going to scream. It's not that I haven't seen their big hits like Roman Holiday or The Seven Year Itch, or that I didn't enjoy them. I don't disagree that their stylists were amazing and their films are rightfully considered classics. No, my beef is that somehow we collectively decided that these two women are the only two definitions of femininity that matter.
I first noticed it in college, around the time everyone hit up the big campus poster sale to decorate their dorm rooms. Suddenly Holly Golightly in her black sheath and tiara was on every cinderblock wall and Marilyn was peeping out from folds of white tulle over questionable futons. I like to imagine pink glittery gangs in vintage sunglasses snapping their gloved fingers at each other, Westside style, but really everyone was just trying to say something about the kind of girl they wanted to be.
When you only have half of 12 x 19 feet to work with and you’ve never lived away from home and your mother wouldn’t let you tack things to the walls, your decorative statements are just that—statements. We're the Myspace generation. We've been summing ourselves up by our taste in music and movies and selfies since we were little more than children, hyperaware of how any outward projection could be read.
My first post-college roommate owned every Audrey Hepburn movie, did Holly Golightly for Halloween, and decorated the mantle with a Breakfast at Tiffany’s lunchbox. Like a lot of twenty something girls, she had embraced Sex and the City's approach to men wholeheartedly. She bragged about the number of partners she'd racked up in her single high school and college days, even as she waited not-so-patiently for her boyfriend to propose.
She was definitely on the Marilyn side of the turf wars-- bookish, sexually confident, a little brassy—but if she was a Marilyn she was a Marilyn who wanted to be an Audrey. And that's why I’m so fed up with this idea that we're all one or the other. It’s such an easy way to describe someone, as one of two, or one wanting to be the other, but it’s lazy shorthand that doesn’t adequately describe something as wonderfully complex as who women are.
Half the girls I knew in college who loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s had no idea Holly Golightly is a call girl, despite carrying on their first freshman year hookups under her wide-eyed waifish visage. I suspect many didn’t know that Marilyn was married to Arthur Miller, the famous playwright who penned Death of a Salesman and The Crucible on every sophomore American lit syllabus. It isn’t that anyone necessarily should know these things, but it does go to show that whatever we think it means to be an Audrey or a Marilyn often doesn’t line up with the characters they are best known for, or who they were off screen and at home with their feet propped up and a tatty bathrobe on.
It seems so easy to sum ourselves up as sweet, virginal Audreys or sexy, damaged Marilyns. When we quote them and share pictures of them we're often talking about parts of ourselves we love and hate, or the qualities we wish we had. Whatever ties connecting us to them are mostly made up of fantasy and projection, which is a disservice to both our icons and ourselves.
Admiring Audrey doesn't make you more pure of heart just because she said "For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness." Quoting Marilyn’s famous line "If you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best" in a crisis doesn't excuse your bad behavior. Like Joan Cusack’s character said in Working Girl, “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will.”
This reliance on quotes and images, of being known for our taste in other people’s art and philosophy, it’s nothing new. It’s just gotten wildly out of control in an era of “Are you a Carrie or a Samantha?” “Are you Jessa or Shosh?” Somehow Audrey and Marilyn ended up at the forefront of obsession with style as substance, of image as something we can imbue ourselves with or hide behind. Even the characters on TV we use to sum ourselves up want to be either Audrey or Marilyn. Their movies are the movies that people in movies watch. They’ve been inflated to the status of neo-Jungian archetypes, the brunette and the blonde, the virgin and the whore of the Tumblr era.
What once would have been private sentiments tucked away in a journal or hung on the fridge by a magnet have now become awkward personal manifesto made up entirely of someone else's words. Like John Cusack's character Rob said in High Fidelity about the art of a good mixtape, "You're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing." Yes, I totally just used a quote (by a different Cusack!) to sum up why quoting people can be so frustrating.
Not only that, it’s a quote from an analogue era exploration of the male ego used to discuss how women approach identity in the digital era. It’s just so damn easy to whip out a quote that seems appropriate, but all too often they don't fit that well if you look too closely. Context matters.
It's the same when you try to define yourself by Marilyn's or Aubrey’s words out of context. There might be commonalities-- that we're all women, for example, all insecure sometimes, all grappling with work and sex and fashion and how to be our best selves and be happy. But that's where the comparisons end, because all that means is that we're all just people trying to do people things.
When Marilyn said, “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring,” she was speaking about her faults, her mental health, and her insecurities.
When Audrey said “I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot,” she was talking about what cheers her up and makes her tick. These lines are banal enough to fit almost anyone. They’re simultaneously intimate and one-size-fits all.
A song lyric here and there, a motivational quote when you're having a hard time, a crush on an idol, we’ve all been there. Sometimes you really need a declaration of self in a hurry. My dad’s colleague once asked me about the Doc Marten combat boots I was wearing. I explained that I wanted to be Joan Jett. He smiled and said wryly, “And all she wanted was to be Susy Quatro.” Even famous people sometimes want to be someone else. Yet the overwhelming deluge of Audrey and Marilyn is just too much-- so common and so focused on these two specific women that we've trampled all over the real, complex human beings in favor of ideas about them that don’t really exist outside our collective and individual imaginations. Audrey and Marilyn have become the Walmart of female sense of self: inescapable, omnipresent, and a little cheap.
We work so hard not to be pigeonholed at work and in relationships, to not let anyone define us or pin us down. We care so much about how we're seen, with our carefully curated lives and polished digital selves, always wrestling with our personal brands. The reason I'm just not into Audrey and Marilyn is that by worshipping the kind of women we think they are, we’re just pigeonholing ourselves. The same way that not all women love chocolate and shopping and shoes, we aren't all Audreys or Marilyns. Some of us are Kathleen Hannahs or Julia Childs or Kim Kardashians or Susan Serandons or Melissa McCarthies or Shania Twaines or Ani Difrancos or Martha Stewarts or Assata Shakurs.
Most of us don't even fit those few varied types because that is a list of women, not categories, and we're all beautiful and complex and real and so much more than our idea of any one person, however fabulous.
One of the things that made Audrey and Marilyn so remarkable was that they had a platform to say the things we quote in an era when few people, and fewer women, had such reach and so many people listening to their voices. They each represent a different era for women in terms of fashion and feminism and roles in public and private.
We can publish our thoughts and beliefs any time we want and broadcast it to hundreds and thousands. We read diverse opinions and stories every day. Instead of living in the quotes of our idols, let’s find and share our own voices, our own moment, our own unique sense of self, each of which are equally unforgettable.