Wednesday, October 9, 2019


The 2019 California law allowing college athletes to retain agents and receive payment for use of their name and image opens the flood-gates to professionalization of college sports. So they say.

Most arguments against it are about its effects on college sports, especially the “minor sports” outside the big time, revenue-generating sports, football and basketball.

But I want to raise a more important point: the worst-case scenario, getting rid of all school sports, would be one of the biggest things we could do to improve American education.

The predominance of sports in American schools at all levels distinguishes US schools from most of the rest of the world. This sports-centeredness is to a considerable degree responsible for why American students score lower than almost everyone else in international comparisons of academic skills.

Most American students just don’t care that much about studying, and their peers put them down for it, in comparison to the athletes who are the center of the school prestige hierarchy. This is not the case in the rest of the world—because their schools aren’t focused on athletics at all.

But this is unimaginable—American schools without sports! Why would people support schools if there were no excitement and no mass spectacle about them? It’s not unimaginable at all. To see how it works, just look outside the boundaries of the USA.

School athletics at the center of attention devalues intellectual students

Anyone who has been to high school in the United States knows there is a prestige system, with the jocks and cheerleaders at the top, and the nerds at the bottom. The term “nerd” has no equivalent in foreign languages; here it means someone who is a grind, not part of the youth culture, not just deficient in athletics but inferentially lacking in sexual appeal and klutzy at social skills. With the rise of the high-tech economy and dissident counter-culture movements this hierarchy has gotten somewhat blurred, but it still has a very strong hold in the way American schools operate. Successful school teams are the way a school—from high-school up through university—gets a public image and public support; and it is the main school-spirit-building activity inside the school.  Athletics are sacrosanct, as the center of most schools’ image, prestige, and money.

There are exceptions: tech schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech opt out of that system entirely; some elite colleges (mostly Ivy League and nearby) have so much reputation for their graduates going to the top of the corporate and political worlds that they don’t need famous athletic teams. As I will argue later, these are seeds for an American academic system that would replace our current one, if the sports-centered school system self-destructs over the professionalization of athletics.

Murray Milner (University of Virginia sociologist) did a massive study of prestige hierarachies at high schools across the country. He went on to develop an explanation of why jocks and cheerleaders are at the top, and serious students near the bottom. Games by a school team are the one activity where everyone is assembled, focusing attention on a group of token individuals who represent themselves. Games also have drama, plot tension, and emotion, thus fitting the ingredients for a successful interaction ritual. Predictably, they create feelings of solidarity and identity; and they give prestige to the individuals who are in the center of attention. Jocks are the school’s heroes (especially when they are winning). Cheerleaders are their number-one worshipers, high priestesses to the cult, sharing the stage or at least the edge of it. And they are chosen to represent the top of the sexual attractiveness hierarchy, hence centers of the partying-celebration part of school life—out of the purview of adult teachers, administrators, and parents.

In contrast, outstanding students perform mostly alone. They are not the center of an audience gathered to watch them show off their skills. There are no big interaction rituals focusing attention on them. Their achievement is for themselves; they do not represent the school body, certainly not in any way that involves contagious emotional excitement. The jocks-&-partying channeling of attention in schools devalues the intellectuals. When it comes to a contest between the two, the athletic-centered sphere always dominates, at least in the public places where the action is.  The social networks of intellectual students are backstage, even underground. *

* These are not the only identity-groups among students; there are also the theatre crowd, musicians, druggies and counter-culture types, thugs, working class kids and part-time job-holders looked down upon by the fun-and-consumption culture of middle-class kids. Thus nerds tend to be more in the lower-middle of the school prestige hierarchy than at the absolute bottom. See Milner [2004] for details.

Not surprisingly, the majority of American students who could go either way in emulating athletic/partying or intellectual stars, choose the former and downplay the latter. In the era of increasing competition over admission to higher-ranking colleges, most students in the middle prestige levels aim for a respectable level of academic performance (only the top jocks can afford to be largely oblivious to grades); but they don’t pour themselves into it. They are surrounded by counselors and easy-grading teachers who sympathize with the existing prestige system, who make sure they don’t have to work too hard on academics. Of course, America is a large and ethnically diverse population, and there are subgroups in it—above all children of immigrants from China and other places with a stronger academic achievement focus—who push their children to study hard and to come out at the top of the grades and test scores. But it is the home that it is giving these kids the impetus; not the school—its atmosphere mostly works in the other direction.

This is why the average scores on American students in international comparisons of skills in reading, math, and other subjects tend to be at the bottom, far below countries in east Asia and in Europe. It is not a matter of talent, and certainly not a deficiency in school facilities, but a problem of social motivation.

Countries where universities are intellectual and athletics is elsewhere

Compare school life in countries where academic achievement is publicized and celebrated: Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. One feature they have in common is lack of competitive school athletics. This is not to say there are no students who are athletes in these countries. But athletic teams and practice places are in separate clubs, not representing the school. The pattern of separating sports and schools is strongest on the Continent, where universities frequently don’t even have a campus, let along a stadium.

East Asian schools, especially in China and Korea, take the focus on academic competition to an extreme. In China, high schools receive a great deal of publicity for the test scores of their students—these are published in newspapers and trumpeted in school propaganda, along with the name of those admitted to top universities. Students exhort each other (and are exhorted by their teachers) to work hard on the kinds of problems set for exams; they brag or complain about their school’s standing. Within the school, those who perform at the top are the stars of the school. *  The result is an atmosphere of intense focus on academics. Moreover, it is a highly social focus. Students work together in preparing for exams. They also make a show of being at school for longer hours than are officially required; they stay hours late for special study groups (in Japan, this takes the form of going to tutors or “cram-schools” after school hours, to study for university admissions exams). They voluntarily go to school on Saturdays. They also do a lot of studying at home, where their needs for quiet (and other indulgences) are carefully attended to by their parents. Such students spend many more hours in school during the year, and more hours at home studying, than American students, who are notably lax in these matters.

* A very good Korean student, who I knew as a graduate student at an elite American university, told me that in Korea the mothers’ of other girls would encourage their daughters to be friends with her—she was their shining example. This is extremely unlikely to happen in the US, for all sorts of reasons in the teen culture. On daily life in Chinese schools, see Yi-lin Chiang [2018].

The social atmosphere—or let us say, the spotlight of attention—is completely different in the high-achieving school cultures of the world, and in American schools. Chinese students are much more focused on school and a supportive home; American kids, even when they have helicopter parents (or especially when), have studying as just one of many things they do—athletic practices, music lessons, entertainment, parties with other kids. Officially, parents and talking heads all say learning is important, but it just doesn’t rate that high in everyday life.

Actions speak louder than words: the US is one of the only countries in the world whose laws ban schools from publicizing any information about students’ grades (the Buckley Amendment, passed by the US Congress in 1974). Before the 1980s, like every other professor, I used to post the list of grades after an exam on my office door. This was convenient for students to come and see them; no one ever complained. The rationale for the law banning posting grades—first promoted by legislators and psychologists, not by students—was that it was harmful to students’ self-esteem (i.e. to the self-esteem of students who weren’t at the top.) No one seemed to worry about negative effects of publishing scores on athletic performance: on the contrary, game scores report who did well or badly in basketball, baseball and football games etc.  The unspoken message is clear: academic performance is something we do not give honor to; we treat it almost as something shameful, certainly something private. Athletic performance is the reverse.

Not only do top-scoring European and Asian schools not focus on athletics, but they treat their outstanding students the way we treat top athletes. In France, with its highly centralized national school system, students take competitive exams for entrance to the elite university-level schools in Paris (the so-called grandes écoles). The rankings are published in the newspapers. Individuals who scored highly are remembered for the rest of their lives. (Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, was famed for having ranked number one at the entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1950; Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for having flunked the aggregation (school-leaving exam) in 1928, whereupon he spent another year cramming with his new girl-friend, Simone de Beauvoir, and next year passed in first place [Cohen-Solal 1987].  In Britain, students are admitted to the universities with publically announced prize honors (or not), and graduate with ranked degrees in their subject (Firsts, Seconds, etc.) that are widely discussed at the time and during their careers. The contrast is clear: academic performance is widely publicized and intensely focused upon in countries with high-achievement school systems; in American schools, it is not.

Sociological research on student life at American universities supports the point. Arum and Roksa [2011] found that American college students average only a few hours of studying per week. This does not hurt their grades much, as professors have adapted to their clientele by giving fewer and easier exams and papers. And what they learn does not sink in or last long; students retested a year later retained very little of what they once knew. All this has taken place during a period in history when the percentages of the youth cohort who attend undergraduate colleges has risen to over 60%, with those attending graduate and professional schools rising proportionately. This is credential inflation, where the value has declined of a high school diploma, undergraduate degree, or even an M.A. (or for science fields, even a PhD, which now is only preliminary to getting a post-doctoral fellowship). It is a race in which the finish line keeps receding into the distance as more students compete at each level. Universities do well (and professors get paid) as long as they have plenty of paying students (including those subsidized by student loans); it doesn’t matter how little they learn as long as it fits the average that moves them along the pipeline. Grade inflation and lax standards are a way that schools adapt to a system in which there is a great deal of competition to move from one level to another, but this is mostly on formalities rather than what they actually learn.

Ethnographic studies of student life (by young-looking researchers living in the dormitories) show how the culture operates on the ground. Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party [2013; see also Moffatt 1989; Sanday 2007] shows that kids from comfortable middle-class (or higher) families are happy to enter big state universities known for being party schools. These are places with big-time athletic programs, football and basketball teams playing in huge stadiums, surrounded by school rituals, partying, an active sex life; they quickly learn how to coast through their classes. Students from working-class backgrounds have a harder time with it, balancing the partying with studying and part-time jobs, and they often drop out without a degree. Universities try to be attractive to students who can finance their own way, and to subsidized students too; outside of the most elite colleges, these universities get what name-recognition they have by their athletic teams and their appearance on TV. Having a team that is a contender generates the atmosphere of the college experience; party schools go in tandem with the big-time athletic schools.  Universities pretend otherwise, but big-time athletics usually goes along with academic mediocrity; its sine qua non being sheer size of its student population, hence size of budget that can invest in big-time teams.

My own experiences teaching at various universities across the USA illustrates the attitude of college athletes. At one of the newer branches of a big state university (not big enough yet to have a football team), the baseball team was its chief claim to fame. The entire team used to enroll for one of my undergraduate classes in sociology (I think they liked it that I gave very clear outlines of what would be on the exams), but only one player would show up for classes, taking notes for the others.  At an even bigger state university, the basketball team was nationally ranked, and one of the basketball players was in my class. One day I saw him in the hall and said: “Hey, Ricky. I haven’t seen you in class for a while.” He said: “Yeah, prof, I’m on injured reserve, and I figure as long as I can’t play, I don’t have to go to class.”  This university also had a staff of assistant coaches in the athletic department, whose job was to call up professors and check whether an athlete in their classes was in danger of falling below the minimum grade (C-minus) that would make them ineligible to play. This was also a way of seeking accommodation for players to have easier assignments or tutoring for exams. *

* In the defensive reaction by sports columnists to the new California law on players receiving royalties, the argument is blatantly stated that players get lots of in-kind payment already, including arranging accomodations from professors so that the academic work is as easy as possible.

The bottom line: the centrality of athletics in American education is a major source of devaluing academic standards and achievement. Eliminating school teams and focusing instead on publicizing academic achievement would be a pathway to catching up with European and East Asian levels of academic performance.

Are we ready to do this just on the merits of the case?  Certainly not. But fighting over the issue of openly professionalizing school athletics could be the way the system undermines itself.

Fake amateurism is a collusive wage-fixing agreement

In favor of maintaining the NCAA ban on any taint of professionalism, the biggest argument is not about what is good for education, but “we need the money.”

Legalizing payments to athletes for their name and image is just the opening wedge. Even this crack in the nationwide front raises fears that the best athletes would migrate to California and other states that adopt similar laws. As legislatures compete with each other over boosting their own school teams, further incentives to athletes would unravel the entire system of control. The NCAA has the weapon of banning schools that violate their rules from competing with schools still within their system; but in a showdown, it is likely the NCAA that would be undermined by schools pulling out.  Even in short-term perspective, colleges would lose advertising dollars they are now collecting.

Fundamentally, the NCAA is a collusive agreement to fix wages for college athletes. The argument of athletic departments is that athletes are already being well-compensated. They get free room and board, fancy dining halls, plane trips, easy class schedules, and the value of their college degree, all without student debt. All this assumes: (a) that athletes on scholarship go on to finish their degree; (b) that the value of a degree from a non-elite university, and in a easy major (not a lot of STEM student-jocks, nor pre-med or even business-school) will get them a good job; (c) continually rising credential inflation won’t make these degrees worth less as the economy grows more dominated by computers and high-tech.

Big-time college sports are already professional. They are professionally managed, with high-paid coaches and administrators, and a  huge, well-paid NCAA bureaucracy to keep money incentives out of the system so that all revenues—tickets, TV rights, name-branded clothing and gear—stay in the hands of the universities. It is a competitive world, dependent on a continual stream of recruiting the best athletic prospects from the high-school farm system. Accordingly, the corporate managers of this university-owned sports-entertainment trust attempt to keep their labor expenses as low as possible, by paying them in kind. In effect, they are like Roman gladiators, captives who fight in the arena for the benefit of the owners of the gladiatorial troupes—the main difference being that college jocks serve a maximum 4-year servitude, with a chance at getting selected by the professional leagues. (Which are another set of collectively-administered trusts that collude with the NCAA to do their training for them). 

Athletes on scholarships are not part of the regular student body. They live in their own dorms, eat in their own dining halls, take a limited range of classes—nothing hard or time-consuming—and exams under special conditions designed for their convenience. Real students on the same campus have little more contact with these semi-professional jocks than they have with professional athletes they view on television.

No more hypocrisy

One good thing: getting rid of the NCAA would relieve us of an endless stream of hypocrisy and scandal. Schools are repeatedly investigated, castigated, and penalized for infractions of NCAA rules over recruiting and rewarding players. Wins and titles are forfeited, coaches are fired. But the scandals keep happening, because scandals re-create the conditions that caused the behavior in the first place.

Scandals don’t change anything, because they are conservatizing. When rules or customs are violated, a public scandal stirs up moral indignation and reenergizes the old values. That is because a scandal is a kind of moralistic mob mentality, where everyone jumps in to enthusiastically denounce the culprit; not to join in the condemnation is to risk being attacked oneself. An archetype of how this works is the condemnation of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for homosexuality [Adut 2008]. His sexual preferences were an open secret in smart society of the time, but when the case became public, his supporters shunned him, and he died in disgrace soon after being released from prison. The scandal was conservatizing, re-energizing old prejudices against homosexuality, missing an opportunity to speak out and revize the old norm. The Oscar Wilde scandal didn’t stamp out homosexuality; it just kept it underground.

Similarly with NCAA-created scandals: the temporary wave of moralistic indignation (or pseudo-indignation by universities, journalists, and politicians chiming in) does nothing to change the underlying problem. For universities whose prestige and prosperity depends chiefly on their athletic teams, there is a continuous pressure to win, and that means recruiting the best players, year after year. Paying them outright is forbidden, so this leads to more and more devious ways of rewarding them. Alumni boosters used to give them fake off-season jobs and gifts like cars. Money is channeled to parents by helping them buy a house. Sports agents offer their services in lining up future deals in advertisements and professional prospects; then the NCAA cracks down on that too. Recruiters and assistant coaches try to attract players with a good time: scandals spread about trips featuring strip clubs and parties with ready sex. Other scandals are generated by eligibility rules that require players to keep up minimal grade levels; this leads to cheating on tests or fabricating grades by sports-friendly administrators or faculty.  The underlying problem is that these are not really “student athletes”, but quasi-professional athletes pretending to be students, and not committed to the student role very much at all. Nobody feels guilty about this kind of academic cheating because those involved regard the system as a hypocritical façade. The scandals are so much show; when you get caught, you have to play sorry and repentant, but everyone understands you have to do that or the fury against you grows even worse.

The latest version of such scandals, breaking in 2019, consists of students who get admitted to colleges by pretending to be athletes in minor sports. These scandals are generated by rules that require a certain number of scholarships for women’s sports, plus the determination of colleges to portray their entire athletic program as amateur because it also gives scholarships in sports that don’t make money. But in the era when a large majority of all high-school graduates apply for college, and most of them apply to a half-dozen or more schools, the sheer volume of application materials that schools have to process leads to a maze of complications that can be exploited. American schools are under pressure not simply to rely on grade-point averages and test scores (since students from higher social classes and dominant ethnic groups do better on them), so all sorts of non-academic criteria are added—extracurricular activities, public service, and being active in sports. It is not too surprising, in this perspective, that go-betweens with contacts in athletic departments created channels for getting fake athletes admitted to colleges in minor sports—which up to now had been below the radar of NCAA investigators obsessed with the big-money sports. Ironic, isn’t it? We have athletes who pretend to be students, and now students who pretend to be athletes.

Will scandal and exposure bring this kind of thing to an end? Every time there is a scandal, official people repeat the same idealized statements about amateurism and a level playing field. But dire punishments and a wider list of things for NCAA investigators to keep track of have not prevented new scandals from happening. The pattern is clear. Scandals will keep on going into the future as long as the hypocrisy goes on about student-athletes who generate major revenue for schools. *

* As a former professor, I have to laugh whenever I watch a bowl game. These always feature advertisements by the participating universities, showing pretty pictures of campus, plus a spiel about student-athletes earning degrees and becoming medical doctors or some such. If the NCAA regime collapses, at least this kind of hypocrisy might disappear.

But what about funding non-revenue sports?

OK, big-time college sports are just another kind of oligopoly capitalism that happens to be run by legally non-profit organizations. But isn’t it all necessary, to fund all other college sports?

Profitable, big-time sports are the revenue stream that pays for all the other sports on campus: women’s soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, tennis, track and field, you name it. In many or most of these, the players really are students who also do athletics. They get treated under the same rules and bureaucratic procedures as the money-sports jocks, but generally they would be playing for fun, exercize, and local prestige even if they didn’t have athletic scholarshps. All this would disappear, too, if the big-time sports are openly professionalized, and college athletes cut into the revenue stream that has been going to athletic departments.

All right, assume that it does disappear. What would it actually look like? There is nothing to prevent students from playing various kinds of sports. There would be no more scholarships for hockey, soccer, golf etc. Money for travel to play against other school teams around the country would dry up; they would have to play closer to home. They might even have to go back to intramural play.

To see what this looks like, all we need to do is look at Britain. These universities do not have school teams competing against each other, but they have plenty of athletics. These students are quite literally amateurs, playing cricket for the love of the sport. There are no athletic scholarships and no recruiting rules that could be violated. There are plenty of athletic fields; this is a cheap expense and universities are willing to absorb it, as part of the university tradition. British students generally enjoy sports; but for them, it is much less as spectators, since they actually get to play the games themselves.

Some top athletes trained in this system. Roger Bannister became the first runner to break the 4-minute mile in 1954 on a track at Oxford, when he was a medical student. Wait a minute, an American might say: since when do medical students get to compete in college sports? We have the rule that only undergraduates can compete, with a maximum of 4 years eligibility; this rule is a by-product of restricting athletics to those on scholarships. The one big inter-university sporting contest in England is the annual Henley Regatta, an 8-man crew race between Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames River. The teams are made up of students, mostly at graduate and professional school level, as well as university personnel such as scientists and medical doctors. Why not? These are the best rowers, and they represent the university as a whole; there are no bureaucratic rules as to who can take part, except that you must be a member of the university. 

On the Continent, the decoupling of sport from education is even more extreme. French, German, and other universities have no sports teams at all; nor do they have stadiums or playing fields. *  (For the most part, this is also true of secondary schools,) Students who want to take part in sports join a sports club. This has nothing to do with any school; it is a place with facilities for swimming, soccer, rugby, gymnastics, etc., funded by dues, or sometimes by local communities. (Sweden got to be big in tennis by a program of building indoor courts.)  In some countries, where sports is considered important for national prestige, the government has its own sports programs or schools (notable in the old Soviet bloc and in China), where the curriculum is purely sports. These are not countries without sports, but countries where sports are in one sector and one social identity, and being a student is another social identity, and no one confuses the two. 

* German universities generally have buildings for a particular faculty or specialty in a particular part of the city, with other faculties in other places; they have their own cafeterias and gathering places, but these form identities by what you study, not around the university as a whole. Living in dormitories and going to school athletic events together—the American pattern—does not exist in most places.

The result is that intellectual and academic achievement is not clouded by a prestige system that focuses on sports and defocuses everything else. These are the countries that lead the world in student test scores. More importantly, they are places where intellectual work is respected, and intellectual standards are high. They win Nobel Prizes and have heavily cited scientific papers—at a proportion to their educated population that is higher than the US; here we have more university students and professors than anywhere else, but our average intellectual productivity is modest. Since the early 20th century, when American universities began to dwarf other countries in sheer numbers, size, and money, the top intellectual talent from Europe and the rest of the world has migrated to American universities. This continues in the 21st century. To the extent that there is intellectual excellence in the U.S., it depends to a considerable degree on the presence of foreign students and faculty from more intellectually-oriented systems.

It doesn’t have to stay this way. The collapse of the NCAA regime and similar fusions of sports spectacles and educational institutions would put the US back into the situation of the rest of the world—at least in this respect, where we are lagging.

Would university prestige fall, if we didn’t have famous college teams?

Yes, for some schools. Especially for the big state universities that don’t have top faculties and have low academic standards. (I don’t mean Michigan or Berkeley or UCLA, which have dominant research faculties; but I do mean most of the schools in the top-25 football or basketball weekly rankings.) These are places that you would never hear of if they weren’t in the sports pages.  And since attending team games is the one big collective event at most schools, and the big party weekends at universities, the attractiveness of attending college would decline for many of these students.

How severely such schools would be hit remains to be seen. Credential inflation has ramped up for the last half-century or more, and competition for college degrees may keep these schools afloat even with a more utilitarian atmosphere. The elite colleges and universities have long since gone beyond resting their prestige on their athletic teams. * Eliminating school athletics there would have no effect at all on their financial condition, or their prestige.

* Football was invented and publicized at schools like Yale, Penn, and Rutgers at the turn of the 20th century, where it started as a pastime organized by students themselves; and then became a rallying-point for public prestige and school spirit as universities changed from being clubs of the local upper class into nationally competitive institutions. But the growth of scientific research, especially during and after WWII, gave an alternative source for prestige; and the wider struggle for admissions led to more emphasis on elite schools as a route into top corporate and government careers. For these universities, athletic fame (which they had held up through the 1920s) became superfluous. The University of Chicago was a big football power in the 1920s; but an academically-oriented president eliminated football, and the university went on to become the most intellectually-elite university in the country. It already had a lot of money from John D. Rockefeller, and it was famous for hiring away the best professors in the country. If most people have never heard of the University of Chicago, it is because they get their information from the sports news.

The open professionalization of college sports would bring some schools into a crisis. But this would feed into a trend already under way. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the public has begun to question the economic payoff of a college education instead of taking it for granted. There have been more discriminating looks at what kinds of schools pay off in career success and which ones don’t. Purely profit-oriented schools have poor results, and are already failing economically as there is a squeeze on government-supported student loans. Athletics-dependent universities may be the next to go. The elite colleges and technical schools continue to do well, above all because of their prestige networks into elite science, professional firms, corporations and politics. Such pipelines are by their very nature restricted; which is one reason why they are awash in applications. Even if the big state universities were to collapse, it would only return the US to a situation like Britain or Germany, where there are relatively few universities but all of them of high intellectual quality.

In a wider perspective, collapse of the NCAA system would be only one of several major crises already looming. The sustainability of credential inflation into the endless future is in question.  The threat of computerization and artificial intelligence displacing most middle-class jobs—and potentially most intellectual work—would be a crisis of how to find jobs, or at any rate sustainance, for the bulk of the population. In the context of these other crises, the disappearance of the athletic-centered university would be just another feature of the next epoch of historic change now on the horizon.


Adut, Ari. 2008. On Scandal. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Laura Hamilton. 2013. Paying for the Party. Harvard Univ. Press.

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Chiang, Yi-lin. 2018. “When Things Don’t Go as Planned: Contingencies, Cultural Capital, and Parental Involvement for Elite University Admission in China.” Comparative Education Review 62:

Cohen-Solal, Anne. 1987. Sartre: A Life. NY: Random House.

Collins, Randall. 2019. The Credential Society. An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification). NY: Columbia University Press.

Milner, Murray Jr. 2004.  Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools and the Culture of Consumption.  NY: Routledge.

Moffatt, Michael. 1989. Coming of Age in New Jersey. Rutgers Univ. Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves.  2007. Fraternity Gang Rape. New York University Press.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Marilyn Monroe had a famous career: famously good, famously bad, pretty much simultaneously. Once launched, everything she did made her famous; and everything she did caused her grief.

Why? Look at it from the point of view of her networks.

[1] Hollywood film industry. She grew up on the periphery of Hollywood, and from an early age her ambition was to be a star. She went along with the casting-couch system, and as a result got looked down upon as just a studio whore. But she kept coming back, from other angles...

[2] Glamour photographers. This network provided her early livelihood, and caused the first big scandal that propelled her to the center of attention. Photographers were her comfort zone. They kept her in the public eye (for better or worse, including the second scandal that broke up her celebrity marriage). And photographers and their spouses were her strongest friends, the fallback whenever everything else went bust.

[3] A celebrity among celebrities. She hung around with big names like Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, her second (but first famous) husband. The result was a home vs. career conflict, and even worse, a spotlight contest that she was bound to win, and lose a husband.

[4] Theatre intellectuals. These became allies in her battle versus Hollywood studio scorn, low pay, and stereotyped roles. She got in tight with the New York elite of acting coaches and directors, and married the most famous playwright of the day. But from now on, her acting coaches would be in tension with whatever film directors she worked with.

[5] The star/politician nexus. Already during third husband-to-be Arthur Miller’s fight with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Marilyn was becoming connected with the liberal intellectuals. With the coming of Camelot, the media-beloved Kennedy White House was glamorized by its overlap with the Hollywood “rat pack” of Sinatra, Kennedy in-laws, and other party animals. Marilyn is linked sexually with JFK and his brother Robert, until it becomes a little too openly scandalous and she is dropped. Later, Joe DiMaggio would blame Sinatra and the rat pack for the drugs and drinking that led to her death.

[6] Her psychiatrists. By this time, she is dependent on psychiatrists, if not to sort things out, at least to give her drugs and a semblance of allies. One of them betrays her—worried over suicide—by having her locked up an mental hospital. Who gets her out? Her most heavyweight lover, Joe D. Not long after, her alcohol-and-drugs diet kills her anyway.

Her networks offset each other, providing a succession of reliefs, which turn into new strains.   [1] clashes with [2]; [1-2] clashes with [3]; [1-2-3] clashes with [4] and with [5].  [6] claims to deal with the clashes but just extends the damage.

Her networks canceled each other out—as support networks. But their overall effect was to make her as big a star as could be: the center of maximal attention whatever she did. Whatever you can say about Marilyn, there was no dead air.

What was Marilyn really like?

In a way, this is not a very sociological question. Erving Goffman said that everyone has a frontstage self (or more than one), plus a backstage part of your life where you put on your clothes, your make-up, and your way of dealing with the people you’re going to meet. But he also denied that the backstage is the real self, since it is shaped by what you do on the frontstage part; it isn’t any more spontaneous or “real”, just an alternation between preparation, social performance, and down-time. Marilyn had a complicated personality, which means her total self was a sum of how she dealt with all her networks; and since her networks were energizing her, pulling her this way and that, she was the sum of multiple attractions and their strains.

There was, however, a constant core to pretty much everything she did. She was always very ambitious and determined. She was not a  weak person; that was a role she played, wispy-voiced, naive little-girlish. She seemed passive and clue-less, but she always stole the scene, whether on-screen or off.

From her early childhood, she wanted to be a movie star. Her mother worked as a film negative cutter at a company that processed films for all the studios. Her mother gave her up to foster parents within a few months of her birth in 1926, but visited the little girl from time to time and took her to the movies and to see the sights of Hollywood. When Marilyn was 6, her mother bought a small house in Hollywood, which she shared with her daughter and a family of actors. This lasted less than a year, when the mother had another breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital. Marilyn continued living with the actor housemates, then her mother’s friend Grace took over, along with other friends and relatives in the Los Angeles neighborhoods near Hollywood. (A fairly accurate picture of this Hollywood-fringe lifestyle is in the first part of Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust.)

There was virtually nothing else. Her mother, a flapper-type of the 1920s, had lovers, and Marilyn was probably an illegitimate child.  Marilyn was effectively an orphan, shunted around from one foster parent to another (then as now, foster parents often took in a number of children). She lived in an orphanage from age 9 to 11; then with another foster family—in all a total of 10 different families. She married, as soon as she could after her 16th birthday, to avoid being sent back to the asylum when her foster family moved out of state. Her choice of husband was just a convenience, a boy who lived next door. Since this was 1942 and WWII had broken out, he shipped out to the Pacific while Marilyn lived with his parents and worked in a defense factory. There was no sentiment in the marriage; Marilyn said they had nothing to say to each other and it was boring. When he came back in 1946, he objected to Marilyn’s new-found career as a photographer’s model, so they divorced.

In 2010, some notebooks of Marilyn were found among the effects of one of her acting coaches. These contained two main themes: her ambition, self-reminders to work hard and master the craft of acting; and feelings of being alone, always alone. Since these notes were from the period after she was already a star, these were life-long preoccupations-- if this is how she felt when her networks were dense and active, how would she have felt when she was cast adrift, bouncing back and forth between ephemeral families and institutions, bit parts and photo gigs? Still, her ambition was her salvation; it was her energy-center, giving her a purpose and a trajectory. One cannot say she was a person of low emotional energy. Her ambition was the thread that kept her going.

What was she like backstage? (in Goffman’s sense, not just in the movie world)  Our best glimpse into that side of her life is an account by Truman Capote of an afternoon he spent with her in April 1955. They are at a funeral parlor in New York, a memorial for a grand old lady of the theatre who had been something of a mentor to Marilyn. As usual, Marilyn is very late. When she arrives in the entry hall, she explains she couldn’t decide what to wear—was it proper to wear eyelashes and lipstick? She had to wash it all off. What she decided to wear was a black scarf to hide her hair, a long shapeless black gown, black stockings, combined with erotic high heels and owlish sunglasses. She is gnawing at her fingernails, as she often did.

Marilyn: “I’m so jumpy. Where’s the john? If I could just pop in there for a minute--”

Capote:  “And pop a pill? No! Shhh. [...They’ve] started the eulogy.”

They sit in the last row through the speeches. After it’s over, Marilyn refuses to leave.

Marilyn: “I don’t want to have to talk to anybody. I never know what to say.”

Capote: “Then you sit here, and I’ll wait outside. I’ve got to have a cigarette.”

Marilyn: “You can’t leave me alone! My God! Smoke here.”

Capote: “Here? In the chapel?”

Marilyn: “Why not? What do you want to smoke? A reefer?”

Capote: “Very funny. Come on, let’s go.”

Marilyn:  “Please. There’s a lot of shutterbugs downstairs. And I certainly don’t want them taking my picture looking like this.” ...  “Actually, I could’ve worn makeup. I see all these other people were wearing makeup.”

Capote: “I am. Gobs.”

Marilyn: “Seriously, though. It’s my hair. I need color. And I didn’t have time to get any. It was so unexpected. Miss Collier dying and all. See?”  She displays, under her scarf, a dark line at her hair part.

Capote: “Poor innocent me. And all this time I thought you were a bona-fide blonde.”

Marilyn: “I am. But nobody’s that natural. And incidentally, fuck you.”

They sit and talk. Marilyn goes on to say that Miss Collier’s companion is going to live with Katherine Hepburn. “Lucky Phyllis... I’d change places with her pronto. Miss Hepburn is a terrific lady, no shit. I wish she was my friend. So I could call her up sometimes and... well, I don’t know, just call her up.”

The conversation goes on. Marilyn: “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Errol Flynn whip out his prick and play the piano with it? Oh well, it was a hundred years ago, I’d just got into modeling, and I went to this half-ass party, and Errol Flynn, so pleased with himself, he was there and he took out his prick and played the piano with it. Thumped the keys. He played You are My Sunshine. Christ! Everybody says Milton Berle has the biggest schlong in Hollywood. But who cares? Look, don’t you have any money?”

Capote: “Maybe about fifty bucks.”

Marilyn: “Well, that ought to buy us some bubbly.”

They go to a crummy bar on Second Avenue. Marilyn: “This is fun. Kind of like being on location-- if you like location, which I certainly don’t. Niagara.  That stinker. Yuk.”

Capote: “So let’s hear about your secret lover.”

Marilyn giggles while Capote keeps silent.

Marilyn: “You know so many women. Who’s the most attractive woman you know?

Capote: “No contest. Barbara Paley. Hands down.” (wife of the owner of CBS television network)

Marilyn frowns: “Is that the one they call ‘Babe’? She sure doesn’t look like any babe to me. I’ve seen her in Vogue and all. She’s so elegant. Lovely. Just looking at her pictures makes me feel like pig-slop.”

Capote: “She might be amused to hear that. She’s very jealous of you.”

Marilyn: “Jealous of me? There you go again, laughing.”

Capote explains that a gossip columnist wrote about a rumor that Marilyn was having an affair with William S. Paley, and his wife believes it.

They trade sex stories. Capote tells of a homosexual fling he had with Errol Flynn. Marilyn: “It’s not as if you told me anything new. I’ve always known Errol zigzagged. I have a masseur, he’s practically my sister, and he was Tyrone Power’s masseur, and he told me all about the things Errol and Ty Power were doing.... So let’s hear your best experience. Along those lines.”

Capote: “The best? The most memorable? Suppose you answer the question first.”

Marilyn: “And I  drive hard bargains! Ha! (Swallowing champagne)  Joe’s not bad. He can hit home runs. If that’s all it takes, we’d still be married. I still love him, though. He’s genuine.”

Capote: “Husbands don’t count. Not in this game.”

Marilyn (nibbling her nail, really thinking): “Well, I met a man, he’s related to Gary Cooper somehow. A stockbroker, and nothing much to look at-- sixty-five, and he wears those very thick glasses. Thick as jellyfish. I can’t say what it was, but--”

Capote:  “You can stop right there. I’ve heard all about him from other girls... He’s Rocky Cooper’s stepfather. He’s supposed to be sensational.”

Marilyn: “He is. Okay, smart-ass. Your turn.”

[Capote continues his memoir:] “While I paid the check, she left for the powder room, and I wished I had a book to read: her visits to powder rooms sometimes lasted as long as an elephant’s pregnancy. Idly, as the time ticked by, I wondered if she was popping uppers or downers. Downers, no doubt... After twenty minutes passed, I decided to investigate. Maybe she’s popped a lethal dose, or even cut her wrists. I found the ladies’ room, and knocked on the door. She said, ‘Come in.’ Inside, she was confronting a dimly-lit mirror. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘Looking at Her.’  In fact, she was coloring her lips with ruby lipstick. Also, she had removed her somber head-scarf and combed out her glossy fine-as-cotton-candy hair.”

Marilyn is in a good mood now. She wants to take a taxi to the Staten Island ferry and feed the seagulls. [Capote 1975.]

Truman Capote was part of the celebrities network. He made a big splash by 1948 in the New York literary scene as novelist, enfant terrible of boyish good looks and flaunting homosexuality long before it was fashionable. He made literature out of whatever he observed, and specialized in backstage gossip about other celebrities, as well as hangers-on wannabes and small-town transients like himself. His conversation with Marilyn is a good specimen of the way he talked. As we can see, they are comfortable together. 

Marilyn and Truman Capote dancing, April 1955—the same month of this conversation.

The celebrity world is usually depicted as a superficial place, where prestige attracts prestige, famous people basking in each other’s limelight and thus multiplying their prestige by being seen together. This is true, but it misses another dimension: celebrities—if they have friends—usually make friends with other celebrities, because they share the same viewpoint on the rest of their lives. They have the same problem of being instantly recognizable, so that they cannot have an ordinary conversation with most people. (The Beatles used to refer to their encounters with fans as being “Beatle-ized” when people gush with amazement at seeing them.) Sociologically, what makes for spontaneous friendships is the feeling of sharing the same backstage, us in a private enclave against the world.

Marilyn, even at the height of her fame in 1955, still has a certain amount of that star-struck attitude about others. She wishes she could be friends with Katherine Hepburn, and feels inferior to the elegant Barbara Paley—a common denominator here is that these are both women of the hereditary upper class, while Marilyn made her way up from the working class. Privately, Marilyn is crude, cynical, and on the whole disgusted with Hollywood, although she also revels in the insider knowledge she has about everyone’s sex lives (not least from her own experience). She would like to get out, but it is her career mainstay; and she senses there is part of the New York world that will never accept her, even if her intellectual pals are willing to patronize her as long as she stays eager and humble.

Three years later, Capote published his most famous novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1960, he tried to get her cast in the female lead for the film version, but the studios considered Marilyn too much trouble, and Audrey Hepburn got the part. The central character is a “treats girl”—a sexy young woman who lets herself be picked up in expensive bars by men on expense accounts, and lives on asking them for $20 bills to “tip the maid in the powder room”—and usually cutting out to avoid  further sexual obligations. Holly Golightly could have been modeled on Marilyn, a ditsy but good-hearted waif, who has a deserted husband from a small town, acts as a go-between for a Mafia boss in prison, and befriends a preppy young writer living in her apartment house who resembles a younger Truman Capote. You have to wonder how Marilyn would have liked playing this role, and if her friendship with Capote could have survived. Her marriage with Arthur Miller would break up when she started acting the script of  The Misfits that Miller wrote for her--depicting a flighty, screwed-up personality based on herself. So this is what you think of me?

[1. Part 1] Hollywood Studios

Hollywood is first of all the meat market, where a crowd of aspiring young actors vie for the attention of a small number of studio chiefs and whoever else can help them get their break. Since the 1920s it was also the sex scene, known for risqué parties and goings-on (Rudolph Valentino, Louise Brooks, Errol Flynn), slightly veiled behind a publicity apparatus that made everthing look like peaches and cream. Marilyn had no inhibitions about playing it for what it was. She had affairs with studio executives and talent agents, including the agent who arranged her first part in an important film, The Asphalt Jungle (shot in 1949, when she was 23 years old) and got her a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox late in 1950. But Marilyn had been in and out of the studios ever since she was 20, where she was mostly regarded as too light-weight to be an actress, and too eager to make it necessary to do much to get her cooperation. She was willing to serve as eye-candy at Hollywood parties as long as she was invited, and often this meant going upstairs with whoever was an important guest. Combined with the passive naive-beauty roles she was given, Marilyn came to be looked down upon as the studio whore, an attitude that would dog her throughout much of her career. Marilyn built an extensive network inside Hollywood, but for the first half-dozen years it was a network circulating the wrong kind of reputation.

She got a couple of short-term contracts in 1946-7 and again in 1948 (age 20-22), resulting in a few bit parts in minor films. She was eager to work and threw herself into gym workouts, dance lessons, and acting lessons. She even paid to continue lessons after her contract ran out--which also kept her on set and in the networks. (Her reputation of being hard to work with on the set would come later, as she became successful.) Though she was in and out, contract-wise, she gradually built up a few film credits, showing that she could wear beautiful costumes, stand out in a chorus line, sing and dance. Groucho Marx got her a part in a comedy; Carey Grant played opposite her in Monkey Business, a farce about a middle-aged lawyer who takes a drug that turns him into a teen-ager. Her comedy roles were always the dumb blonde, varied by film noir roles as a gangster moll and mentally ill characters like a freaked-out baby sitter in Don’t Bother to Knock and the lead in Niagara (both released 1952).  On the whole, Hollywood was an ordeal from her late teens until age 26, and most of what success (and livelihood) she got was not from films but from photography.

[2] Glamour photography

Marilyn got her start while working a defense factory, when she was approached by a military photographer looking for “Rosie the Riveter” type inspirational pictures. It was her entry to a network that included not only photographers, but modeling agencies and their customers: magazines, advertisements, calendars, pin-ups, and studio publicity. In early 1945, Marilyn was able to quit her factory job and by the next year, had appeared on the cover of over 30 magazines, not yet the big ones but respectable ones like Pageant and Family Circle,  as well as U.S. Camera and sex-tease mags. (The San Fernando Valley, across the Hollywood hills, was then as later a national center for pornography, but Marilyn stayed on the respectable side of the line-- which paid better, in any case, since conventional magazines had bigger circulation.)  Her reputation for bathing-suit shots spread, and she was picked up as an artist’s model for well-known pin-up artists Earl Moran and Earl MacPherson. It was during one of her hard times, laid off from the studios and needing money, in 1949, when she posed for the nude photos that would later make her famous.

It was an unusual photo angle, shot from the top of a ladder looking down on her lying on a bright red curtain, and became the best-selling calendar photo of its time. Color photography was just emerging as a viable printing process, most photographs previously having been black-and-white. Marilyn would repeatedly feature in the technological breakthroughs in all the visual media. The nude photos came back to haunt her in March 1952, when gossip columnists spread the story that she had posed in the nude 3 years before. But 1952 was Marilyn’s break-out year. The previous fall she was on the cover of Collier’s (one of the big national photo-news magazines), and soon after made the covers of Look and Life.  Niagara  was about to be shot and would be on screens next year with Marilyn as top billing. The studio executives worried about the nude calendar but Marilyn handled the rush of reporters with aplomb: “It’s no big deal. You can get a copy of it anywhere.” And asked if she had nothing on during the photo, she replied in her little-girl voice, “I had the radio on.” Set up for scandal, she stole the scene. That’s one definition of emotional domination of the situation, however meek and passive her demeanor.

Marilyn had become too big in the photo world for the studio bosses to cut her out any more.

It was her photo career that made her transition to the iconic Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jean Mortenson, as a young photo model, was a brunette with curly hair. She changed her name to Marilyn Monroe during a screen test. Meanwhile her photos show her curls straightening out to wavy, her brown hair shading into red, then reddish-blonde (red-heads were considered hot stuff in the 1940s), and by 1950 to now-classic platinum blonde. Her agent had her hairline raised (to eliminate the widow’s peak seen in her early looks), and according to rumours, possibly also paid for a minor nose-job. Her photos show the addition of a small beauty-mark on her left cheek from 1950 onwards. This was the look of the 1953 photo that Andy Warhol would use for his multi-colored Marilyn silkscreen in 1962, just after she died, sealing her icon status in another medium.  Marilyn created her own image, but the photographers, agents, and artists had a hand in it too.

Marilyn's hair: 1946, 1947, 1950
[1. Part 2] Hollywood

Two big technical developments were happening in the film business just as Marilyn became a star. One was Technicolor. Color films had occasionally been made since the late 1930s—The Wizard of Oz was one, starting out black-and-white in Kansas and then switching to color for the Land of Oz—but until the early 1950s most films were black-and-white. Technicolor as it appeared in the late 1940s was garish, bright but unnatural-looking.  Natural-looking color was achieved in the 50s, and Niagara publicity trumpeted it as the combination of two of the world’s great spectacles, Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe. The scenic aspect of outdoor films, which was never very good in black-and-white, was now a big selling point for the movies. They needed it, because these were the years television had taken off; movie attendance had peaked in 1946 and now had declined over 60 per cent. But TV was black-and-white and didn’t get very good color until the late 1960s, so Hollywood exploited color films as hard as it could. *

* Black-and-white continued to be used until the end of the 50s for serious films. On the Waterfront-- Elia Kazan’s 1954 drama of labor corruption, with Marlon Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” scene, was turned down by 20th Century Fox because Kazan didn’t want it made in color.

The other gimmick that Hollywood had over TV was big, wide-screen spectacles. There were initial technical problems. The early version was called Cinerama; it required special theatres with a triple-wide screen, each with a separate film projector. This was too cumbersome and expensive, but by 1953 it was replaced by Cinemascope, which required only one projector and one film instead of three. The first big Cinamascope block-buster appeared in 1953, a Biblical epic, The Robe, starring Charleton Heston with his famous chariot race. The second was Marilyn Monroe’s film, How to Marry a Millionaire, also in 1953. It wasn’t a great film and had a silly plot, but it was packed with stars—Marilyn along with her two predecessors, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable—a it paid back its huge production costs many times over within its first month. A much wittier film was Marilyn’s earlier film of the same year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, co-starring Jane Russell, whom she also up-staged; it also made a lot of money. So 20th Century Fox immediately piled into producing yet another big Cinemascope film, River of No Return, a frontier action-adventure pairing Monroe with Robert Mitchum. She later called it “a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery and the Cinemascope process.”  The appeal of Cinemascope soon wore out, and 20th Century Fox almost bankrupted itself over the next 10 years, especially with the over-long four hour production Cleopatra (finally released in 1963) starring Elizabeth Taylor. During these years of trouble, Marilyn Monroe films were the chief money-makers for the studio.

Marilyn with studio bigwigs (1953)

By 1955, Marilyn was bigger than everybody and ready to rebel. She was still getting the modest salary negotiated in her 1950 contract; she wanted commensurate pay and better roles than the dumb blonde stereotype. The studio, still under-estimating her, refused. She walked out. This was news. Hollywood contractual disputes were usually behind closed doors. How could someone with such a weak personality do this sort of thing?

[3] The Celebrity Network

In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite,  a portrait of the upper reaches of stratification in the United States. His main argument was that the country had morphed into a pyramid ruled by three overlapping groups: the executives of the big corporations; the top officers who shuttled between the interchangeable branches of the military-industrial complex; and the cabinet officials who served no matter which party held the presidency, and who came from the same Ivy League schools and the same Wall Street firms. (Sounds familiar?) He also pointed out that the old fashioned Upper Class, the hereditary rich families of the Social Register in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia still existed (one of their daughters married John F. Kennedy), but that they no longer really counted as sources of national power, or even of prestige. They were no longer in the public eye the way they had been when the Titanic sank (when the headlines listed which members of “Society” were on the ship). What had displaced them was a group called Celebrities.

Celebrities were anyone who was famous, which meant anyone who had their picture taken a lot, and were in the news just by being visible. Celebrities could be athletes, singers, movie stars, famous writers (Hemingway; Tennessee Williams), band leaders, people who broke flying records (Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart). What created Celebrities, as a group phenomenon, was the rise of the mass media. Above all, these were the newspapers and magazines, which underwent an era of tremendous popularity (and profitability) from the 1920s through the 50s. Photos were a big part of this; it was only around 1920 that cameras became portable so that photographers (later called paparazzi) could swarm all over places where celebrities might be seen; and when newsprint publications could afford to sprinkle their pages with photos. Celebrities were wanted because of an unsatiable need for things to fill papers with;  celebrity stories had legs, whether there was any breaking news or not. In the 1930s, glossy black-and-white photos in magazines became economically feasible. Hence the world of celebrities. Hollywood was a favorite photo/ news/ gossip site. A broader swathe of famous persons could be found in the restaurants and night clubs of New York, where almost anyone who was anyone could be seen and gossip columnists could write about who they were seen with.

Marilyn may not have been very aware of the world of Celebrities when she was young and completely Hollywood-struck. But she soon found out; in fact, she became a celebrity before she became a star. By around 1950, she wasn’t just trading sex for entrée into Hollywood parties; she was having affairs with the stars, including Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner, and big-name director Elia Kazan. In her breakout year, 1953, she became connected with the biggest name of all—Joe DiMaggio. Just recently retired from the New York Yankees, DiMaggio was the biggest star on the most famous team in the most popular American sport. (His teams had gone to the World Series 10 out of 13 years; fans and sports-writers used to debate about who was the greatest of all time, DiMaggio or his predecessor, Babe Ruth.) In January 1954, Marilyn and Joe were married.

They honeymooned in Japan. Marilyn took time out to go to Korea, where the Korean War had ground to a stalemate, to entertain tens of thousands of American troops. Singing outdoors in a spaghetti-strap gown in the February cold, she was received with wild enthusiasm. “You never heard such cheers!” she told DiMaggio, upon returning. “Yes I have,” he said. He had; but that was then, and this was now. Their marriage immediately started coming apart.

Further strains appeared. DiMaggio was from an old-fashioned Italian family. He didn’t want his wife to work (it was a mark of not being able to support your own family); he wanted her to stay home and cook for him and his buddies. She tried, a bit, but she had a career and movies to make. In September 1954, they are in New York City. Marilyn is shooting The Seven Year Itch. Director Billy Wilder has concocted a scene where she stands over a subway grate while the air from the train rushes up and blows her skirts above her waist. It is a hot summer night, and Marilyn is enjoying it—the rush of air, showing off her great legs, the several thousand men and dozens of photographers gathered to watch. It goes on for several hours. Joe DiMaggio is there watching, with the wife of Marilyn’s personal photographer and manager, Milton Greene. Joe is getting angrier and angrier, every time her dress blows up to reveal her panties, and the crowd cheers.  He walks off in disgust. Next month they are divorced.

Marilyn with director Billy Wilder, planning the skirt-blowing scene  (Sept. 1954)

Clash of life-styles? Yes.  But also, Marilyn has upstaged him completely. And she always would.

[4] Theatre Intellectuals

The theatre world—which mostly meant New York City—had always overlapped with Hollywood. In the 1910s, before Hollywood, films were mostly made in or around New York, and Broadway producers were at the fore among those who created Hollywood in the 1920s.  Burlesque stars like Mae West and dancers like Fred Astaire moved on to films; famous plays were often made into movies; and stars of the “legitimate theatre” continued to circulate between the stage and the movies up through the 1950s and even later. But already in the 20s, there were film stars who never did theatre; and these became more prominent over time. They were two different kinds of media, and the difference expanded as films became more outdoors, more action-oriented, and more colorful and spectacular.

In moving from Hollywood to the New York theatre world, Marilyn was moving in a conservative direction. It was also a claim for prestige. The theatre world tended to look down on films as a second-rate medium; and intellectuals in general regarded films as low-brow entertainment. True, famous writers like Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner spent time as Hollywood script writers, but this was just a way of raising their incomes. Some Hollywood studio chiefs—notably Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, and Marilyn Monroe’s chief detractor—tried to raise the status of films by making “serious” movies; but they largely had to give this up in the 1950s when competition from TV moved them in the direction of colorful spectaculars. One can see the pattern in the fact that there were no film schools and no “film critics” until James Agee in the 1940s and 50s started trying to review films in the same spirit as reviewing plays. There was little sense of what was a film “classic” until the 1960s and later. *

* Though looking for outstanding developments in the film art,  Agee completely missed the significance of film noir, the main innovation of his own day; he thought that films ought to play an important part in the social developments of modern times, such as making patriotic movies about World War II. Not surprisingly, his film reviews were mostly negative.

Marilyn already had network ties with the theatre intellectuals from the early 50s. (After all, there was Brando, Elia Kazan; and she’d acted alongside Bettie Davis in All About Eve, which is precisely about an aging theatre queen and her ambitious understudy.)  After divorcing Joe DiMaggio and breaking her Hollywood contract, in 1955 she moved to New York, where she was taken in by a famous art-photographer Milton Greene and his wife. Greene did a series of sensitive photos of Marilyn (not as film star or sex kitten but moody, swan-like, etc.). He also floated the idea of forming an independent company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, with themselves as partners.

Meanwhile Marilyn starts over again, “from the bottom” (sort of), by joining other would-be actors at the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg. He is a proponent of method acting, getting into your own emotions, feeling yourself in the role. Marilyn is met with skepticism by the other actors but Strasberg and his wife Paula find Marilyn has potential. For the rest of her career, Paula would be Marilyn’s personal acting coach, at her side on the set of every movie she made.

In January 1956, 20th Century Fox caved in. She got a new contract, with options to choose her own films and directors. Marilyn Monroe Productions also had the right to make one independent film a year. She and Milton Greene made this a priority. Their first film would be in England, directed by (and co-starring) Sir Laurence Olivier. Olivier was probably the most prestigious theatre/film cross-over in the world, famed for his Shakespeare and for films of classic novels like Wuthering Heights. The film had a not-so-promising title, The Prince and the Showgirl; but in fact it was a first-rate comedy by the playright Terence Rattigan, the foremost follower of the style of George Bernard Shaw, with its witty dialogue and surprising plot reversals. This should be the perfect launch to Marilyn’s new phase as a serious actress.

What could go wrong? For one thing, something that at the time seemed very much to be going right. Marilyn falls in love with Arthur Miller. He was at the top of the theatre world; his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, would be for decades the most widely performed play ever written by an American playwright. It does nothing to hurt his public image that he is in a fight with HUAC over their effort to compel him to testify against former Communist party members and sympatheizers from the 1930s. This is a fight that had convulsed Hollywood, too, although Hollywood came down on the side of Communist-busting and a number of writers had been blacklisted. Marilyn had never been involved in politics, but now that her fiancée was called before the Committee (and its cameras) in Washington, she is right there beside him. When the politicians threaten to prevent him from traveling to England for the Olivier film, Marilyn’s admirers exert pressure on the other side, and he gets the passport. Marilyn and Arthur are photographed at their wedding at his home in rural Connecticut, where she is blissfully happy, just to be married to such a wonderful man.

In England, Marilyn and Arthur were greeted and photographed with Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh (who played Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind), but cordiality soon ended. Now accustomed to method-style directors, Marilyn asks Olivier how he wants her to play her part. “Just be sexy,” he tells her. She is insulted and upset. They fight throughout the filming, Arthur putting in advice and Paula Strasberg conferring with Marilyn before every shot. The Prince and the Showgirl is a financial flop and leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. (In fact it is very viewable today, even though it doesn’t feel quite like the same Marilyn Monroe). 

It is the beginning of a series of bad relationships with directors. She is consistently late on the set. She cancels and calls in sick. She forgets her lines, or botches them repeatedly. She argues with directors and retreats into conferences with Paula. During the shooting of Some Like It Hot in 1958, her co-star Tony Curtis famously said that “Kissing Marilyn Monroe is like kissing Hitler”—in exasperation at the endless re-takes. And this was to be the only really successful box-office hit that she made after re-inventing herself as a serious theatrical actor.

Marilyn had won the right to choose her own directors, but it doesn’t improve matters. She argued with top directors,  Broadway and Hollywood legends alike. Her first effort at a serious drama, Bus Stop (1957), is a contemporary or real-life version of a cowboy movie where Marilyn is a cafe singer kidnapped by an enamoured rodeo cowboy. She played opposite 59-year-old Clark Gable in The Misfits,  another real-life Western about aging cowboys trying to make some money rounding up wild horses. Arthur Miller had written the script especially for her, but his habit as a professional writer was to turn real people into material for drama, and it shocked her as a portrait of herself. Whether cast realistically or in film fantasies, she always ended up being the dumb and/or neurotic blonde beauty. Arthur left the set and she began another affair. Shooting dragged out, her films always behind-schedule and over-budget.

We can see the deterioration in photos of Marilyn in this period.  Earlier, there had been candid photos of her biting her nails with tension, but now her face looks bland and washed-out. She carried a flask of gin on the set and drank between takes, a dangerous combination with the pills she took to wake up in the morning and the sleeping pills she took at night. 

Marilyn biting her nails  (1952)

Between takes of Some Like It Hot  (1958)

Arguing with George Cukor, famous comedy director, on the set of Let’s Make Love (1960)

[5] Camelot

In November 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected President, promising to bring a youthful new approach to the White House. He brought youthful good looks, an even younger and beautiful wife, and created enthusiasm that made him the most popular President of the 20th century (with favorability ratings consistently around 70%). The Kennedy family were no strangers to Hollywood. The patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had bought and reorganized studios in the 1920s, ruthlessly taking over a movie theatre chain, and carrying on a long affair with film star Gloria Swanson while financing her films. (Yes, the one who played the aging star in Sunset Boulevard, 1950.)  JFK reportedly had numerous affairs, both before and after his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, including several film stars before taking up with Marilyn, which began attracting attention from his political enemies in early 1962.  But reporters in those days gave popular politicians space for their private lives (they avoided photographing FDR in his wheel chair, and kept quiet about General Eisenhower’s affair with his driver). Kennedy got along well with the press, who showed the glitz of the Kennedy White House but not its backstage.

Marilyn had already had an affair with Peter Lawford, a Hollywood actor married to  JFK's younger sister.  Now she was socializing with the rat pack,  as we see in a photo with other stars at a Las Vegas event—a fake look of enthusiasm on her mouth clashing with the sadness in the rest of her face.

Marilyn with Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin, Las Vegas (June 1961)

In June 1962, in the midst of yet another contentious on-again-off-again film project for 20th Century Fox, Marilyn takes off  to fly to New York for JFK’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. It is her last famous photo scandal. Having kept the crowd waiting for almost an hour, she appears in a clinging, flesh-colored gown and sings “Happy Birthday to You, Mr. President” in her wispy voice. Kennedy, sitting in the front row of the huge audience, makes no gesture of response. Immediately afterward, his brother Bobby tells him the affair is getting too public and warns him to break it off. He does, that very night. Marilyn is shut out. She can’t even get through to Bobby by phone any more.

Back in Hollywood, she is suspended by the studio.  A month later, she is reinstated with a new contract and a higher salary, and called back to resume filming. Three days later she is dead: an overdose of barbiturates, combined with whatever other drugs she was doing during the day.

[6] Marilyn’s psychiatrists

Marilyn had been seeing psychiatrists ever since her sojourn in New York in 1955. Psychoanalysis was very much in vogue during the 1940s and 50s, and her coaches at the Actors Studio encouraged her to explore her emotional depths. She had at least four psychiatrists. The second of them, in 1957, was Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. Such psychoanalysis was not expected to cure anything, but was just part of a life-long process of knowing oneself. At any rate, there was no indication psychiatry did Marilyn any good; her problems got worse during the years of treatment.

Her psychiatrist from 1957 to 1961 was Marianne Kris. These were the years of her fights with directors, her breakdowns on the set, her estrangement and divorce from Arthur Miller, her heavy drug use and drinking. The drugs were abetted by her doctors, including the psychiatrists themselves; like celebrity doctors then and since, they were impressed with having famous patients, and multiple doctors would add up to unlimited prescriptions. By 1960, Marilyn had two psychiatrists, Dr. Kris in New York, and Dr. Ralph Greenson in Los Angeles. In March 1962, Dr. Kris decided that Marilyn was on the verge of suicide, and had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital in New York. Marilyn went along with it at first, until she found herself locked in a padded cell, under constant surveillance, and cut off from communication with the outside. She began to resist, to no avail. She refused to take part in therapeutic activities with the other patients (supervised handicrafts and the like), declaring: “when I start becoming one of them, I’ll know I really am crazy.”

At almost exactly the same time, Erving Goffman published  Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961). In the late 1950s, Goffman had gotten himself into the schizophrenic ward of mental hospital, incognito, for two years to observe what it was like to be locked up, whether you were crazy or not. He concluded that the structure of the mental hospital itself was making people worse, not better. It was a “total institution,”  where ones entire life was under surveillance by staff who held all power over you--guards in a prison, sergeants in a boot camp, orderlies and psychiatrists in an asylum. Inmates were a degraded status, with no way to escape from their social position, except by giving in to the staff’s definition of oneself as a spoiled self. You had to give up your self in order for them to make you better (or at least declare you were better so you could get out). Goffman argued that the bizarre things that patients did in the mental hospital (like pissing on floor or refusing to keep one’s clothes on) were a last gasp of autonomy, trying to show they still had at least this much of a personal self by rebelling in trivial ways. Goffman called this “the underlife of a total institution,” one version of which is the “convict code” in prison.* This was the pressure that Marilyn faced.

* Within a few years after Goffman published this book, mental hospitals began to be closed down.

Marilyn was finally able to smuggle a message out to Joe DiMaggio. Why Joe? He still loved her, she knew. And Joe D was a big name in New York, an old-fashioned hero type who wasn’t going to let a bunch of bureaucrats stop him. Surrounded by an army of reporters and photographers, Joe got Marilyn out.

Photos tell the unspoken story. She and Joe are seen together for a while. Uncharacteristically, Marilyn covers her face from the cameras. Joe looks stony-faced. She sits beside him on the beach with a wan expression. He rescued her, but he couldn’t save her.

Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio (1962)

The old networks were still there, still pulling her apart, and the networks were now inside her.  Her new psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, violates professional norms by trying to befriend his patient; he and his wife invite her into their home. Marilyn moves into an apartment a few minutes away. But she is back to the drugs and the drinking, the daily uppers and downers; the back-and-forth with the studio; the collapse of her dream to be something more than a Hollywood star. No one can befriend her in her personal backstage, suspended between all the frontstages. She dies alone.

Did Marilyn Monroe Have Charisma?

Let's see how she fits the check-list of different kinds of charisma.

Frontstage charisma. Obviously, Marilyn was not the kind of person who makes speeches and leads crowds by swaying their emotions and beliefs. But no one was better at capturing the center of public attention.  In this respect she was like Cleopatra, the master of spectacles, who left Mark Antony sitting alone on his podium while the crowd flocked to see her. This makes us broaden our theory of how charisma operates. It doesn’t have to be peremptory, I’m telling you this! It is all the more effective when it is irresistible. In public, almost everyone liked Marilyn, were charmed by her, men and women alike. In part, precisely because she was not an authority; she never told people what to do. Even as a sexual figure, she was never the femme fatale, the malicious vamp, the money-grabbing whore.  She was most natural in front of a crowd: if you like to look at me, I’ll blow you a kiss.

Marilyn with her public (1954)

Backstage charisma. This is the realm of face-to-face relationships; the capacity for emotional domination that is so striking in the way Jesus talked with people, always seizing control of the conversation with an unexpected shift. Marilyn was not at all like this. But when people pressed her (like reporters), she usually came up with a stopper, a tag line that gave everyone pause, or made people laugh.

Success-reputation charisma.  The classic definition of charisma is the general or politician who always wins: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon. This was not Marilyn. But-- if her aim for success was to be a star, to be the center of attention, she never failed. (After her career launch, of course; this launch-point is a key feature of any “charismatic” life.) Unlike some (perhaps most) charismatic success-leaders, she never lost her position, never became once-charismatic. Perhaps because she killed herself at the right time; she did not hang on too long. Even her death was big news; her legend was just beginning.

Fame as pseudo-charisma.  Just continuing to be a famous name, with the passage of time, can get one the retrospective label of being charismatic. I have argued this is a mistake, a confusing use of the term. Queen Elizabeth, of Elizabethan fame, is an example of a person who was not charismatic on any of the three main dimensions. But historic fame can accompany real charisma. So far—60 years after her death—Marilyn Monroe checks that box too.

Of course, over the flow of history, 60 years is not a long time. Can we theorize what makes some names resonant over the centuries? Yes... but that is another book.


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Randall Collins. Nov. 1, 2016. "Does Charisma Win Presidential Elections?"

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