There’s More to Life (and Fashion) than Audrey and Marilyn

My colleague Erin Carlson has a great post over on our sibling site Crushable.com about the way that many media outlets jump to compare young up-and-coming actresses to Audrey Hepburn (and, particularly in the case of Jennifer Love Hewitt, the actress is more than happy to make the comparisons herself). However, I’d like to take her argument one step further. It seems that there are two kinds of young female starlets in Hollywood: the ladylike “serious actress” types (those would be your Audreys) and the bosomy, doe-eyed “bombshell” types. The latter group, of course, are the Marilyns. Just as the virgin/whore dichotomy pervades popular culture, the idea that every young female actress must immediately be categorized as a New Audrey or a New Marilyn is inherently limiting and troublesome.

Who’s a Marilyn? We have Lindsay Lohan (who recreated one of Marilyn’s iconic photoshoots for New York magazine), Megan Fox (who idolizes Monroe and has a tattoo of Marilyn’s face on her arm), and Scarlett Johansson. The Marilyns are the sexy, desired girls, but they’re usually consigned to sexpot roles and tend to be in the press more often for their offscreen romantic liaisons and scandals than for their work. Often, like Marilyn, they’re women who came from poor or hardscrabble backgrounds, painted as the exact opposite of the rarefied and well-mannered Audreys.

And what of the Audreys? They’re often, like Audrey herself, not American. Natalie Portman, probably the young actress compared most often to Hepburn, is of Israeli origin. Carey Mulligan, whose Oscar-nominated turn in An Education has made her the newest Audrey type, is British. Audrey Tautou, who already has a name in common with her double, is French. Portman, Tautou, and Mulligan, along with Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway, are slender, have short hair, and get “serious” roles. They might have famous boyfriends, but they also win acting awards and are the subjects of magazine profiles where the writer is seemingly contractually obligated to mention at least three times how intelligent and well-educated the actress is.

As a girl, my friends and I quickly divided ourselves into an Audrey Camp and a Marilyn Camp. Because I have dark hair and am petite, there was no discussion about which group I belonged in. Just as women have been labeled and labeled themselves for thousands of years, I quickly fell into line with my role as an Audrey. Even though I considered trying out for the cheerleading squad, I knew that, realistically, Audreys had no place there. So I signed up for drama club and the Societie Francaise. While I do prefer Roman Holiday to The Seven Year Itch, years later I’m still grappling with the notion that I can be both a Marilyn and an Audrey, or neither, as suits me. I understand that for many people, especially ones tasked with explaining the unexplainable and giving some sort of insight into a woman’s soul, it’s easy to describe a person you don’t know by comparing them to a person you do know. But “X is the new Y” has its limitations. And woe to the young starlet – or any other woman, really – who can’t easily be pegged as one or the other. What happens to redheads? Women of color?

Yes, it seems ridiculous to write yet another article about the virgin/whore dichotomy. But, sadly, it’s not gone yet, and it’s a lot older than any of the people talking about it. For every Jennifer Aniston there’s an Angelina Jolie, and for every Joey Potter there’s a Jen Lindley. At this point, Audrey and Marilyn aren’t so much actresses or women as much as they are cultural artifacts. Reducing everyone down to the most basic cultural reference isn’t artistic, it’s lazy, and it’s unfair. Carey Mulligan isn’t the New Audrey, she’s the current Carey Mulligan. The only woman any woman can be is herself.

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    • Amy Schiller

      As crappy of a movie as The Other Boleyn Girl was, at least it made Natalie Portman the fiery seductress and Scarlett Johannssen the docile domestic one. And as for the real-life Joey Potter and Jen Lindley, well, one of them has gone on to an arguably tragic life tied to the approval of a manipulative older man while the other has quietly become one of the luminaries of the indie scene AND rocks a pixie cut. And, just like those toy gun PSA’s on the subways, its not the one you’d think. So maybe there’s hope yet if the actresses themselves have the werewithall to resist the typecasting.