Friday, February 09, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith as Rorschach Blot

For decades now, Marilyn Monroe, whose life ended tragically at age 36, has been a popular Rorschach Blot, an icon on whom endless analysis has been spent. The film star was frozen in youthful beauty before the sexist culture of Hollywood could, as it always does, throw her overboard for the latest female eye candy to hit town.

Anna Nicole Smith leaves behind no reasonably impressive body of work, as Monroe did. Instead, Smith leaves behind a baby of as-yet undetermined paternity and the memory of a short, tragic, often goofy life that first became known to most of us when she married a millionaire more than sixty years her senior, claiming, implausibly, it seemed, that she did it for love.

Her death at age 39 makes Smith the obvious candidate for being the next entry into cultural Rorschachdom. One can easily imagine that two decades from now a novelist, operating as the artist-as-journalist-and-psychologist, will produce some heavy tome--filled with photographs, of course--on Smith, subjecting her to the same treatment that Norman Mailer and countless others have given to Monroe.

In fact, people are already busily projecting layers of cultural meaning onto Smith's life. Consider this from today's Washington Post:
"Courtesan," which in a different age is probably what she would have been labeled (even though she was married), is a category we don't have much use for anymore. The woman who makes sexual alliances for money, who was less than a blushing bride but not so fallen as a prostitute, was once a vigorous cultural type, at least through the 19th century. Courtesans were the essential heroines of our greatest operas. They offered up their bodies, in various states of undress, to painters from Caravaggio to Toulouse-Lautrec -- and too many others to mention. It was a courtesan who set in motion many of our greatest novels, not least of them Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" -- which begins with the love of a man named Swann for a "great courtesan."

But the idea of the courtesan has all but disappeared, and with it much of the nuance about our analysis of sex and marriage.

Our continuum of sexual alliances runs from the happy marriage of loving equals, on one end, to prostitution -- the pure exchange of sex for money -- on the other. The trophy bride, the marriage of youth and beauty to age and power, is the closest we have to the category of the courtesan -- but it involves the collective pretense that it isn't only about money. To see the old category of courtesanship in operation today, you have to travel to poor places around the globe, where sex, love and sometimes marriages are negotiated between wealthy westerners and local girls without either party acknowledging the idea that the exchange is commercial.

The courtesan was rich but not on her own terms, an object of scorn but not completely disreputable, a living reminder of an economy of sexual exchange that we like to pretend doesn't exist. When Anna Nicole Smith, a voluptuous 26-year-old Playboy Playmate, married an octogenarian oil-rich billionaire, she crossed a line, assuming too high a place in our supposedly mobile society. After her elderly husband died a little over a year later, she stood to inherit $474 million (still in legal dispute), and her name became shorthand for marital opportunism. Her husband went down in the books as the most ridiculous of old goats -- but he was dead and beyond the reach of our scorn. Anna had her second and third acts, on television and shilling for diet pills, but none of these chapters ever did much for her dignity.

Society took its revenge, confining her to gossip magazines and scandal sheets, foreclosing her appearance in the black-and-white party photos of respectable magazines, where trophy brides appear smiling and dazzling with their balding, sagging, tremendously rich husbands.

For centuries, there have been men who have wondered why women really love them. That the real sexual allure of men may not be their good looks, their masculinity or their charm, but rather their power and position, can make men wonder whether they are loved for themselves or for something external and unrelated. When marriages don't look like they look in storybooks -- love matches between princes and princesses -- intimacy is shadowed with doubt...
Well, you get the idea. Smith's death will be the excuse for lots of know-it-alls to show their stuff, projecting mysteries onto a woman who was, after all, rather straight-forward. The mythologizing of Anna Nicole begins. She'll be a bonanza for writers, publishers, and producers for years to come.

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