Perhaps because 67 is not a round number and has no magic attached to it, I should have expected the news media to pay little attention to the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the first of only two times that a weapon of mass destruction was used to purposely kill people, in both cases, primarily civilians.
I wonder, too, whether the continuing story of the Fukushima nuclear disaster may have diminished media coverage of Hiroshima Day 67. After all, not a week goes by when we don’t have a story about the aftermath of Fukushima—another report about the extent of the damage, technical incompetence or government-industry cronyism; a new message from apologists for nuclear-generated electricity; or a new protest by those vehemently opposed to recommencing nuclear generation of electricity in Japan. It would be easy to believe that a Hiroshima commemoration was merely this week’s Japan nuclear disaster story, relegated to under the fold on page eight.
All caveats aside, though, what does it say about our mass culture when the anniversary of the most horrific day in human history—a day we commemorate so as to not repeat—gets so much less publicity than the 50 year anniversary of the death of a celebrity.
First the facts: I googled the following terms in Google News and here are the results, presented as pairs:
- Hiroshima anniversary 17,700; Marilyn Monroe death 91,700
- Hiroshima 109,000; Marilyn Monroe 4.6 million
By comparing the first pair of searches, there were just over five times as many mentions of the anniversary of Marilyn’s death as about the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. Use the second comparison, and it’s 50 times as many. In the normal course of daily reading, I personally encountered 3 stories about Hiroshima and 14 about Marilyn’s death, which is in line with the first pair of searches.
I’ve always felt that the remembrance of Marilyn Monroe was a shameful stain on American culture. Let’s not debate her merits as an actress (I propose that others like Carole Lombard, Judy Holiday and Carole Channing played the dumb blonde better) or as a great beauty (as the most beautiful woman of the 50’s, I might go for Ava Gardner, Lee Remick, Janet Leigh or Audrey Hepburn). Let’s take a look at what her type is and why she is famous.
It’s hard to decide if I’m more bored or disgusted by the type Monroe played: stupid and/or naïve, uneducated, childish and childlike, interested primarily in material possessions, unsubtle about her sexuality, a cheap flirt, a drug addict, emotionally fragile. A vision of ideal womanhood only to those who want to control a woman or treat her as a pet.
I parenthetically mentioned women I liked more as comediennes or beauties. Of course none of these rivals bagged as many powerful and talented men as Monroe did, including, among others, one of greatest athletes of the era, one of the greatest playwrights in 20th century American theatre and a President of the United States.
And that’s the point: she was known as an American courtesan, which Merriam-Webster defines as a prostitute or kept woman often with a clientele drawn from a court or from the wealthy or the upper class. The public is attracted to a courtesan because of her life, not her accomplishments. The public wants to know who she does, not what she does. The courtesan, in other words, is a celebrity.
Without the frequent and prominent sexual partners, the drug abuse and the death at an early age, Monroe would reduce to a footnote list of mid-century dizzy blondes like Mamie van Doren and Carole Wayne (Johnny Carson’s “Matinee Lady”). Unlike Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, John Lennon and others in the highest pantheon of dead celebrities, Monroe was just a celebrity.
But just a celebrity means quite a bit to the mass media, which instead of reporting real news, would rather describe a celebration of Marilyn impersonators, the latest theory about her death, birth and/or early life, the way the police would investigate her death in the 21st century, previously unpublished photos, the release of five of her movies on Blue Ray—the ways to squeeze another few paragraphs or minutes out of Monroe’s death seem endless.
And so are the ways to cover the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima: people who lived through it who are still around, the various protests around the world, comparisons to Fukushima, how children are celebrating throughout the world, a comparison of nuclear technologies then and now…
The news media chose to ignore the many opportunities for spin-off stories in covering Hiroshima Day, but jumped right into the pool of clever angles for Marilyn.
In trying to understand mass culture, we should always keep in mind that mass culture is consumer culture and consumer culture is always about consuming—about buying things as a way to manifest every celebration, emotion and motive. What compels us to buy more: Thinking of Marilyn Monroe or thinking of Hiroshima?
Do we focus on the products like DVDs and downloads? Or do we think of the branding opportunities—the tee-shirts, mugs, photo books, dolls, statuettes, posters and key chains?
Or perhaps we should consider how much consumerism is part of the experience of Marilyn Monroe and Hiroshima. In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “Bus Stop’ and many other movies, Monroe often starred as a gold digger who reduces all things to how much they cost and who only wants the most expensive. Where does Hiroshima stand on the “does it make you want to spend money” scale?
Perhaps the public does clamor for more information and speculation about Marilyn Monroe than Hiroshima. Perhaps not. But there’s no disputing that advertisers interested in putting consumers in a buying mood would rather see stories about dead celebrities who had a lot of sex than masses of dead and mutilated people lying motionless among senseless piles of ruble.