Objects of Desire
The women who remained free of notable romantic entanglements — the Simone Weils and Mother Teresas — might have died with their virginity intact, but it seems safe to assume that most famous women have given in to appetite and happenstance, the two principal determinants of human misery and delight. Unlike the virginity of famous men, the virginity of famous women implies a stricter vulnerability in the moment of its loss. Before or after her face or work became famous, the woman had to give herself to someone, somewhere, possibly unexpectedly, and it is often her nature, unfortunate or no, to say that she was forever changed by it.
Whereas Mae West made a career of trumpeting her limitless hunger for male flesh, other stars take a more demur approach and choose instead to show their fans that they have traveled far from their virginal days by marrying a succession of unsuitable men, some of the later ones fading playboys or else much younger than their famous brides. Sex and the famous woman are always close associates, but many female stars do not discuss such matters with journalists or talk show hosts — if they decide to divulge anything, they save their secrets for the memoirs which also frequently feature confessions related to abusive parents or parenting, crash dieting, drug abuse, unbridled spending and subsequent bankruptcy, an obsession with a charismatic older man, a dependency on psychics or gurus. The smartest famous women, the anthropologists or politicians or doctors or writers, however, usually stick to the subjects that have defined their lives — the years in the Orient or Africa or Washington, the famous friendships — their virginity never mentioned, only implied in the appearance of a husband or a special friend; in their case, the mind always, seemingly, preempting the body with its voracious intellectual or political imperatives.
But what of the famous women whose virginity is made much of by the stars themselves? The young pop singers who proudly announce that they will wait until marriage to bestow this gift upon some very lucky man, their photogenic faces and suntanned, long-legged bodies featured on the covers of countless glossy magazines — their success, implicitly, due in part to their virginity, despite their bordello wardrobe, despite the unending queue of libidinous suitors. Their abstinence serves as both reprimand and encouragement to all of the adoring fans who find themselves lacerated by hormonal drives, many perpetuated by the young beauty herself. Yet these fans, most having neither the comfort of wealth or fame, have no clear idea how to suppress their desires — it being much easier to try to satisfy them, despite the probable ecclesiastical damnation or humiliating pregnancy.
Thus, the virginal famous woman is alternately a paragon and the most extreme agent of sexual frustration. She is the girl that innumerable strangers take into their beds at night, no matter who already lies next to them; she is the winking accomplice of the desperate masturbator, the would-be femme fatale who, if only her most worshipful fan had one chance to meet her, would immediately fall forever into this passionate stranger’s strong embrace. She is at once mortal and immortal — Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake — forever dead but intensely present in the innumerable photographs and films that remain, reminders that these beauties once lived to be observed and adored, whether or not they ultimately were destroyed by this adoration.
Marilyn’s virginity: we might assume that she was still Norma Jean, pre-blinding blondness, certainly pre-Joe and Jack and Arthur, pre-Tinseltown force of nature, pre-Diamonds, pre-Misfits, pre-tranquilizers, but not, we hope, pre-teen. With the aid of her Hollywood handlers, Marilyn became the eternal woman’s woman as well as the definitive man’s woman. She wore the dress while also trying, but apparently failing, to wear the pants. Dead at thirty-six, a young woman thrust unhappily into oblivion, yet disorientingly, at any given moment, her image is alive and glowing on thousands of television and computer screens — vivid, infinite memorials to her girlishness and wit and mythic femininity.
No matter whom she was destined to become, on one extraordinary day, she was embraced and caressed by someone for the first time, was made to feel the peculiar, urgent weight of his desire for her. This man might still exist somewhere, recipient of and participant in the only first time there would ever be for her. It is hard not to wonder how he felt about this event after she became who she was destined to be — this first lover of Marilyn undoubtedly aware that no other lover would be as momentous for him, no matter how dull or bumbling or botched this initial coupling might have been.
Deflowered — the word implies shame, rank ugliness, a forbidding absence where presumably something once flourished. The famous woman might never speak frankly of her deflowering or her sexuality for these very reasons, but eventually, after a long desperate patch of nothing but commercials, she might consent to filming sex scenes in an art-film-gone-terribly-awry that are fated to become her hallmark.
What of the famous women who admit to having spent an afternoon or two on the casting agent’s couch? Many of us will forgive them, if we care at all, but some of us will be censorious. These famous women might insist they had no choice, that they had to make these painful sacrifices in order for their work to enter our lives and add meaning to them. They submitted to these amorous predators because they knew it would be over fast and the rest of their lives could then begin. Sex one of the most desired currencies, though paradoxically so easily had in a land of beautiful hopefuls who can’t help but worry this industry man might be their only chance.
And what of the porn stars who have retired from the business but have somehow managed to make their old work seem glamorous? Some porn starlets have gone on to write books, some to marry famous artists, some to offer sex advice on radio shows, their male co-hosts often failing to hide their erections and proudly saying as much. The virginity of the famous porn star is perhaps the farthest shore, so distant and foggy that it’s almost possible this state never existed or else is so preposterous to consider that the starlet feels more shame for having once been a virgin than the fearless sexpot she was fated to become.
For many, it is more unsettling to consider Eleanor Roosevelt’s or Margaret Thatcher’s first time than Elizabeth Taylor’s or Catherine Deneuve’s. With the former, the sound of tubas might come to mind; with the latter, violins or maybe harps. The idea of the loveliest women plundered — in this resides our most lascivious sublime. We hope for their pleasure and will it in those rooms of many years ago where the lights were off or the sun was stifled by heavy curtains.
Nevertheless, the Eleanors and Margarets deserve as much prurient bliss as the Elizabeths and Catherines — it is only that the more ungainly the woman, the more likely we are to turn our eyes or thoughts away from the spectacle of someone loving them. Our romantic or salacious imaginings depend on our subjects’ grace and beauty, these twin attributes so often absent in our own sexual relations where our options are almost always limited to the province of mere mortals. Those we have made famous bear the burden of our desire for the ineffable, for near-galactic effusions of sexual joy.
“I really do love every one of my fans,” said one famous woman at a press conference for her new movie.
She did not mean this literally, of course, though a few fans had no grasp of the nuances, and eventually she was forced to hire extra bodyguards and request restraining orders. The famous woman is sometimes like a fortress with crumbling walls. She is vulnerable to the mania of her fans in a way that the more-sound fortresses of famous men rarely ever are. The famous are always at risk, especially the sexiest ones, there being no lack of lovelorn, sometimes dangerous obsessives in the world, but the famous woman, more so than the famous man, often senses that she lives a hair’s breadth away from sexual violence. The public woman is afflicted by the dire need to protect the private self, but she also knows that to do so is to risk losing her power over those who have bought the brands she endorses, the tickets to her movies or concerts, or those who have read her books. The slightest hint of irritation witnessed by the watchful eye of her mercurial, greedy public could mean that the next big project will end up an embarrassing flop.
The real question is how the famous woman manages to keep herself from exclaiming, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to know any of you people.”
“You know that we can take our pick,” one famous woman was overheard saying to another famous woman who had to agree.
But what to do with all of the ones who never are summoned to the gilded chambers where the famous woman lets down her silken hair? Each week the big star or else her surrogates must face the piles of fan letters, some including pictures of quite a bit more than their senders’ faces, some with measurements and miracle claims and fiercely earnest professions of undying love to match the lust. As the famous woman ages, these letters become more important, her advancing age borne like a shameful social disease — it almost seems her fault that she is no longer as fair as she used to be. Only other famous women know precisely how painful it is to be confronted, sometimes daily, by all of your former selves — the photos and the work from much-younger years surviving in the public memory, almost like a transgression that can never be forgiven.
Though far worse is the fact she might be forgotten, that other younger, genuinely talented and lovely women will replace her, that her best self and best turns will someday mean nothing to anyone but herself and a few of her saddest fans. It might be best to die young like Marilyn who was so excruciatingly desirable up until her death that she was all but assured her legendary status.
It might be best, concludes the famous woman, to sleep with whomever I want to right now. She has to face this chilly fact: unlike certain famous men who keep the motors running long past disbelief, she won’t always have the fuel.
She remembers most, if not all, of them. There aren’t as many as the skeptics have speculated, but there are more than she imagined for herself when still a teenager with bad skin and disgracefully shiny braces on her top teeth, long before fame and exclusive hairstylists and a minor flirtation with a plastic surgery. Certainly there have been more men than she would ever confess to her mother or priest or new therapist. Some of her lovers, inevitably, have been her leading men. All of those skilled, foreign hands on her body for countless takes, all of those beautiful male mouths — not to mention the thrill of the burning lights, the money to be made, the dozen pairs of technicians’ eyes; the vast machinery of celebrity did eventually inure her to the shyness that had assaulted her with her first few lovers. Whatever prudishness still overtakes her from time to time she knows to be specious, but like the precise number of men she has taken to her bed, she will never confess — above all else, she wants to be adored. Every single day, she wants to be reached for, to be the name on the reddest, plumpest lips, to be the dream within the dream that a million admirers awake to remember in the middle of the night. There has seemed no nobler ambition.
Despite the string of disappointing husbands, she finds that she cannot give up. It has been her life’s work to make the rest of the world believe in the myth of the perfect lover: she has discovered that the most serious hazard of the profession is that she has fallen for it herself.
Christine Sneed’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2012, Best American Short Stories 2008, Ploughshares, New England Review, Southern Review, and a number of other journals. Her first book, a short story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won the 2009 AWP/Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares’ Zacharis Award for a first book, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize. Bloomsbury will publish her second book, a novel titled Little Known Facts, in February 2013.