On people as property

Which bit of you is “for sale”? Is your image, skill, talent or time an economic product? What about the rest of you?

One and a half inches of Norma Jeane Mortenson’s hair was offered at auction recently. As an offcut of Norma Jeane, a piece of hair would probably not be of much value (or use) to anyone other than a bereft boyfriend or perhaps a DNA analyst.

Labelled as a piece of Marilyn Monroe, however, the peroxided lock can be transferred at a high value.

Norma Jeane, in collaboration with 20th Century-Fox, recreated herself as a highly marketable commodity, and in the hands of her estate she remains third in the list of top-earning dead celebrities.

We know that the relationship between Monroe and the studio was “mediated” by contract.  When she signed a contract, she was in selling aspects of herself – her labour, her image, her time.

Does this make her “property”? Modern law would say no. Even not-so-modern law would say no. 

In the famous case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772, the English Court of King’s Bench said that the English law would not suffer the existence of slavery. It declared humans cannot be slaves.

Australia inherited that law, and slavery certainly was not legal in the America of Marilyn’s generation. You can’t sell people.

But how far can we go in creating commodities out of ourselves before we have actually enslaved ourselves – made ourselves into property?

Andy Warhol, in his famous replications of Marilyn’s image, was meditating on the manufacture and consumption of “personae” as commodities.

Marilyn’s image was as ubiquitous and as much a manufactured commodity as the Campbell’s Soup cans Warhol exhibited.

Modern celebrities routinely trademark images and words in order to maintain value through scarcity. Our social media accounts are promotional streams boosting our brand and thus increasing demand.

Of course, we are used to “selling” our labour – or at least our time – as a commodity, even though we might have reservations about it.

Monroe battled to untangle herself from a contract willingly signed – although inauspiciously signed, as it turned out. We could say, in cases like these, that stars have sold their labour, their promotional efforts – a particular portion and version of themselves.

Do they take the risk that their value might increase and that they have undersold themselves? And is there a limit to the bits we slice off ourselves for sale?

Economists use the term “unbundling” to refer to the disaggregation of products into component parts.

We can unbundle ourselves into marketable portions, each separately sold, each increasing or decreasing in price as a function of demand and scarcity.

We can, and have, taken this to new levels. Can you sublet a womb as easily as a room?

Are our genes, the codes containing our personality, property?

Urgent questions arise as we find new and fascinating ways to leverage value from ourselves, our images, and our bodies.

And as our continued fascination with Marilyn attests, these urgent questions have a long lineage.

Dr Francine Rochford is from the School of Law at La Trobe University in Bendigo. She will explore this topic as part of the Marilyn Monroe Symposium at ACMI in Melbourne on November 12.

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