Marilyn is one of those characters on Northern Exposure who started out on the sidelines, but over time, became more prominent and increasingly loved for her uniqueness. She has literally emerged from the shadows of her very first scene to be an integral part of the core cast.
What can we say about Marilyn? She is still and silent, but with a impish, teasing humour that flashes at unexpected times. She is wise, seemingly able to see directly into a person’s character and soul. She is multi-talented, knowing how to play the piano, knit, dance in Western and traditional Native American styles, tell stories, breed ostriches, and solve mysteries. She has the uncanny ability to unnerve people and unarm those that are most difficult. She is a teacher and just IS with an ease that we rarely see in real life.
Marilyn’s style is fascinating because she appears to be very at home with herself, and knows what she likes and is consistent in what she wears over the seasons. She loves colour, and we see her repeatedly in loose, wildly colourful print tops. Her prints are many times floral, but sometimes geometric and abstract. In any case, her blouses are loud, outgoing and quite in opposition to the quiet, calm energy that she exudes.
There is what one can call the typical Marilyn outfit: a print, oversized top, solid bright colour leggings, and western-style boots.
Her coats are similarly colourful, with Native-inspired prints, lots of colour, and usually made of wool and long. Her sweaters are similar – loose, colourful, often with colourful patterns.
What makes her outfit unique is her jewelry, which are usually complicated Native American beadwork or metalwork. Marilyn usually wears long or big dangling earrings, statement necklaces and bracelets. These jewelry choices become a reference to her Native heritage and also draws attention to her beautiful face and smile.
The pieces are also personal statements, linking the character of Marilyn to the actress who plays her. In an interview with Radiance Magazine in 1993, Elaine Miles states: “Oh, all the jewelry, the earrings, and the barrettes I wear are mine. Most of them I’ve received as gifts, or my sister and my mother made them. But the majority of them are from Oklahoma and New Mexico, because that’s where I’ve spent most of my time at powwows recently.”
Marilyn’s hair is also an important source of her style. In the same interview, Miles states at in the beginning, the show just wanted her to wear braids:
“Yeah. And now Rebecca Lynne, the hair girl, does my hair in ways that I would do myself. I kinda give her the ideas, like I’d like it hanging, or it’s hot – let’s put it up. And she goes from there. The first season I just had braids, just braids. That’s want they wanted. Then they asked me one time, “Is there anything you’d like to tell us, or any complaints?” And inside I was asking myself, Should I really tell them? Because I wasn’t really sure if I should say anything. The last time I remember wearing braids at home was when I was a little girl, or when I’m in my traditional dress, I’ll braid my hair. And Mom goes, “Well, tell them that.” So I got up enough nerve to tell them, “Well, I don’t like what you’re doing with my hair. Can I have it hanging, because Native Americans do let their hair hang down once in a while. And we don’t always wear two braids.” And then they gradually got into letting me do what I would do with my hair.”
Indeed, many of the earlier episodes had Marilyn’s hair in two braids, which is perhaps an indication that stereotypes were being echoed. But in later episodes, the character’s hair becomes a major facet of her style, as Miles has incredibly beautiful and extremely long hair. It was shiny, fluid, and seemed to stay in place just so. It was fascinating to see the barettes, hair ties, braids, buns and styles that Marilyn would wear week to week.
Marilyn is also one of the few minorities on the show and one of the first First Nations/Native American central characters on a network show (Elaine Miles is Cayuse and Nez Perce). Miles has spoken about the responsibility of representing Native Americans on television in the same article, and spoke about the difficulty playing such a role. In once instance, she recalls the producers wanting her to wear her traditional garb for a scene:
“Like in the very first season, when Marilyn competed in a dance in a talent show. I dressed in my own traditional outfit, and I was very uncomfortable doing that because Alaskan natives don’t dress like that. The producers had seen a picture of me in my traditional outfit. They thought it would be neat if I could dance in it. I had some negative feedback from natives because each tribe has its own tribal dress and traditions.”
It is to Elaine Mile’s credit that a potentially stereotypical small role on the series had blossomed into a fully formed character full of personality, practicality and wisdom. Marilyn is one of the foundations of the show and exemplifies the independent, creative and eccentric spirit of the show.