The last thing the world needs is one more article about how fabulous Marilyn Monroe was, right? I mean, we’ve heard it all before: her beauty, her sex appeal, her gorgeous figure. And of course her more ephemeral qualities, like her doe-eyed play at innocence or her subtle humor. Nothing about any of this is new. And yet, the image of Marilyn Monroe, now 50 years after her tragic and controversial death, is still going strong in the visual lexicon of our culture. In fact, it is the image of Marilyn Monroe, the idea of her much more than the woman herself or the relatively few films and reels of interview footage she left behind, that resonate for many. Many younger people recognize her face but have never seen any of her movies in their entirety (thanks to the interwebs and the general ubiquity of YouTube and the like, many more people are seeing snippets and cut together scenes of Monroe’s more famous films like in the fan-made video below for Nicki Minaj’s song, “Marilyn Monroe”).
What is it about Marilyn that lingers, continuing to inspire us?
I can’t speak for everyone, and I don’t think I should. Like any fan obsession or personal idol, the image of Marilyn means something different each time it sparks some feeling of admiration, inspiration, or recognition in a new person. I am very consciously talking about the image of Marilyn; she died in 1962, many of her contemporaries are also no longer with us, and very few people alive today can say they actually knew her. Perhaps no one ever really knew her. Maybe no one can ever really know another person, way down to the core.
This is starting to sound very Lifetime Movie, even to me, but I think it’s important. Marilyn Monroe is arguably one of the most instantly recognizable faces in the world, and yet what people know about her rarely goes beyond that image. They see her face, maybe they see something in her eyes that looks familiar, but everything about their response is located in that image. It’s all made up and contrived, but that doesn’t make it any less special or meaningful for the people who experience it. It’s why we have a celebrity culture in the first place: people like creating meaning out of the image and the idea of a celebrity, rarely going beyond that image to the person beneath. It’s why celebrities get called by the names of the characters they play, and some fans respond to them as if they were the those characters. Even those of us who think we know better still respond to celebrities based on what we’ve seen of them in various media, both fictional and non. It’s why photographers camp out in bushes and chase celebrities relentlessly: we’re a culture that’s obsessed with celebrities, but the obsession is about constructed images and stories and not about reality. Interviews usually feature questions that have been submitted in advance and carefully pored over by an attentive PR team, answers crafted by overworked publicists to ensure maximum impact as well as appropriate coverage for whatever project the star is currently promoting.
When a star is gone but their image remains, like in the case of icons like Marilyn Monroe, then the obsession with the image is much more on the surface and it allows people the freedom to construct their own meanings around that image. There’s no more living person to get in the way, to alter the story we’ve started for ourselves by some new outrageous behavior or statement. We can take all of the pieces we’ve collected and build up a meaning that it ours and ours alone.
So what is it that draws me to the image of Marilyn?
1. She’s an icon of beauty and style. Her signature makeup look is sophisticated, simple, and timeless. As the following video shows, this look was carefully thought out, constructed to look natural and effortless but actually quite involved and employing many makeup tricks for very specific outcomes.
The look is so simple, and yet so crafted! It’s the kind of classic perfection that has always drawn me to makeup (though my own face is often much more garish and colorful!). Its design is meant to enhance Marilyn’s look without being intrusive; it’s no “natural look,” not even by a longshot, but it also isn’t screaming for you to look at it. Rather, it forces you to take in the face as a whole.
2. The glamour. Come on, I’m a drag queen! Some of Marilyn’s most famous looks are still some of the most iconic representations of 1950s and early 60s fashion, excess, and glamour. The pink satin dress she wore for “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The pleated white dress from The Seven Year Itch she wore while standing over the subway grating. The nude beaded gown she reportedly had to be sewn into to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. While so much of the 50s was housedresses and pre-fab homes and people trying to forget about the horrors of the dawning Atomic Age, Marilyn’s look was sexy with a touch of class, always flirting but never revealing too much.
3. Finally, I love the complexity of meaning you can find when looking at images and footage of Marilyn Monroe. For example, the video posted above is a famous performance, a light-hearted celebration of the President’s birthday, but if you peel away the layers it’s a fascinating moment. One can only wonder if or how much Jackie knew about her husband’s relationship to Marilyn. It wouldn’t be too long after this footage was shot that both Marilyn and JFK would be dead; in fact, the emcee’s comic bit about “the late Marilyn Monroe” has been rich territory for those who suspect a conspiracy surrounding Marilyn’s death.
And just like her fashion, Marilyn’s life and words were often spaces for constructing complex meaning. She was very good at a snappy comeback, playing up the dumb blonde image while also masterfully steering conversations and encounters to her liking. One famous example is when a reporter asked her what she wore to bed and she responded with, “Why, Chanel No. 5, of course!” This witty comeback acknowledges that the reporter is treading into very personal and perhaps inappropriate territory (though it certainly pales in comparison to the invasiveness of today’s celebrity culture!), and though it seems to provide the answer the reporter is looking for, it does so on Marilyn’s own terms. The response is classy while suggesting sexuality, leaving the interpretation (and therefore the guilt) in the minds of others.
And how can you not love Chanel No. 5? It’s a classic.
Marilyn is also fascinating for what we know of her personal life. Tawdry details of her relationship with the President aside, Marilyn is perhaps best known for her marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio and theatrical luminary Arthur Miller. Just as Marilyn embodied the ideal of the 1950s bombshell, these two husbands represented the epitome of masculinity and competition in the former and intelligence and sophistication in the latter. One can only guess at what drew her to these two very different people, but they were both men who were kings in their own disparate kingdoms, masters of their craft. Marilyn is noted to have put tremendous pressure on herself to constantly improve her acting, pushing herself to be better and better.
So is all of this just another gay fanboy’s obsession with a fallen goddess? I’m far from the first drag queen to light a candle at the proverbial altar of Marilyn Monroe out of respect and reverence, and I probably won’t be the last; even though today’s budding queens seem more concerned with keeping up with the Kardashians than with the divas of the previous generations of “old queens,” Marilyn has a timelessness that won’t be quite so easily destroyed by a tribe of Wookies in minidresses. But as I said before, all fandom, no matter how widespread it is, is always intensely personal to the people who take part. Many people might say they are drawn to Marilyn’s strength, or her vulnerability, or her sexuality, or her elegance, but all of those shared attributes will be filtered down through each fan’s own experiences of or desire for those attributes in themselves.
As someone who performs and who has created their own virtual space for posting thoughts and interpretations of the world, I often find myself getting caught up in the image of myself that I’m creating, and I can see how that desire to be seen can be confusing and complicated and ultimately leave you feeling less understood than when you started. No matter how good or how well written the story is, it’s always only part of the story: the part you could get down in writing – the part that, with all of your tricky mental filters, that you allowed yourself to tell. It’s incomplete and it’s always only yours; the best you can do is put it out there and hope that someone else will respond to it, and see a part of themselves or their experiences reflected within.
So maybe the world doesn’t need another post about Marilyn Monroe. But I did. I think it’s exactly what I needed.
Tags: All About Eve, Arthur Miller, Asphalt Jungle, Bruce Jenner, Bus Stop, Chanel No. 5, conspiracy theory, depression, Don't Bother To Knock, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hometown Story, How To Marry a Millionaire, Jackie O, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, JFK, Joe DiMaggio, Kardashians, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloe Kardashian, Kim Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Kris Jenner, Let's Get Married, Let's Make Love, makeup artist, Marilyn, Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean Baker, Norma Jeanne Baker, peroxide blonde, River of No Return, Seven Year Itch, suicide, The Prince and the Showgirl, There's No Business Like Show Business, Whitey