Why are we still obsessed with Marilyn Monroe?

For some, death can be a smart career choice. How smart a move is depends a lot on who you are and how you die. As the 60th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death approaches, we can learn a few lessons about art and the implications of the death of a great public figure. As with any icon, the mark of Marilyn Monroe far transcends Marilyn Monroe the person, and more so Norma Jeane Mortenson, as she was until 1946. The “Marilyn Monroe in Popular Culture” Wikipedia page has entries for nearly every year since his death, charting a posthumous career that spans most forms of media. She has been referenced in commercials for cheese, cars, and whiskey, and in several music videos. She lends her name to a Christian metalcore band, a jewelry collection and a pair of skyscrapers in Ontario. She is the subject of countless works of visual art, including caricatures, collages and digital prints.

Her visual image has been a recurring theme for artists, most notably Andy Warhol, who produced several pieces using images of her face, and who channeled Marilyn himself into the photographs of Christopher Makos. In turn, depictions of Warhol became a touchstone for later artifacts, including a 70cm-tall plastic figurine, a custom Nike Warhol/Monroe AirMax shoe, and a 3,000-piece Lego reproduction. And now she’s the subject of a $22 million Netflix biopic, Blonde, starring Ana de Armas, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional account of her life, released in 2000. Why does that fascination endure? her so many decades after her death? Monroe made a name for herself as a “blonde bombshell”, a glamorous pin-up model and Hollywood actress/singer who was one of the favorite interests of the ravenous mid-century male gaze. But she was by no means the first, following in the footsteps of Mae West and Jean Harlow.

She wasn’t the last either: Anita Ekberg, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak and Doris Day all came after. So what elevates Monroe from mere celebrity to icon status? In her lifetime, Monroe was hailed as one of the most bankable stars of the day, essentially guaranteed to draw an audience to any event. Famously, she used her own appeal to help boost the career of Ella Fitzgerald, bribing the reluctant owners of the Mocambo jazz club to try their luck with the gifted black singer with the promise of a premier appearance. row every night. Monroe achieved such popularity through a perfect storm of biography and cultural background, a potential she managed to capitalize on with shrewd image management. Indeed, it is the radical reinvention of its image that helps explain its appeal. In Norma Jeane’s transition to Marilyn, from brunette next door to blinding peroxide blonde, and from stutterer to vocal seducer, she also went from victim to agent.

Norma Jeane grew up in foster homes and orphanages, during which she was sexually abused, and her mother was hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia. Under the name of Marilyn Monroe, she takes control of her brand, uses her sex appeal to build her career and founds her own production company – something rare for a woman at the time. Such a transformation is a classic hallmark of icons including Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. For Monroe, as for others, the ability to overcome adversity was humanizing and inspiring. The particular image she constructed also mattered, as her white and blond hair was a surprising assurance of Americanness at a time when American identity was itself fiercely protected. The height of Monroe’s popularity coincided with the intensification of the civil rights movement in the United States, with the historic 1954 decision Brown v Board of Education (which ruled that the segregation of black and white children in schools was unconstitutional), quickly followed by the famous decision of Rosa Parks. refusal to give up his bus seat in 1955.

The brutal lynching of Emmett Till that same year, and in particular his mother’s insistence on an open casket, propelled civil rights issues further into the public eye. Against such a backdrop, Monroe’s whiteness was apparently distinctly American, comforting those who would resist the advance of racial equality. The other major theater of identity wars was the Cold War, where Monroe represented a celebration of everything the American narrative insisted the Soviets wanted to destroy. Marilyn’s greedy popular consumption was emblematic of the golden age of capitalism born out of a post-war economic boom. Broadcasting grew in importance as television ownership increased. The fast food industry has flourished with the growth of franchising.

And in 1959, Mattel launched Barbie, the intersection of mass production and idealized femininity, essentially Marilyn in $3 plastic form. Monroe embodied all that was carefree and pleasant in Western popular culture, all that needed to be protected against the advance of communism. Ultimately, however, it was perhaps the circumstances of her death at just 36 that secured Monroe a place in the pantheon of 20th century icons. The unexpected and premature nature of her death is crucial, meaning her stardom works differently to, say, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, or Madonna (the latter two are still alive, but distinctly post-menopausal). Basically, it was a tragic death that spoke of inner demons, not an “act of God”. Monroe’s story therefore aligns with those of Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland and Whitney Houston, rather than Patsy Cline (plane crash), Jean Harlow (kidney failure) or Jayne Mansfield (car crash). Because if there’s one thing more appealing than a tale of ragsto-riches, it’s the dizzying joy found in a tale of crumbling riches. It is undoubtedly the way in which the circumstances of his life fueled those of his death that encourage us to revisit Monroe.

For her sexual expression, she was claimed by both the second wave of feminism (as a cautionary tale) and its third wave (as a poster of bodily self-determination). Monroe’s greedy media consumption in life has been reconfigured as a story of being devoured by her audience, much like Princess Diana. And the McCarthy-era obsession with uncovering secrets was surely reflected in the question mark-laden headlines reporting her death, inviting all sorts of unbreakable conspiracy theories around her. Marilyn Monroe may have died in 1962, but at the same time a legend was born. And while her life laid the foundation for legendary status, it was her death that catapulted her into iconic immortality.

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