Written by Madison Pritchard
T-shirts, mugs, blankets, posters, figurines, and dolls. These are all merchandise items you can find with Marilyn Monroe’s name, face, or features plastered all over them. She has dominated the pop culture scene for well over seven decades, and there seems to be no sign of stopping that trend anytime soon. But what really prompted her ever-lasting popularity and her staple reign in pop culture?
Marilyn, born Norma Jean Mortenson, was your classic rags-to-riches story. She was born in Los Angeles and in her early life she went from foster home to foster home. Marilyn married her first husband at sixteen and started her first job. While working, she was scouted and began a new career as a pin-up model and acted in a multitude of short-films.
The public’s fascination with Monroe began back in the 1950s with her iconic roles in the films “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “The Seven Year Itch”, and “Some Like It Hot’’. Along with her feat of becoming Playboy’s first cover girl, and being crowned the “Sexiest Woman of the Century” by People magazine. She is also widely known as a leading and revolutionizing sex symbol of the fifties.
Her original boom was her cover on Playboy Magazine. What many don’t know is that this was a non-consensual act on owner Hugh Hefner’s part. She had originally posed nude for a calendar company out of “desperation” in which she made reportedly $50. The photos were eventually sold to Hefner for $500 dollars, which kickstarted his Playboy empire while Marilyn got none of the profits.
Marilyn is one of the most successful examples of using an on vs. off screen persona. So while these two personas were different, they shared a lot of the same qualities. Like her sense of literal humor. This prompted critics to claim that she was just acting as herself, instead of stepping into a new character. Her roles in Hollywood were consumed by the “Blonde-Bombshell” typecast and sexist stereotypes. In most of her movies she is depicted as a young ‘hopeless’ girl who eventually gets with a wealthy and sophisticated man. Marilyn’s acting career was often looked down upon by critics who criticized her for relying on her attractiveness, rather than acknowledging the fact that Marilyn was actually an intelligent and professionally trained actress who would make fun of the characters she played.
Into her personal affairs, Monroe was married three times, divorced three times. It was also highly speculated that she was in some sort of relationship to former president John F. Kennedy. This only added more allure to her persona. It left many people wanting to know more about this public, but also private figure.
Unlike many golden-age Hollywood starlets like Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor, or Eve Arden, Monroe never had the chance to grow old and age. So, fast forward to her untimely death in 1962, when she was in her mid thirties. She passed, and was left forever-36, a young and beautiful woman frozen in time, never to grow out of the image people already had of her.
Her early death plays a huge role in her long-time fame. It left people able to dehumanize her, because she, physically, never changed. Just an unaging sex symbol. It begs the question of morality in the case of famous figures. She also never seems to have been able to rest, even after death. She also was never given credit for her incredibly successful career.
After her death, her estate was given to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, who eventually passed, and then the estate was given to his then wife, Anna Strasberg, who is assumed to have had no connection to Marilyn other than through Lee. Anna eventually sold Marilyn’s estate to CMG Worldwide in 1994, which is how large corporations gained access to the ability to create merchandise and make immense profits off of Monroe.
Despite her career, most people have seen or known about Marilyn before even watching her films. Her face is plastered on merchandise and is included in in random advertisements that have no connection to her or what she stood for. Popular moments that reference or imitate Monroe span from even the earliest moments after her death to now, in 2022. For example, the 1980 Chanel No. 5 perfume commercial where Carole Bouquet literally turns into Monroe is a little freakish to watch. Or Madonna’s recreation of Monroe in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for her 1984 “Material Girl” music video that hit the nail right on its head. And even to the 2017 burial of Hugh Hefner next to Monroe, even though they never actually knew each other, as Hefner revealed in a 2012 interview with CBS News, stating that he felt a connection to her because of her significance to the popularity of Playboy. Or even most recently, the controversy surrounding Kim Kardashian wearing Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress to the 2022 Met Gala.
Even now, people still want more of her. The biopics and biographies, merchandise, or recreations of her work in film are still copied and multiplied year by year. Ironically, she is likely more scrutinized now than she was when she was alive. People need to leave her alone, and let her rest. Let the fascination of Marilyn Monroe die with her, one last time.