There have been countless remarkable women in history. Various depictions of women have been known throughout time, with most descriptions and characterizations coming from men – which is least to say frustrating and oversimplified. Among the famous women in history of note are Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Earhart, Jane Austen, and Marie Curie. The mentioned women all had greatly contributed to the advancement of humans in different fields like politics, aviation, literature, and the sciences. This paper, however, will explore the life and works of Marilyn Monroe who proved to be a legend in the film industry.
Marilyn Monroe was given the name Norma Jeane Mortenson at birth. However, her last name changed to Baker, her mother’s maiden name, when she was baptized. She had a very troubled childhood as she grew up because her mother was frequently confined in an asylum due to symptoms of depression. At just 6 months old, she was given up for adoption. As a child, she spent her time going from orphanage to orphanage and 12 foster parents going through one foster family to another.
She was taken in by a family friend, Grace Goddard, who had been paid by her mother to raise her and take her out of the orphanage. During her time at the orphanages and a dozen foster families, Marilyn Monroe experienced misery and sexual abuse. She revealed that she had been raped at the young age of 11 by Grace Goddard’s husband. At 15 years old, Marilyn Monroe dropped out of high school.
Husbands and Lovers
Marilyn Monroe had three husbands and was first married at the young age of 16. She also had a few other romantic relationships with other men with the most famous ones being the Kennedy brothers. The Goddards were worried about the girl they had taken into their care as they have to move residences and could not take her. They don’t wish for Norma Jeane to go back to the orphanage and so they asked the mother of Norma Jeane’s lover if they could be wed so she won’t have to go back to the orphanage.
16-year-old Norma Jeane married James Dougherty who had been her boyfriend for 6 months at the time. It was quite obvious that 20-year-old James Dougherty loved his wife quite dearly. They had a particularly happy marriage until James had to be sent to Australia to serve in the army. By the time he got back, Norma Jeane had to choose between keeping her marriage or continuing her newfound career. Norma Jeane chose her career, she was earning $125 a week, and had divorced her husband as soon as possible.
A decade after her first marriage, Marilyn Monroe got married to Joe DiMaggio, a famous American baseball player. The press absolutely loved their pairing. However, DiMaggio was known to be uncomfortable with the attention Monroe was getting because of her on-screen persona. He was aware how famous Marilyn Monroe was especially with men since day one and this was accentuated by the near riot the American soldiers had when she was asked to perform for them in the middle of their honeymoon.
In the same year, DiMaggio completely lost his ability to understand his wife’s situation after watching Marilyn Monroe’s iconic scene where she was laughing as her skirt was being blown up by a subway vent. The couple fought in the theater’s lobby. After only 9 months of being married to Joe Di Maggio, Marilyn Monroe filed for divorce under the grounds of mental cruelty. They had remained good friends after their divorce and had even reconnected a few years later. DiMaggio was the one who arranged Marilyn’ Monroe’s funeral and had red roses delivered to her final resting place up until the day he died.
Just 2 years after her second failed marriage, Marilyn Monroe got married to Arthur Miller, a playwright, in 1956. Early in their marriage, they had been experiencing marital problems. Monroe was suffering from endometriosis so she had an ectopic pregnancy and had experienced two miscarriages. The best gift that Miller had given Monroe was the screenplay for the movie "The Misfits". Although, just a week prior the movie’s release, Miller and Monroe had divorced.
Aside from her three famous marriages, there are rumors that Marilyn Monroe had been romantically involved with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Monroe famously sang Happy Birthday, Mr. President in a celebration for his birthday. Furthermore, there are rumors that she was ordered to be killed because of the threat of her exposing her relationship with the men and that she possess confidential information that links the men in an organized crime.
Marilyn Monroe, before venturing into the film industry began her career as a model. During the time that her first husband, James Dougherty, was sent to Australia, she lived with her mother-in-law and worked with her in a munitions factory in California. It was there that a photographer discovered Monroe, having taken a photograph of her to show the work of women during the war. The photograph had been on the cover page of more than 30 magazines and had become her stepping stone on her career as a model.
After she got divorced to Dougherty, she had her name changed to Marilyn Monroe because Norma Jeane does not sound like a name a celebrity has. Marilyn was chosen by her agent in honor of the actress Marilyn Miller and she borrowed Monroe from her grandmother’s maiden name. Aside from changing her name, she also changed how she looks. She had her brown hair dyed to blonde, trying on different shades before stumbling upon the iconic platinum blonde that she has.
In 1946, Marilyn Monroe had signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox. This marks the beginning of her career in the film industry. Simultaneously, she also had modeling jobs. Three years later, she met the man who would become both her mentor and her lover, Johnny Hyde. The same year, Monroe had been photographed nude for what would become known as possibly the most famous calendar of all time. In 1951, she decided to enroll at the University of California where she had taken night classes on arts and literature. While enrolled, she still took on minor roles in films for her to have enough time to focus on her studies.
Then she starred in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953. Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performance of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend can be watched in this movie. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes helped Marilyn Monroe overcome her on-screen persona of being a shallow blonde because she had the chance to show that she was also remarkably good in comedy. This movie also showcased her ability incorporate her personal style in singing and dancing.
In 1955, Marilyn Monroe took classes in the prestigious New York Actors Studio where she learned psychoanalysis. With this, she began to know herself better which allowed her to make use of her maximum potential in her career as she was now more in touch with her true self. Monroe worked her way into getting out of her on-screen persona. She wanted her admirers to know that she was more than a pretty and shallow blonde. She refused to conform to the image that she had to project on-screen.
The last movie Monroe starred in, The Misfits, the one written by her ex-husband Arthur Miller, was judged by fans and critics alike as Marilyn Monroe’s best work. Marilyn Monroe had made and starred in more or less 30 movies in her lifetime - 23 of those grossed more than $200 million during the first run alone. Because Marilyn Monroe had struggles with her life and her on-screen persona, she had trouble taking care of her mental health which led to her be dependent on barbiturates taken with a glass of champagne every night. Despite this, Marilyn Monroe rose to become a female American cultural icon.
Before her death, Marilyn Monroe had been living in recluse due to depression and was under constant care of a psychiatrist. She was found dead at the age of 36 in her Los Angeles home on 1962. It was rumored that US Attorney General Robert Kennedy had come to visit the night before and had an argument with the actress. The midnight after the US Attorney General’s visit, her maid had seen the lights in her bedroom turned on and the door locked. This puzzled her and moved her to call Marilyn Monroe in her bedroom but she was unresponsive.
Her maid decided to call Monroe’s psychiatrist who gained entry to the locked bedroom by breaking in through the window. There they found Marilyn Monroe lying dead with a bottle of barbiturates – sleeping pills – in her hand. The conducted autopsy revealed an excessive amount of sedatives in her system and her death was ruled as a suicide due to drug overdose. This was supported by Monroe’s history of drug abuse and her previous attempts at taking her own life.
Her former husband Joe DiMaggio arranged for her to be buried in her favorite dress and for her casket to be made of solid bronze and lined with silk. He also banned any Hollywood personalities from gaining entry during her burial.
On Screen Persona
Of all her talents, Marilyn Monroe was most successful in the film industry. She turned out to be a significant sex symbol because of her roles in commercially successful movies. Monroe’s on-screen persona projected what men believed to be the epitome of a desirable woman. Her roles in film made her an object of desire for men and women, for different reasons. Men saw her as the ultimate sexy woman, while women considered her as the epitome of beauty and sexiness.
Because of this, the success and fame of Monroe largely banked on these fantasies. However, what makes it crucial is the fact that Monroe took this role at a time when the United States publicly shunned female sexuality as women were expected to be demure and prim and proper. Monroe found herself walking on untested ground. She had an exaggerated sexuality, which was more than that of a femme fatale. This can be seen in the roles she played in films.
Men have long been accused of objectifying women. Before the 19th century, most men regarded women as objects that only exist to fulfill their sexual desires. These preconceived notions made their way into the film industry and showed in the way women actors were portrayed. Marilyn Monroe successfully gave representation to female glamour in a space of fantasy.
Monroe had pure talent in doing just that, that surface representation rose to such an intensity where the audience became convinced that her on-screen persona concealed something else. The desire to discover that “something else” is what objectified Monroe. This ambition of the audience was a result of the anxieties linked with the female body.
In addition, Monroe’s appearance – her platinum blonde hair and her talent in applying both eyeshadow, and red lipstick – served to propagate the stereotype of women as objects in the male gaze. Her appearance was significantly fascinating to men because it oozed perfection even if it was artificial. This indicates the enormous steps that women were expected to take in order to gain the attention and appear attractive to men. The hair and facial features of Monroe successfully created a spectacle that held the male eye and distracted it from what it should not observe.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe played an irresistible woman that men would gladly do anything in order to have her. Monroe played Lorelei, a woman who attracted men and easily exchanged sex or love with money or diamonds. In Niagara, Monroe played the extraordinarily attractive Rose. The attractiveness of Rose made her husband George extremely jealous, depressed, and irritable. Indeed, the beauty of Rose easily attracted other men such as Patrick. The two men, George and Patrick, even resolved to commit murder in order to have Rose. These roles effectively portray Monroe’s on-screen persona as an extremely desirable woman.
Monroe’s roles in these films, combined with her dumb blonde persona, enabled the presentation of an item of sexual desire to the movie audience. Moreover, Monroe knew about this projected on-screen persona and, in her last interview, she said, “That is the trouble, a sex symbol becomes something, and I just hate to be a thing.” This proposition brings us to the second point on sexual stereotypes. Monroe’s appearances in her movies helped to show the stereotype of men objectifying women.
In Gentlemen Prefers Blonde, Monroe triumphantly depicted a sex item that men could have, in the exchange of money or diamonds. She played the shallow blonde woman who was naïve and had an unstable persona. However, she had portrayed a role with an intensely spectacular sexuality. When Lorelei wanted to marry her fiancé, the father of the man refused to acknowledge her, thinking that Lorelei was just after his son’s money.
The way the fiancé’s father refuses to accept Lorelei illustrates the stereotype of women as objects that one can obtain in exchange for wealth. In addition, Lorelei falls for Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman who owned a diamond mine. All that she wanted from Sir Francis was the diamond. Lorelei went ahead to use her charm to entice him. Monroe almost equated herself to an item for exchange.
Aside from that, How to Marry a Millionaire was significantly successful in showing the sexual stereotype that Monroe projected. Monroe played Pola Debevoise in this movie and is in a group of women who rented a luxurious penthouse with the primary reason of attracting and marrying wealthy men. What this signifies is that women have accepted men’s objectification of them, provided that the men are wealthy. The women have nothing to offer but their attractiveness. Pola, who is extremely nearsighted, shows up to what extent women can go to attract men. She does this by not wearing her glasses when men are around.
She fails to take into consideration the risks that she exposes herself to if she does not wear her glasses. For instance, she misreads a sign at the airport and boards the wrong plane. Besides, Pola easily falls for a purportedly Arab tycoon, who is in the real sense a crooked speculator. In the airplane, Pola falls for Freddie Denmark because of his wealth. The movie ends with the group of Pola’s female friends fainting after realizing that a man they had considered as poor is indeed immensely wealthy. The overall theme depicted in this film is the subjugation of women as objects useful to wealthy men.
In the movie Niagara, Monroe plays the role of an lustful and unfaithful wife. She leaves her husband to spend time with Patrick, thus making her husband, George, very angry. The youthfulness and attractiveness of Monroe in this film is what leads her to unfaithfulness. Again, this indicates the stereotype of women as sexual fetishes. This is depicting women as having accepted the role of sexual objects that men can use. The act of the husband killing Monroe and her lover illustrates the vulnerability of women to the male ego.
The above stated examples proves that Monroe’s on-screen persona created what was known to be the epitome of an extremely desirable woman. In addition, this desirable woman subjected to the sexual stereotype of being constantly sexually objectified by men. This image was so successful that it was difficult to differentiate Monroe “the person” from Monroe “the actor.” Moreover, the visual iconography of the films constructed and enhanced Monroe’s immense sexual appeal.
Monroe’s appearance was a stereotype of desirable white women. This involved the extreme whiteness of her skin, application of makeup, and platinum blonde hair. These features were useful to create the image of the ultimate desirable woman in America. As mentioned earlier, Monroe’s image had the ability of successfully creating a spectacle that held the eye while, at the same time, distracting it from what was not to be seen.
Marilyn Monroe remains to be one of the biggest personalities in the 20th century film industry up to this day. Her portrayal of sexuality in films influenced women to be more open about their sexuality and have thus induced the birth of feminism as women grew tired of being sexuality objectified by men in real life and in films. Feminism gave rise to movies like Captain Marvel be made which represents women as strong and independent and is far from the objectification of men that Marilyn Monroe had to suffer from.
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History.com Editors. (2020, May 28). Marilyn Monroe born. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/marilyn-monroe-born
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2020, December 17). Marilyn Monroe | Biography, Death, Movies, & Facts. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marilyn-Monroe