Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly one of the most famous actresses to have graced the screens of the United States and the world. Renowned for her beauty and artistic talent Monroe remains an international sex icon today, her legacy living on over 50 years after her death in 1962. Debate still surrounds the star, with many arguing over whether she was purely a sex icon, and nothing more, or whether she was a proto-feminist leading the way for the development of a highly successful feminist movement in both her home nation and abroad.
Monroe is certainly a sex icon, highly sexualised by both the media and resultantly the personal imagination. Her natural reddish-brown hair was bleached blonde to create the ‘dumb blonde’ character portrayed in many of her films such as How to Marry a Millionaire. This look created the persona that Marilyn was believed to have by the public. In effect, producers created this sexualised beautiful woman to capitalise on her characters. Monroe also participated in nude modelling and movie scenes on various occasions throughout her career. She appeared in the first issue of Playboy magazine, becoming the original ‘playmate of the month’, entrenching Monroe’s legacy as a sex icon. The breakdown of her second marriage to baseball player Joe DiMaggio, is attributed to Monroe’s sex appeal. He was infuriated by the famous picture of Monroe’s skirt being blown up by an air vent during the filming of The Seven Year Itch; he felt she was becoming too exhibitionist in her fame. Monroe’s married life itself is also questioned by some who felt that for a woman to be divorced three times was unacceptable in a period when patriarchy was still a dominant force in America. Her other relationships have also raised eyebrows, especially the rumours surrounding her liaisons with both John and Robert Kennedy. For many of these reasons, Monroe is seen as purely a sex icon who engaged in immoral behaviour.
However, Monroe was also a woman who was outspoken and knew her own mind. She had a troubled upbringing which involved sexual abuse and emotional suffering as a result of being in the care of various people due to her mother’s mental instability. Monroe actually asserted, “Do I look happy? I should—for I was a child nobody wanted. A lonely girl with a dream—who awakened to find that dream come true. I am Marilyn Monroe. Read my Cinderella story,” during her interview for True Experiences magazine. She also defended her nude modelling during a potential scandal of leaked photos. She told of her plight as a struggling actress doing all she could to pay her rent and the nude photos as a means to an end. This interview actually added to her popularity as people sympathised with her situation. Monroe would not be victimised and abused as a consequence of her actions. This was a similar occurrence when her third husband Arthur Miller was questioned on suspicion of being a communist sympathiser. Despite being told to leave instead of risk her career because of suspicions surrounding Miller, she wholeheartedly refused to abandon him, naming those who suggested it ‘born cowards’, evidencing her desire to pursue what she wanted and not be dictated by others. Thus, another side of Marilyn Monroe was a woman who had come from a troubled childhood and overcome many obstacles to stardom, and would not be told what to do or how to act in situations.
Feminists have two key approaches to Monroe’s place amongst their ranks. Gloria Steinem, when asked if she believed Marilyn would be a feminist responded with, “I think so, because her experiences were ones that feminism often speaks out on: sexual abuse, sexual victimisation, a mother’s madness”. Feminists identify with Marilyn’s plight to stardom from the abuse of her early life. On the other hand, feminists have used the tragic end to Marilyn’s life as an example of the consequences of being a sex icon, used and victimised for the pleasure of men. Her use as a sex object and the lack of contempt for her as an individual led to her eventual demise and for many is a clear example of how bad things were for women in the 1950s and why feminism was necessary.
Monroe was clearly both a sex icon and a proto-feminist. Although highly sexualised throughout her life, she knew her own mind and spoke it. Feminists have used her life as an example of why their work is necessary in the modern world.