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Netflix's Blonde, Kim K's dress, modern feminism: Why we are so obsessed with Marilyn Monroe

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaJul 29, 2022 | 19:43

Netflix's Blonde, Kim K's dress, modern feminism: Why we are so obsessed with Marilyn Monroe

With Kim Kardashian's Met Gala appearance and the upcoming Netflix movie Blonde, Marilyn Monroe is back in the popular conversation

Netflix recently dropped its trailer for Blonde, an upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic starring Ana De Armas in the title role. Joining Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala outfit and the Netflix documentary on her death, this is just one of 2022’s many pop culture attempts to immortalise the iconic heroine…but why are we so obsessed with her? 

The trailer offers glimpses of Monroe’s life, including her stellar Hollywood roles and her tragic behind-the-scenes life riddled with pressures of stardom, drug addiction, and failed marriages. But given that it is based on a historical fiction novel of the same name, some dramatised elements of psychological drama are also expected. 

Synonymous with the sexual revolution of the 1950s and the 1960s, Monroe was marketed by the film studios as a “blonde bombshell”. And while she got to do iconic roles and appear in equally iconic photographs in her short lifespan of 36 years, Monroe is finally being seen beyond the bombshell archetype. 

The Sex Symbol: Marilyn Monroe initially broke out with her light-hearted roles in romantic comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, and The Seven Year Itch. In fact, it is the latter that featured Monroe’s most popular photograph which shows her white skirt blowing in the wind. The photo was one of the many examples that established her as a sex symbol.

The words Entertainment for Men on this Playboy magazine cover featuring Marilyn Monroe sums up how the male gaze was prevalent (source- Playboy archives)
The words "Entertainment for Men" on this Playboy magazine cover featuring Marilyn Monroe sums up how the male gaze was prevalent (source- Playboy archives)

Despite her exceptional comedic timing and acting skills, the pertinent male gaze of the camera was such that a large male demographic could watch her hits just for ogling at her. To capitalise on her physical attractiveness, the costume department of her movies constantly bombarded her with figure-hugging, low-cut outfits. 

The Evergreen Fashionista: Be it the white dress or the red lipstick or her song Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Monroe has been an eternal fashion icon. The latest example would be Kim Kardashian showing up at the Met Gala 2022 wearing a dress that Monroe wore in 1962 when she famously sang Happy Birthday Mr President for Kennedy. 

The dress spawned several debates, with some observing Monroe’s enduring fashion legacy and others criticising Kardashian for having tarnished the dress. Whether Kim K actually ruined the bejewelled dress or not, this was the question that Western media had a field day debating. The answer remains uncertain. 

But what is clear is that people still talk about Marilyn Monroe in some way or the other. Her “flying skirt” photograph continues to be featured and reinterpreted in several movies, shows, paintings and statues. 

The actress’s blonde look has been immortalised in the art world, particularly with pop artist Andy Warhol’s acrylic painting Marilyn Diptych. The painting incorporates fifty copies of one of her promotional portraits, dividing them into coloured and black-and-white sections. Warhol experimented with more portraits with all sorts of surreal colour schemes. Obviously, Monroe looks stunning in all of them.

Unexpected Feminist Icon: While Monroe was thriving in an industry driven by the male gaze, the actress has also been reclaimed as a feminist icon over the years. 

As prominent American feminist activist Gloria Steinem told The Guardian on Monroe’s 75th birth anniversary in 2001, “She died just before the beginning of the modern women's movement. Her experiences were so typical and exaggerated in terms of what happens to women who are abused as little girls, then treated as objects."

Apart from being subjected to Hollywood sexism, Monroe faced hatred both at home and beyond. Her second husband and baseball player Joe DiMaggio turned out to be a very controlling partner who could even get physically abusive in bouts of jealousy. 

And even when they divorced and she married playwright Arthur Miller (who had socialist links), she faced character assassination attempts from mainstream media outlets, who referred to her as a collaborator of the Left intelligentsia. 

Even after her death, the theory of US President John F Kennedy having an affair with her has fetishised her sexually provocative public image further. When she used to have tussles with studios over her contract, the media was quick to brand her as a “shrewd businesswoman”. 

This is why several modern feminists seem to empathise with Monroe, for all the objectification and abuse she went through. 

As feminist author Nancy Friday puts it in her book My Mother, Myself and The Power of Beauty, “She was a woman exploited for her beauty; few admired her acting or cared about her personal feelings. Her role was sex object. Looking at her life story, you can see she is a powerful reminder of why feminism was necessary.” 

Legacy in biopics and documentaries: Before Blonde, the most major cinematic take on Monroe’s life has been the 2011 romantic drama My Week With Marilyn that reimagines the heroine’s alleged fling with an aspiring filmmaker in London. Michelle Williams received raves for her portrayal and even bagged an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. 

But talking about more recent years, Netflix seems to have developed a fascination with Monroe. Even though Blonde is slated for a September release, the streaming service released the documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes back in April this year. 

The investigative film deals with Monroe’s final days and attempts to analyse the mysterious causes of her apparent suicide (which in turn was fuelled by an overdose). Incorporating exclusive archival footage of her and the people close to her, the documentary also attempts to test the validity of the conspiracy theories that suggest she was murdered. 

Unsurprisingly, The Unheard Tapes was a huge hit with What’s On Netflix reporting that it was watched for 22.95 million hours between April 24 and May 8. 

What Blonde can offer: Blonde has been making quite some headlines in the past few months. Not only did Ana De Armas’s casting and first-look images create a hype, but also its parental rating. As Blonde would be featuring some heavily explicit sexual scenes, it is going to be the first Netflix movie to receive an NC-17 rating (a rank higher than the usual R rating i.e. the American equivalent of India’s A certificate). 

Attempting to take an uncensored look at her life, the original novel by Joyce Carol Oates allows a larger scope to play around with themes that would have never been explored before. This is what worked in Pablo Lorrain’s favour when he directed last year’s Spencer, adding horror and psychological elements to explore the familiar tale of Princess Diana facing pressure from the royal family. 

So, while Blonde’s trailer does feature reworkings of real-life moments and actual personalities like Adrien Brody playing Arthur Miller, the film can still make use of drama to explore her probable mental state, conspiracy theories, and the feminist aspects of her cinematic life. The Blonde's legacy holds sway over many gentlemen (and many a lady) till today, 60 years after her death.

Last updated: July 29, 2022 | 19:43
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