Is Marilyn More Exploited in Death Than in Life?

Marilyn at a costume fitting for her circus appearance in 1955

Writing for i-news, Grace Medford argues that Marilyn is being exploited ‘even more in death than when she was alive.’ Actually, I would argue that she has been exploited far more in death. Medford draws a comparison to Marilyn’s 1954 battle with 20th Century Fox, incorrectly claiming that she was the first woman in Hollywood since Mary Pickford to start an independent production company. (As April VeVea pointed out here, many other women in Hollywood did so before Marilyn.)

But while Marilyn may have been exploited at times – and let’s not forget that she also used and discarded others in return – she was never simply a victim, and in life, her successes and failures were largely her own. By contrast, the current spate of headlines – over Andy Warhol’s ‘Shot Blue Marilyn’, Kim Kardashian wearing her ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress, the digital Marilyns of CR Fashion Book, the recent Netflix documentary and upcoming movie Blonde – have little to do with Marilyn herself, but the determination of others to cash in on her legacy.

“In the 21 years since Forbes magazine began tracking the earnings of dead celebrities, Monroe has ranked among the highest paid for 16 of them, with annual revenues ranging from between $4m and $27m.

This veneer of authenticity relies on the public’s trust in the estate as stewards of Monroe’s legacy – a trust that in itself relies on what the public broadly believes the estate to be. In general understanding, this would be a lawyer or legal team representing the wishes and best interests of the deceased’s family with the goal of maintaining their legacy. But Monroe died unmarried and childless, and for the past 40 years, her estate has been managed solely for profit by a cohort of stakeholders who never met the actress and have little to no investment in protecting her image beyond what might be detrimental to their bottom line.

Ethical questions aside, merchandising Marilyn Monroe has at least gone a long way to keep the star at the forefront of public consciousness. Scott Fortner, a lifelong fan and the owner of the world’s largest private collection of Monroe’s personal property, is a fringe figure in the wider picture of her legacy, but a respected authority on the star nonetheless. In an unofficial capacity, he works to keep her memory alive, raising money for charity through exhibitions of his collection, and striving to correct the record on misconceptions or falsehoods relating to Monroe, recently comparing archival images of the ‘Happy Birthday dress’ with photographs taken after the Met Gala, proving Kim Kardashian had damaged the garment.

Whichever way you slice it, the issues go hand in hand. Conjecture on the topic of whether Monroe would or would not have approved of any or all of the events of the last 60 years are just that: conjecture. What can be definitively asserted is that profits are generated for parties unrelated to Monroe through the propagation of her unfading image as a troubled ‘bombshell’, trading on her status as a sex symbol, immortalising the flattening, reductive perception that she fought her whole life to transcend.”