60 Years Later: Why Marilyn Still Matters

Marilyn filming The Seven Year Itch in New York, 1954 (photo by Elliott Erwitt, via Magnum)

Journalists commemorating the 60th anniversary of Marilyn’s death have posed this question: what makes her relevant to us in 2022? Perhaps the truest answer lies in paraphrasing Marilyn’s response when asked what attracted her to Arthur Miller: “Have you seen her? Everything!”

In an article for The Conversation, Freya Jarman ponders why we’re all still ‘obsessed’ with Marilyn.

“For some, death can be a smart career move. Quite how smart a move depends a lot on who you are and how you die … As with any icon, the brand of Marilyn Monroe far transcends Marilyn Monroe the person, and even more so Norma Jeane [Baker], as she was until 1946.

Monroe made her name as a ‘blonde bombshell,’ a glamorous pin-up model and Hollywood actress/singer who was a favourite focus for the voracious mid-century male gaze. But she was by no means the first, following in the high-heeled footsteps of Mae West and Jean Harlow. Nor was she the last: Anita Ekberg, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak and Doris Day all came after. So what elevates Monroe above mere celebrity into the status of icon?

Monroe achieved such popularity due to a perfect storm of biography and cultural context, a potential that she managed to capitalise on with shrewd image management.

Indeed, it is the radical reinvention of her image that helps explain her appeal. In the shift from Norma Jeane to Marilyn, from girl-next-door brunette to blinding-peroxide blonde, and from stammerer to vocal seductress, she also moved from victim to agent … As Marilyn Monroe, she took control of her brand, wielded her sex appeal to build her career and founded her own production company – a rare thing for a woman at the time.

Such transformation is one classic hallmark of the icon, including Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. For Monroe, as with others, the capacity to overcome adversity was humanising and inspiring.

Ultimately, though, it may be the circumstances of her death at just 36 that assured Monroe of a place in the pantheon of 20th-century icons. The unexpected and untimely nature of her death is crucial, meaning her stardom works differently from, say, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton or Madonna (the latter two still alive, but distinctly post-menopausal).

Crucially, it was a tragic death that spoke of inner demons, not one resulting from ‘an act of God’. Monroe’s story therefore aligns with those of Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland and Whitney Houston, rather than Patsy Cline (plane crash), Jean Harlow (kidney failure) or Jayne Mansfield (car crash). Because if there’s one thing more appealing than a rags-to-riches story, it’s the rubbernecking joy found in a riches-to-ruins tale.

It was arguably the way in which the circumstances of her life fed into those of her death that keeps us revisiting Monroe. For her sexual expression, she has been claimed by both feminism’s second-wave (as a cautionary tale), and its third-wave (as a poster-girl for bodily self-determination).

The gluttonous media consumption of Monroe in life has been reconfigured as a story of being eaten up by her public, much like Princess Diana. And the McCarthy-era obsession with uncovering secrets was surely mirrored in the question-mark-laden headlines reporting her death, inviting all sorts of unquashable conspiracy theories around it.

Marilyn Monroe may have died in 1962, but in that same moment a legend was born. And while her life laid the groundwork for legendary status, it is her death that catapulted her into iconic immortality.”