Seriously, Why Are We So Obsessed With Marilyn Monroe?

Marilyn Monroe black and white recliningLove, Marilyn, a one-hour special on HBO about Marilyn Monroe airs tonight, and at the risk of seeming being insensitive, why are we still so obsessed with her? Sure, she was beautiful and talented and damaged and tragic, but a lot of people are those things, and we let their memories slowly fade over the years. She was mesmerizing in a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons, but I don’t think any of those reasons quite explain the cultural fixation; at least not in a way that’s satisfying to me.

Marilyn’s (undeniably tragic) death was in 1962, so as of August 5th of this year, she will have been gone for fifty-one years. In that time, she’s been portrayed in almost every aspect of the media more times than I can count. If you can’t think of a Halloween costume, throw on a dress and a shitty blonde wig and go as Marilyn. If you don’t have any art up on the walls of your new apartment, get a black and white shot of her, and suddenly you’re insta-chic…and supremely uninventive, but that goes without saying. If you need a name for your clothing line, Lindsay Lohan, why not name it 6126 after Marilyn’s birthdate? You’re a young girl facing your own struggles in the world, so why not idolize a woman who abused drugs and alcohol as a way to escape from her life instead of facing its challenges. As wonderful as I’m sure Marilyn was in a lot of ways, she undeniably refused to help herself, either because she was unwilling or unable, and it’s sad and weird to see people turning to her as an inspiration, when in reality she was a sad young woman ill-equipped to deal with her surroundings. (Much like LiLo, actually, but I don’t see anyone rushing to romanticize her.)

It’s gotten to the point where the Wikipedia page ‘Marilyn Monroe in pop culture‘ has more entries than the page ‘Marilyn Monroe‘ itself. It’s kind of creepy when you really think about it, for a society to be so consumed with the life of a woman who was so incapable of living that life in a happy, healthy way. People are fascinated with her, but even with as ubiquitous as her image has become, I’d bet good money that there are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t even recognize her in a photo if she didn’t have her hair dyed and her makeup on. She’s become the representative image of something she never resembled in real life, and I don’t understand it. If someone’s skirt blows up, they’re having a Marilyn Monroe moment.

Other people have died since, right? I’m not trying to imply that her life wasn’t tragic and driven by circumstances outside of her control, but worshiping her is like worshiping Amy Winehouse – they’re both immensely talented young people who threw their lives away on drugs and alcohol. Both women who wasted their talents instead of seeking out or accepting the help they required but for some reason we can tell the difference between them. You don’t see Mariah Carey naming her daughter ‘Wine’, you see her naming her ‘Monroe’. You don’t see Naomi Watts and Michelle Williams and Chloe Sevigny lining up to play her in a movie, and that was only two years ago. Aside from her music, which speaks for itself, do you think we’ll still be romanticizing Amy Winehouse in fifty-one years? I don’t. People will move past her death because death is what happens when you dedicate your life to substance abuse. It’s tragic, and she’s a victim, but more to her own actions than I think we let on.

People have died before her and they’ve died since, so I think it’s time to stop clinging to Marilyn Monroe as some sort of vanguard of troubled stardom. She was a star, yes, and she suffered. Why does it change anything that she was also beautiful? Everything she’ll ever do is already preserved on film or lost forever, so when will we stop dredging up her image and using it to mean something that it doesn’t? There’s nothing new to be found in her memory or an unofficial biography or a lipstick she used once that’s now selling at auction, and I’m concerned by the fact that we keep rooting through these things, and encouraging young girls to look to her as an inspiration. Sometimes the healthiest thing is just to move on.


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    • Elisabeth

      There is just something I can’t understand about this article and the author’s position in the comments section: why everyone has to be so judgmental when they know so little?

      Has the author been in contact with MM personally to know that “MM believed she did not need to be saved”? Has the author been in contact with people who actually knew her to assert that she was such a low-life that “threw her life away on drugs and alcohol”? About that, I would like to know what drugs and alcohol exactly the author had in mind. Unlike Amy Winehouse, Marilyn never did cocaine, heroin or the likes; what an unfortunate comparison! Like ALL OF THE ACTORS IN HOLLYWOOD IN THAT ERA, she heavily relied on the prescriptions given by the studio’s doctors. Nothing to be ashamed of, it was the norm at that time (just like the norm was to smoke when you were pregnant).

      It seems to me that the author read a couple of things on MM through Wikipedia and one (maybe 2) of the many self proclaimed “biographies” of MM. And she decided that there was nothing special about her because she was a low-life. Fine, that’s her opinion.

      Over the last 10 years, I have read approximately 150 biographies of MM and they all tell different stories. I tried to know everything about her, but the information is so contradictory that it is impossible to know the real truth. I have come to realize that what is written in those “biographies” are just speculation (based on the declaration of the son of a gardener who eventually worked on MM’s property one summer) and hidden desires of the authors themselves (always a lof of details about her sex life as if it has been recorded on camera… but it was not). The author of this article is no exception, and she is actually contributing to the legend by spreading rumors about the private life of a dead woman. I guess there wasn’t anything interesting to write on that day… One thing for sure, we will never know what MM had on her mind in her day-to-day activities, just like we will never know exactly what happened on the night she died.

      As for the “MM obsession”, the author does not seem to be aware that when Marilyn Monroe was ALIVE, she was the biggest name in Hollywood. I can’t think of an actress that has been as popular as she was at the time. Marilyn was an actress, and she is still remembered for the roles she incarnated on the screen, and not really because she died young “like so many other celebs”.
      When you ask people about Marilyn on the streets, they will tell you about the platinum blond hair and red lipstick, the blowing white dress or will begin to sing “I wanna be loved by you” / “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. She HAS marked her time with her looks and iconic moments on the big screen – just like Leo shouted “I’m the king of the world” or when Darth Vader said “I am your father”. 30 years or 15 years later, people still remember those iconic lines!

      Marilyn Monroe is iconic, and whether you like it or not, she is part of Hollywood History forever (unlike the vast majority of actors and “other celebs”).
      If I had to compare Marilyn to other celebs, I would choose Charlie Chaplin or Fred Astaire. The three of them created 3 personas on the screen that have caught the imagination of the public so profoundly (generations after generations). You just know who Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire were. They were real movie stars unlike the celebs of today.

      And I don’t hear anyone complaining about how Fred Astaire inspired Michael Jackson 50 years after his prime time at Hollywood (who tap danced in the 80s, right?). MM inspires people differently than Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin or Amy Winehouse do, because she is the symbol of glamour. Some people just want to emulate glamour, it is about THEIR choice. Get over it ! They are not starting a war or something… No need to call them “delusional”.

      In the end, the author’s ignorance made my day!

      • Alexis Rhiannon

        Glad I could make your day!

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    • Kristiane Sutherlando

      Your article was good in the way it tries to get to the roots of the cultural obsession with Marilyn. I do think it has everything to do with her death while still young and beautiful, freezing her in time, as a goddess, combined with a tendency in human beings to make god-like, messianic beings out of people who have died. The emperor Hadrian started a cult around his young beautiful lover, Antinous, who drowned mysteriously in the Nile, which nearly succeeded in dominating over Christianity…imagine that…so it isn’t the first time! What I wanted to post however, is that I have had a life-long feeling for her because I met her in 1957, when I was a little girl. She was in London, and I was in the foyer of a hotel holding my mother’s hand, and she walked by. She looked down at me and smiled and the look of deep love in her eyes I have remembered all my life. As an adult I later saw longing there too. I’m not sure if that was my later interpretation or if that was there too. And then a few years later, my mother came into the house crying that Marilyn had committed suicide, and I saw that look Marilyn gave me, in that moment, and even then felt something like she would live forever in me. Years and years later, I read about her, enough to understand that there are a lot of conflicting theories about her death, but it is sure that she did seek help, desperately, for her depression, and was endlessly prescribed barbiturates as was a matter of course for those days. I know a doctor who knew a naturopathic doctor she visited in London for her depression, which I find remarkable. Then, there is all the psychoanalysis she did to get to the roots of it. She really did try to help herself, but as we now know, Freudian psychoanalysis and barbiturates don’t work, alone or in combination, so she dealt with it as best she could, and until the end when it seems her rejected love for JFK was the final straw. But putting it like that is glib, because she was complicated, extraordinary, lucky and unlucky for being so beautiful, highly intelligent, was a gifted actress in that somehow she showed her feelings in her face when she acted and she shone with an inner light, which is hard to explain away with vaseline, face powder and the fuzz she let grow on her face to make her face look softer. I saw that inner light and it was beautiful. If she could see it now, would she accept her status as a cult goddess? I’m pretty sure she would laugh at it and say that she was an ordinary woman with the same anatomy as any other woman, as indeed she once said. But this is what people do.

    • Penelope

      It’s the glamour. And the glorification. And the romanticizing. People love glamour. And to glorify. And to romanticize. People also like to not think.

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