Marilyn Monroe made history again in March of this year when her portrait sold for $195 million, more than any other work by a 20th-century artist at auction. Sixty years after her death at the age of 36, Monroe is still one of society’s foremost icons and is often imitated by today’s most influential celebrities.
Take Billie Eilish for one. Eilish rocked the Met Gala last year with a deviation from her usual street style to a Marilyn Monroe-inspired ballgown, only to be topped at the 2022 Met Gala by Kim Kardashian wearing (and reportedly ruining) Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress that she wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy.
2021 brought us a new documentary of Monroe, and this spring Netflix aired another documentary featuring interviews with Monroe’s inner circle. Now, Netflix is releasing yet another film about Monroe, “Blonde,” starring Ana de Armas in September.
To sum it up: we love Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe had all the factors by which to make her a lasting star — a rumored scandal with JFK, early status as a sex symbol, and an early death. But there is one more component that forever fixed Monroe’s position as the north star in today’s record of fallen lights: She lived in the 1950s.
Our culture’s fixation with Marilyn Monroe flows largely from the dichotomy between her image and her era. Monroe was a sex symbol in a Hollywood wholly unknown to the modern viewer — one that condemned actors filming in the same bed, onscreen kisses of more than three seconds, foul or sexual language, etc. Studios didn’t drop the strict production code until 1968.
Hollywood of the ’50s marketed desire, not sex. And there’s something about this forbearance to a modern age with no modesty that attracts us. There’s something alluring about not baring all. Marilyn Monroe is a sex symbol, but only because we never watch her have sex.
Modern sex symbols are harder to find. Women like Megan Fox, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian are our modern equivalents but they blend in. They fade into a culture of sexual license and become known for their talents or wealth. Promiscuity is too general now to establish one in the hall of fame. They don’t compare with Marilyn Monroe, and everyone knows it.
What truly makes Monroe a sex symbol is the society of the ’50s.
As such, Monroe is the emblem of a community we secretly admire but don’t actually want. The one that looked down on divorce and sleeping around and drugs and had never heard of “trans.” We think we’ve liberated ourselves from this era’s moral limits, and yet when we look at many of our popular films and TV shows, we find ourselves going back to what we left.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” was just released last month. The second season of “Bridgerton” dropped this year. “Persuasion” is coming in July to add to the film and TV adaptions of Jane Austen’s works that have been making bank for the last twenty years. “WandaVision” in 2021 was a shorter reach back in time but one just as well-loved with the audience.
Though we deny it, we find a community set of values appealing. It brings together instead of dividing like “your truth, my truth,” and it rewards patience, commitment, and hard work unlike the modern staples of social media, porn, and video games.
Community standards are appealing to us, yes, but not worth the work. We might want the effects of the ’50s community standards and of the rigid moral code of Jane Austen’s world and the purpose, respect, and chivalry of its inhabitants, but we also want overt sexualization. And desire trumps sex is a hard sell.
So, we take replicate the community of conservative eras, and we think it’ll be better if we put some sex in it. We take the career of Marilyn Monroe, sprinkle in a lot of smut, and we get “Blonde,” the first original Netflix film to gain an NC-17 rating. We take the societal norms of Regency England, throw in obscene amounts of nudity and we get “Bridgerton.”
We think these hybrids will make us happy. And they do entertain — Bridgerton is the #1 most-watched English-speaking show on Netflix. And yet we betray ourselves with every nod to Marilyn Monroe. Something’s wrong, we feel it. We believe a house with no walls is no house, but we ditch the only thing that separates a man from an animal — his morals — and think we’ll be satisfied.