By Freya Rogers
Marilyn Monroe. When we hear her name: platinum blonde hair, an iconic rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, and many Hollywood successes she was once the star of come to mind. Still to this day, she remains one of the most photographed women in the world, an icon of beauty and grace, the It girl of all it girls, she truly was and will always be a star.
But is that it?
While the legacy Monroe has left upon this earth is undoubtedly unforgettable, I can’t help but feel she transcends the silver screen, and has etched a mark so unobtainable that it touches all corners of society and culture. Beyond her captivating allure and Hollywood glamour lies a complex narrative that unveils the layers of her life and the profound influence she has wielded. But much like many other female icons, Marilyn Monroe has been glazed by the male gaze, making her intelligence appear subpar; and her achievements, such as her forces for change, have largely gone unnoticed, or at least made to seem unimpressive in comparison to her male counterparts. Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jean Baker, was so much more than a star. She was a woman with vigour, grace and unshakeable resilience, and remarkably did so much more than we remember her for. Calling someone like her a star seems to be an understatement. By beginning to peel back the veneer of the male gaze, we are able to delve into the depths of Monroe’s legacy, get to know her as a real woman, and reminisce on the echoes her life continues to cast on contemporary culture.
Having been born in 1926, Norma Jean had a lesser known yet significant involvement in World War II, a chapter often overshadowed by her later stardom, she got her first job at the Radioplane Munitions Factory in Van Nuys, California, where she became part of the war industry’s workforce, aiding the production of drones used for military target practice. While her involvement in war efforts seems world’s away from Hollywood, Monroe carried a dedication toward war efforts into her stardom, actively engaging in boosting the morale of soldiers, and participating in numerous United Service Organisations (USO) events. It takes a rare type of soul to want to give back to others without expecting anything in return.
Although her career in the entertainment industry has often been revered, Monroe was never awarded an Oscar, or was ever even nominated. Breakthrough roles in movies such as “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like it Hot” cemented Monroe as the pin-up girl of the century, yet she was not taken seriously, and her roles were often left undervalued in comparison to others due to her status as a sex symbol and biases within the industry. if contradiction were a metaphor, Monroe’s career would be a fine example. But despite this, Monroe’s determination was not stifled by the patriarchal system she was intertwined within, as she became one of the first women to set up her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, in order to foster more control over her career. Looking back, it may have been easier for Monroe to give in and present in a more masculine form in order to garner respect, but perhaps her quote: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.” Can unravel her acknowledgement of her place, as well as the innate power she held within the industry and society at the time. As a woman. She maintained her feminine identity and autonomy, and at the same time expressed a willingness to coexist within an industry predominantly shaped by masculine norms. In doing so, she exemplifies the ultimate ability and power of a woman in the face of the patriarchy.
Monroe was a voracious reader, owning an extensive personal library brimming with poetry and literature. A book she apparently held in high regard was “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, a collection of poetic essays that explore various aspects of life, from love to work, to freedom and marriage. I imagine she found solace in these reflections and would read for hours on end, falling asleep in a chair with a book clutched close to her chest, just as I do when I read from my own poetry collection.
If you are still left unconvinced of the righteousness and purity that wrapped itself up in Marilyn’s soul, you should know of her adoration and acceptance for others, that followed her into her support for the civil rights movement, in which she actively spoke out against issues such as racial segregation, and is said to have been a supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights, a relatively progressive stance for her time, as she stood by her close friends within the LGBTQIA+ community, despite the risk it could pose to her own career. Then there is her friendship with Ella Fitzgerald and the impact she made on the singer’s journey into a world renowned star. Monroe insisted that Hollywood’s Mocambo nightclub book Fitzgerald, who was initially denied due to the colour of her skin, and said she would take a front-row table every night if they booked Fitzgerald, the club eventually relented and Ella became one of the most revered singers in history.
While it can be difficult for people to detach their preconceptions from the truth about Marilyn Monroe, it is important to recognise and acknowledge the lasting impact she has made as a woman, not only in Hollywood or the fashion world, but in her pursuits to a fairer and more just society. She was a woman navigating a man’s world, with a kindred spirit. So, next time you hear the name Marilyn Monroe, I hope you see her for who she really was, beyond the glamour, she was so much more than a star.
Illustration by Freya Rogers