Norma Jean could be termed as an illegitimate child. Her father (Edward Mortensen) deserted the family before Jean’s birth. She experienced an unhappy childhood marked by misery and sexual abuse (when she was eight years old) and spent many years in orphanages and foster homes when her mother was committed to a mental institution following a nervous breakdown (Anderson 1993).
She was able to escape from the poverty cycle upon turning sixteen years old after she was married off to a 21-year-old aircraft factory worker. She was an employee of Radio Plane Company plant in Burbank when her picture was taken by a visiting army photographer (Catherine 1980). Afterwards, she started modeling bathing costumes; she died her hair to become blonde and started posing for star and glamour photographs (Barbara 1998). Howard Hughes spotted some of her photos and showed interest in offering her a screen test for RKO. However, before he could sign her, he was beaten to it by Ben Lyon of 20th Century Fox who gave her a contract and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
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Upon debuting in minor roles in films, among which were Love Happy’ of 1949 and All about Eve of 1950, Monroe attained celebrity status playing leading roles in three 1953 films Niagara, Gentlemen prefer blondes, and How to marry a millionaire on top of a series of nude photos that appeared in the 1953 maiden issue of the “Playboy” magazine. At the end of that year, she was chosen as the top actress in America by American film distributors. During all her film roles including Niagara and The Misfits, Monroe was depicted as a desirable woman (Beavon 2001). Her fundamental character was based on the dumb blonde stereotype, although Monroe’s blonde was not based on any specific origin or social class. She was judged only according to her image on the screen, which had neither background history nor an apparent future.
Most of the time, Monroe’s characters were nameless like in the Love Happy of 1955 and The Seven Year Itch further emphasizing her status as sex symbol. Usually, she did not have a decent job and when she had one, it was a female-related profession such as a chorus girl, an actress, or a secretary.
In addition to the dumb blonde stereotype, Monroe added a touch of innocence, naturalism and explicit sexuality. Mostly, her sexuality was not perceived as a risk, but as something innocuous and compassionate (Williams 2011). For example, “Times” magazine carried an upbeat response to Monroe‘s photos on “Playboy” magazine describing her appeal with the following lines: “Marilyn believes in doing what comes naturally.” Accompanying this benevolent, innocent sensuality was some kind of vulnerability. Her characters were frequently disgraced to incite pleasure, for instance, when she exposes herself without her knowledge in Some Like it Hot of 1959. At the climax of her popularity, Monroe realized that the range of her stage impersonation was quite limited and she tried to change it. This situation was expressed by Monroe as follows: “To put it bluntly, I seem to be a whole superstructure without a foundation” On establishing Marilyn Monroe production in 1959, she created Bus Stop and The Prince and The Showgirl of 1957.
Marilyn Monroe’s Sex Symbol Status
Although actresses such as Jennifer Lopez, Pamela Anderson, and Angelina Jolie have achieved international acclaim as Hollywood sex symbols, none of them has managed to surpass Marilyn Monroe in this role. As a film legend, her persona is timeless and has continued to reign in Hollywood up to the present day. Many magazines, television programs and motion pictures have taken advantage of the undying influence of her screen image. In addition, numerous books have been written about her than about any other superstar (Anderson 1993).
While a lot of questions linger regarding her mysterious death, her influence lives on. The immodest sex goddess she characterized in films betrayed the revolt and immorality that dominated her life behind the screens (Constance 1980).
Monroe depended a lot on her sexuality to preserve the reign as the Queen of Hollywood. Her outlandish ability to spellbind men with desire was indisputably a key factor in her success. Despite the fact that she was scathingly censured for her deficiency in facial expressions, her roles rarely focused on her face. For instance, her Love Happy producer once said that, “It doesn’t matter about her face. Every man who wants to see her wants to jump her.” Monroe’s misuse of sex appeal was revolutionary in the 1950s and she was able to persuade millions of her followers around the world into her snare of sexual seduction.
Despite being the world’s hottest and most popular film stars of her era, various features of her life disclose a quality of her that most of her admiring fans never knew of. She had been married and divorced three times, moved in and out with men and was so accommodating of her male counterparts that most of her colleagues considered her a prostitute. Monroe’s promotion of sexual revolution and breach of taboos was principal in her time. Lust, adultery and fornication were the key themes in her films and they reflected the reality of her life.
As a part of her personal mission, Monroe usually smuggled sexually explicit photos past Hollywood censors, a mission that was rather ahead of her time in the year 1950. By smuggling such photographs past censors, she was in effect smuggling them into the minds and hearts of her audience. Monroe’s freeing of traditional sexual norms and standards aptly equates her to the biblical adulteress woman in the Book of Proverbs. Correspondingly, Monroe regarded her actions as being those of a ‘siren’. In Greek mythology, ‘sirens’ used to sing to strangers in a bid to bait them to death.
From films such as The Seven Year Itch, it becomes clear why she described herself as a ‘siren’. Itch plays out the story of a married man who is enticed by the girl upstairs, Monroe, while her wife and children were not at home. Immoral scenes, such as Monroe dressed in a stealthy night dress creeping down the stairs to meet the married man, are meant to generate sexual sensation. She gives the sense of being nude in another scene, when she bends over a balcony in summer heat to tell her male neighbor that she kept her underwear in the refrigerator. Her director, Billy Wilder once said that he had to dissuade her from performing love scenes in the nude.
Monroe required no persuasion to perform her notorious ‘blowing skirt’ scene which was labeled by the press as “the most interesting dramatic display since Lady Godiva.” This performance combined with her other films was successful in destroying taboos of decency that had been upheld since the founding of America (Griffiths 1991). Indeed, the 1950s ‘siren’ lured many men to sexual bondage.
Monroe’s Screen Persona and Sexual Stereotypes
Marilyn Monroe was used to advance the sexual stereotype that men prefer blonde women (Lorenzo 1979). This idea is manifested by the changing of her hair color to blonde. The sexual stereotype is further emphasized by the film Gentlemen prefer blondes, in which Monroe was the leading actress.
Although she was not a blonde by birth or even social class, Monroe was able to depict the sexual stereotype according to blondes through altering some of her body features (Montgomery 2001). In fact, her screen image was used to depict and promote men’s obsession with blonde women as objects of desire.
Use of Visual Iconography to Enhance Monroe’s Sexual Appeal
The use of graphics was applied heavily in enhancing Monroe’s erotic appeal. To start with, her photographs were given a sharp contrast that consisted of a dark background in order to accentuate her pose. The pictures were also moderately lit, that is, not excessively or limitedly lit so as to enhance their sensual value or appeal (Monk 2004). In addition, Monroe’s poses were also sensual, such as when she bent over a balcony to announce to a male neighbor that she had kept her underwear in the refrigerator. Lastly, most of her photographs were accompanied by a seductive smile, posture and body exposure such as cleavage in an attempt to enhance her sex appeal.
Marilyn Monroe is a legendary sex symbol whose images have lived on even after her death. The Hollywood actress started a sexuality revolution that resulted in the abandonment of sexual propriety. She was able to achieve her purpose through her film roles as a sex object. Monroe was used to depict the sexual stereotype that men prefer blonde women as objects of desire.