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Let the Woman Rest

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

It seems to me that the time has finally come for all of us to leave Marilyn Monroe alone. The Hollywood legend died 60 years ago and has been resurrected so much in the last year that, well, it’s just enough already.

In May, Christie’s sold Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn portrait of the actress for a staggering $195 million. It is the most expensive 20th-century artwork to ever sell at auction. In the summer, Madame Tussauds installed a wax sculpture of the film legend at the Lexington Hotel, a place Marilyn and her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, once called home. Of course, there’s the Kim Kardashian of it all: As the story goes, the reality star shed 16 pounds in three weeks to slip into Monroe’s iconic nude illusion dress for an infamous three-minute shuffle up the Met Gala steps. Even the recent Barbiecore fad can’t help but evoke the iconic blonde being carried down a flight of stairs while singing about her best friend, diamonds. And this week, Netflix will release Blonde, its long-awaited adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1999 fictional biography of Monroe, a film that features an NC-17 rating owing to its sexual content and stars Ana de Armas doing a Marilyn accent that took “nine months” to perfect and yet has already managed to piss off the masses.

This fixation on Monroe’s life and reexamining it ad nauseam is hardly anything new. In 2020, Forbes listed Monroe as the 13th-highest-paid dead celebrity, raking in $8 million, a little less than the $13 million her estate earned the year prior. The outlet reported that, at the time, her likeness was officially licensed by nearly 100 brands globally, including Dolce & Gabbana, Zales, and Lego Group. (Back in 1999, Christie’s, commissioned by the second wife of Monroe’s acting coach Lee Strasberg, auctioned off the majority of Monroe’s personal effects and clothing for $13.5 million; these were items Monroe had requested go to friends and colleagues, including the custom Jean Louis gown that would ultimately wind up at Ripley’s Believe It or Not and on a Kardashian.) And in 2012, the CEO of CMG Worldwide, the company hired by Strasberg — who inherited 75 percent of her intellectual-property rights — to license Monroe’s image, confirmed to NPR, “We did hundreds and hundreds of programs with companies like Mercedes-Benz to Coca-Cola to fragrance, clothing, giftware, collectibles, paper products, things like that.” Strasberg eventually sold the remainder of Monroe’s estate to Authentic Brands Group for an estimated $20 million to $30 million.

As art historian Gail Levin told PBSAmerican Masters about Monroe, “She could, arguably, be the most-photographed person of the 20th century.”

And, as in life, so in death Monroe continues to be wildly exploited by both those around her and the industries that profit off her public image. She has never been allowed to be a fully realized person, at least in the public eye. By her own admission, the woman she presented onscreen to the American public was just the façade of a glamorous sex bomb Hollywood decided to market her as, not the painfully shy Norma Jeane Baker who grew up in a string of foster homes. A persona that now, decades after her death, threatens to totally eclipse her actuality and erase any genuine human complexity that doesn’t align with her best-selling tragic paradigm. Monroe is no longer a person but a void that members of the public can fill with their own vague desires. She has been transformed into a shorthand for the impossible feminine ideal — America’s Madonna-whore complex played out at large. And as such, she has become the perfect marketing tool. A face now as synonymous with our modern capitalist landscape as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. In her essay “Thirty Are Better Than One: Marilyn Monroe and the Performance of Americanness,” academic Susanne Hamscha writes that Monroe has become “a surface on which narratives of American culture can be (re-)constructed” and “functions as a cultural type that can be reproduced, transformed, translated into new contexts, and enacted by other people.”

Enacted by other people such as Ana de Armas or Kim Kardashian, women who aren’t just dressing up as Monroe but are actually donning her entire identity as a costume and thus reaffirming this fictionalized version of her. And, in Kardashian’s case, reducing her to her most shallow beauty-queen attributes by making the narrative of wearing her dress entirely about the weight loss, the bleach-blonde-dye job, and her post-divorce fling. But at this point, perhaps it’s impossible to ever really get to the core of who Monroe was as a person. Even when a project revolving around her does attempt to move beyond this surface level to address her fraught inner life, it can’t help but come across as cliché, as the very idea of Monroe has become little more than a lazy trope, a metaphor for a particular type of woman. The real actress behind the omnipresent, corporatized version of her that now looms large in our daily lives as consumers has long since ceased to exist, if she ever did.

As de Armas says in the trailer’s voice-over, “Marilyn doesn’t exist. When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera is rolling. Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.” We abstracted this woman so far from herself, even during her own life, that she was always essentially a figment of our imagination. What we conceive of as Marilyn is actually just the output of our collective projection of her. And, as a heavily fictionalized version of her life, Blonde makes no attempt at correcting the legends surrounding this woman or grounding her in reality, instead adding yet another layer of illusion to her already mythologized existence. And a particularly scandalous one at that, given the film’s NC-17 rating owing to sexual content, specifically a rape scene. For Blonde, Marilyn isn’t actually its protagonist but merely the archetype through which to tell a racy, sensationalized story about the industry that crushed her.

In her final interview with Life magazine before her death apparently by suicide, Monroe spoke openly about her fraught relationship to her own public image, acknowledging that she often felt used as “an ornament.” If only she could see just how prescient that insight was. She goes on to explain that as she learned to harness the power of her own beauty, she quickly realized, “It was kind of a double-edged thing.” Monroe said, “When you’re famous you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way. It stirs up envy, fame does … [People] feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature and it won’t hurt your feelings. Like it’s happening to your clothing … You’re always running into people’s unconscious.” She concluded, “Fame has a special burden, which I might as well state here and now. I don’t mind being burdened with being glamorous and sexual. But what goes with it can be a burden.”

If anything, her life, by that point, had become about running from that very version of herself that the public had put up on such a high pedestal. In that light, it seems odd to honor a woman who wanted so desperately to escape that warped projection and be taken seriously for her craft by buying into the very media and consumerism that perpetuate those worst stereotypes for profit.

Which is why I ask again: What if we all just left Marilyn Monroe alone? At least for a little bit.

Let the Woman Rest