Marilyn Monroe was an iconic American actress and model who rose to fame in the 1950s. Known for her blonde hair, breathy voice and hourglass figure, Monroe’s public image embodied female sexuality and glamour. Yet behind her vivacious, bubbly persona, Monroe was a complex woman who struggled with difficult relationships, substance abuse and mental health issues. Her life and career reflected shifting cultural attitudes about sexuality, gender roles, fame and tragedy. Monroe’s undertones – the subtle meanings and implications beneath her public image – reveal much about her inner self, as well as the society she lived in.
The Sex Symbol
One of Monroe’s most dominant undertones was her status as a sex symbol. With her voluptuous curves, platinum blonde hair and full lips, Monroe exuded hyper-femininity and sensuality. She often played ditzy “blonde bombshell” characters that displayed an innocent yet provocative sexuality. This aligned with 1950s ideals of the male gaze and feminine beauty. However, Monroe felt conflicted about her sexy image, once stating: “It’s funny, men who were best endowed seem to like me the most. I don’t understand it. They see me as a sex symbol. Men I’ve known have weighed me, measured my thighs, stretched me on racks because I have succeeded on their own physical terms” (Monroe, as quoted in Guiles, 1965). So while Monroe was admired as a sex symbol, she grappled with being objectified and feeling that her intellect and humanity were overlooked.
Despite her glamorous image, Monroe was victimized throughout her life, starting with a difficult childhood spent in foster care and an orphanage. She suffered sexual assault and exploitation early on, stating, “I learned the meaning of the word rape when I was eleven years old” (Summers, 1985). As an adult, she endured troubled relationships with misogynistic men, emotional abuse, and three divorces by age 36. The studio system also exploited Monroe, underpaying her compared to male co-stars. So while externally she was a bombshell, internally Monroe often felt used, oppressed and deeply fragile. Her whispy voice and breathy delivery hinted at this vulnerability, endearing her to audiences. But her victim roles also reflected the limited options available to women in the 1950s, on and off-screen.
Though she reached stardom in the conservative 1950s, Monroe also had an independent streak. She challenged the studios by starting her own production company, pushing back against nude scenes and publicly advocating for civil rights. When the studio suspended her for refusing roles, she started her own side career as a successful model. In her films, Monroe regularly played mischievous, saucy characters who defied rules and expectations. Off-screen, she had affairs with married men, associated with suspected communists and broke her studio contracts. Rumors swirled over her ties to President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy. Though she never fully shed her “blonde bombshell” image, in subtle ways Monroe pushed against norms for women’s conduct and asserted her self-determination.
The Tragic Figure
Much of Monroe’s legacy stems from her tragic death at just 36 years old from a drug overdose. Throughout her career, Monroe’s personal struggles with mental illness, substance abuse and suicidal feelings played out publicly. The iconic image of her white dress blowing up in The Seven Year Itch came just months before her sudden death. This early, mysterious demise froze Monroe’s image as that of a beautiful, successful, yet deeply troubled star. Her breathy voice and vulnerable mannerisms came to represent the anguish and fragility beneath the surface. Monroe’s literal death immortalized her as an elusive, haunting figure in popular culture. The themes of victimization, objectification and exploitation in her life story also contributed to her status as a tragic figure and cautionary tale.
The Complexity Beneath the Icon
Over 60 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains an intriguing, enigmatic icon. While publicly she embodied a hyper-feminine bombshell, her undertones reveal a woman who was far more complex. She frequently played the victim and rebel on-screen. Off-screen she navigated power dynamics, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems not readily apparent beneath her blonde, bubbly image. The Marilyn Monroe persona represents many opposing archetypes – the ingenue and seductress, the pleasing childlike charmer and the strong-willed survivor. Monroe reflected the Madonna-whore complex, facing objectification despite asserting her self-determination. Ultimately, the real Marilyn was multidimensional – far more nuanced than the two-dimensional celluloid fantasy. The subtle undertones beneath herSurface reveal the depth of humanity she brought to her tragically short life and career.
Guiles, F. L. (1965). *Legend: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe.* Pinnacle Books.
Summers, A. (1985). *Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe.* Victor Gollancz Ltd.