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Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait in a bathing suit and high heels with a bottle of Coca-Cola and a glass on a table behind her, circa 1953.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Who built Marilyn Monroe?

Marilyn Monroe was an artist. Her magnum opus was her own image.

In 1953, Alfred Kinsey published his highly anticipated new report “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.” The first edition of Playboy magazine hit newsstands. And three new movies made their premiere, one right after the other, all starring Playboy’s very first cover girl: Marilyn Monroe.

First noirish Niagara, then frothy How to Marry a Millionaire, and finally Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the movie that would become one of Marilyn’s most iconic. They were the first movies in which Marilyn starred rather than merely appearing as a featured player, marking her ascent into a new level of fame. In a cultural moment obsessed with sex and how women have it, Marilyn Monroe was the woman of the moment. She was seen as the embodiment of sex itself, all curvy pale flesh and bright blonde hair, radiating an easy, joyous sensuality.

She was also seen as tragic, unstable, even dangerous. Marilyn was rumored to be difficult on set. She was rumored to have lovers. She was rumored to have had abortions, maybe miscarriages. She was rumored to have a crazy mother. She was rumored to be depressed. She was rumored to be a narcissist. She was rumored to be a bitch. This darkness, too, was part of the Marilyn image, and intimately tied to the idea of Marilyn as sex symbol. Sex, after all, is thought to be dangerous.

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn Monroe began her career as a model. She was discovered at age 18, working in a munitions factory while her husband was deployed with the Merchant Marines and soon ditched both to model full time. She did pinups, art photos, ads, and men’s magazines, and in 1946, she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. When Niagara hit theaters in 1953, it was the payoff of nearly a decade of work.

In the 69 years since, our culture has not grown any less fascinated with sex or with Marilyn herself. She burst into fame as a sex symbol and so she remains, standing both for sex’s pleasures and for all its dark inverses. For a symbol from the mid-20th century, she remains bizarrely, intensely potent.

“Marilyn’s not done yet,” writes the scholar Sarah Churchwell in her 2005 cultural history The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. “She is still out there, selling herself, and her culture is still consuming her image. In fact, it is consuming images of her producing the image. In our knowing, post-modern age, that’s what we like to see, the ‘behind the scenes’ footage, the outtakes, the effort.”

The “behind the scenes footage” of the current moment is Blonde, the new Andrew Dominik movie starring Ana de Armas, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. While fictional, Blonde purports to show us the emotional truths behind Marilyn’s open-mouthed and bare-legged image. Perhaps because the image in question is that of a sex symbol, the fictitious truths Blonde reveals are all sexual, too.

We see Marilyn ecstatic in a threesome, and we see her writhing in agony during an abortion forced on her unwilling body, not once but twice. We see a rapid, violent close-up of her vagina being opened up by a pair of forceps. We see her sexually assaulted, beaten and tormented by her lovers. We see her miscarry. We see her covered in vaginal blood.

There are few imaginable sexual humiliations that Blonde does not find a way to visit on Marilyn over the course of its 2 hours and 42 minutes. Meanwhile, few aspects of her life that don’t involve sex and its attendant humiliations make their way to the screen.

If Marilyn symbolizes sex for our culture, Blonde is about the sexualized body taking punishment. Ostensibly, it shows Marilyn being punished by the misogynistic society that made her into a sex symbol and then hated her for it. Yet so focused is Blonde on her miseries that it feels more as though Marilyn is being punished by the sadistic eye of the camera, which called her back to life for the sole purpose of reveling in her miseries.

At stake in all the misery in which Blonde wallows is one of the animating questions of our “knowing postmodern age”: Was Marilyn forced into becoming a sex symbol? Did Marilyn become Marilyn — do the voice and the hair and the clothes, make her cheeky dirty jokes for the newspapers, incarnate sex so vividly as — to create a symbol potent enough to stick around another 70 years? Did she do it all on purpose? Or accidentally? Or because powerful men made her do it? And did she hate every minute of it?

Did she do it because she liked to do it? Or was she miserable the whole time? Was she in control of her body when she made that body iconic? Or did someone else do it? Did someone else craft her into a sex goddess?

Who, in god’s name, is in control of this woman and her body? And who should be?

“It was all an illusion.”

Marilyn wears a green sweater as she lies on her stomach in the grass, propped up on her elbows. Her hair is tousled but her face is immaculately made up, complete with bright red lipstick.
Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait laying on the grass in 1954 in Palm Springs, California.
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the oddities of watching a Marilyn movie is being caught up in the contradictory play of naturalness and artifice. The Marilyn persona is so clearly fake — that hair, that voice, that wiggling hip-swishing walk. And yet her charisma is so bright and unforced; she is so magnetic without apparent effort. It seems impossible that someone could simply wake up in the morning and be Marilyn Monroe. It seems likewise impossible that someone built her.

When Marilyn was coming up in the ’50s, press coverage made much of her apparent innocent naturalness: She was sexy, they told readers, because she couldn’t help it. She was doing what came naturally. In fact, “the writing about Marilyn in the 1950s,” remarks Churchwell in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, “insists with such obsessive redundance upon her naturalness that it seems to be trying to persuade itself of something it is afraid isn’t true at all.”

So in that first issue of Playboy, Marilyn is “natural sex personified,” making her “the most natural choice in the world” for their first centerfold. While “it seems perfectly natural to ask why” she’s such a phenomenon, Playboy has the answer at the ready: She’s “the real article.”

(Incidentally, Playboy declined to seek permission from its “real article” for the use of her image. It bought the negatives for a nude photo shoot she did years before as a starving young model, for which she had been paid $50. It would be one of many cases of men profiting off Marilyn’s image, while Marilyn herself got nothing.)

“Monroe, so much set up in terms of sexuality, also seemed to personify naturalness,” notes scholar Richard Dyer in his 1986 study Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. She had to be natural, because that was what made it okay for her to be sexy; it meant that it wasn’t something she was doing on purpose. “Her perceived naturalness not only guaranteed the truth of her sexuality,” Dyer goes on, “it was also to define and justify that sexuality.”

Even as the culture at large celebrated Marilyn for her easy, organic sexiness, it also turned a suspicious eye to the question of just how natural it might be. Could anyone really be that natural? Or was Marilyn a product?

Churchwell found that after Niagara premiered, the press focused obsessively on the question of how Monroe developed her “walk” for a long, steady shot of her walking away from the camera, hips twitching. “Emmeline Snively, the head of Monroe’s former modeling agency, said her walk was due to weak ankles; Monroe’s acting coach, Lytess, claimed to have invented it; and gossip columnist Jimmy Starr said that Monroe shaved off part of one high heel so that her walk would become uneven,” Churchwell reports. (Marilyn’s eventual husband Arthur Miller would later assure the public that she just naturally walked like that.)

Other commentators fixated on the way Marilyn used makeup and cosmetics to put together her face. She wasn’t really a beauty, they insisted; she just painted herself to look like one. “She knew every trick of the makeup trade,” Marilyn’s longtime makeup artist Whitey Snyder said in one frequently cited quote. “She looked fantastic, of course, but it was all an illusion.”

For Marilyn’s early biographer Maurice Zolotow, her artificially bleached blonde hair brought her past the point of no return: Once she bleached her hair, he wrote, she became forever fake.

“A bleached blonde is not natural; therefore she cannot wear ordinary clothes or make-up, or be ordinary,” says Zolotow in his 1960 Marilyn Monroe. “She becomes, in a sense, an assembled product. To be artificially put together by modistes, couturiers, cosmeticians and coiffeurs, leads to a profound loss of one’s identity. Motion-picture actresses often lose all sense of who and what they really are. They are wraiths, reflections in a mirror, existing only in an audience’s reaction to them.”

This idea that Marilyn’s highly stylized, glamorous look doomed her is part and parcel of the Marilyn myth. The fable here is one in which an ordinary girl named Norma Jeane (sometimes misspelled Norma Jean) falls into the clutches of powerful studio executives, or the horrors of her own ambitions, or both. Together, they render her the extraordinary Marilyn Monroe. But unbeknownst to Norma Jeane, the creation of Marilyn will destroy her.

“Her biggest enemy was Marilyn Monroe,” explained the photographer George Barris, typically. “Her true self was little Norma Jeane.”

(Cue “Goodbye Norma Jeane.”)

As Churchwell points out, the Marilyn/Norma Jeane split is a cliché that consistently insists, bizarrely, upon its own profundity, as though it’s not so banal it’s the subject of an Elton John song. It is also an idea that seems to be specific to Marilyn, despite that many studio actors of her era used stage names, and many of them developed public personas discontinuous with their private lives.

“Judy Garland was similarly addicted to drugs and is popularly held to have been ‘destroyed’ by Hollywood, but ‘Judy Garland’ as a persona is not perceived to be pathologically false,” Churchwell writes, “nor, indeed, does anyone lament: ‘Goodbye Frances Gumm.’” What is part of a normal Hollywood story for other stars appears to be uniquely sinister for Marilyn.

What seems to worry us is the idea that Marilyn might be deceptive. Marilyn Monroe is supposed to be the world’s most desirable woman, in part because the ease and naturalness of her sensuality makes it feel safe to want her. “Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her,” wrote Norman Mailer in his 1973 book Marilyn: A Biography. But what if Marilyn is in fact constructed to deceive, to bewitch? What if when she makes you think it’s safe to want her, it’s a trap? Well then, whose trap? Who made her like that? Who made Norma Jeane into Marilyn Monroe?

Marilyn crouches by a wading pool in a zoo enclosure next to three penguins. She looks very young, and her hair is long, dark, and curly.
Marilyn Monroe when she was Norma Jeane Baker, playing with three penguins, circa 1941.
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

That question can be misogynistic: A woman with this much (sexual) power must be the product of a man’s imagination. It can also be asked with more feminist inflections. “What was she, this breathless, blonde supplicating symbol of sexuality, the lips anxiously offering themselves as the surrogate orifice, the whisper unconsciously expressing trepidation?” wrote the film critic Molly Haskell in her 1974 study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. “And who made her what she was?”

Either way, at the heart of the question is the unspoken belief that there is absolutely no way that Marilyn Monroe, that poor dumb blonde, is the author of Marilyn Monroe, that iconic goddess.

“MARILYN MONROE was a robot designed by The Studio.”

A woman with platinum blonde hair, dressed in a pink satin gown, leans against a doorway. Her eyes are half-closed, her mouth is half-open, and she is holding a record.
Ana de Armas in Blonde, playing Marilyn Monroe in Niagara.
Courtesy of Netflix

Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, the source material for Dominik’s Blonde, is clear on the question of whether Marilyn can be said to be the author of Marilyn: She isn’t.

In Blonde, Marilyn’s name is chosen for her by men who “ignored me speaking earnestly to each other as men do as if I wasnt there” (punctuation original). Her look is inflicted on her by men whose choices she goes along with. When her nude calendar photos leak, her agent screams at her, “‘Marilyn’ was mine, you dumb broad. ‘Marilyn’ was beautiful, and she was mine; you had no right to despoil her.”

“MARILYN MONROE was a robot designed by The Studio,” says a studio executive later in the novel. “Too fucking bad we couldn’t patent it.”

Yet Oates’s Norma Jeane is able to inhabit Marilyn fully. “Marilyn” is forced upon her, but within that role, Norma Jeane delivers a performance of bewitching radiance. Oates’s Norma Jeane is a great actress, with Marilyn as one of her standout roles.

Sometimes, “Marilyn” appears to emerge out of Norma Jeane as a trauma response: “Marilyn” is the reaction the camera has to Norma Jeane’s pain, panic, and dissociation. Oates offers readers their first glimpse of Marilyn when 16-year-old Norma Jeane’s first husband pressures her into putting on lingerie and letting him take pictures of her. Although Norma Jeane was “squirming in embarrassment” while the pictures were taken, Oates writes, once the photos were developed, her husband saw only “a bold, complicitous girl with a sly, teasing smile.” When Norma Jeane takes her famous calendar nudes, she simply removes herself from her body. The results are stunning.

Norma Jeane herself responds to “Marilyn” with disdain. “She’d disliked the name, which was concocted and confectionary,” Oates writes, “as she disliked her synthetic bleached-blonde hair and the Kewpie-doll clothes and mannerisms of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ (mincing steps in tight pencil skirts showing the very crack of her buttocks, a wriggling of her breasts as someone else in conversation might gesture with his hands).” Still, she’s surprised to find that Marilyn “had meant something to her.” She plays the role with genius.

Always, though, in Blonde, creating Marilyn is a torment and a torture: She must be summoned out of the mirror laboriously, moment by moment, like a demon being conjured. Norma Jeane associates Marilyn with submission, with sexual humiliation, with things happening to her body that she does not want.

“She could not recall how she’d gotten to this place, who brought her here,” thinks Norma Jeane, dissociating as JFK assaults her in a hotel suite. “Was it Marilyn? But why did Marilyn do such things? What did Marilyn want?”

In Oates’s Blonde, Marilyn/Norma Jeane is the trap that all postwar American women faced, writ large. Marilyn is the sex object women were told to aspire to be, bleached down to her pubic hairs, convinced she will find love if she can only embody the fantasy correctly, but instead humiliated and ridiculed. Norma Jeane is the ordinary woman ruined by the attempt to become Marilyn.

Blonde the movie, meanwhile, sweeps smoothly over the manufacture of Marilyn Monroe, the great star. We meet Norma Jeane first as a child and then as a young actress on the come-up, and pause only to depict her rape by the head of the studio who gives her her first break. Like Oates’s Marilyn, Dominik’s Marilyn is Norma Jeane’s trauma response, but here Norma Jeane is responding to the abuse of her mother when she begins to embody Marilyn. It takes the additional abuse of a series of powerful men to push Marilyn into being. Whether Marilyn is Norma Jeane’s idea becomes irrelevant in this version of the story: The point is that Marilyn is, as always, a path for Norma Jeane’s self-destruction.

If Oates’s Marilyn was a cipher for postwar American women, Dominik’s Marilyn is a cipher for an abused child turned self-destructive adult. Norma Jeane is the hurt, fatherless child inside of a sexpot who has been designed to rain more hurt down upon her. When we see her act, she does it brilliantly, but Norma cringes away from the version of herself she sees onscreen. “That’s not me,” she says.

In both versions, Blonde posits a Marilyn who is endlessly humiliated, endlessly broken. Her body has never been under her control, and neither has her image. That she occasionally found a way to build art out of what was done to her is besides the point: The point is that Marilyn Monroe is a grotesquerie built on the corpse of Norma Jeane.

In The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell argues that in the end, all the Marilyn Monroe stories come down to dead bodies. That’s where the biographies and the novels and the movies begin and end: with the thrilling, titillating idea that sex symbol Marilyn Monroe became a dead body lying in a morgue. “The real Marilyn Monroe is a corpse, pure body, and utterly powerless,” Churchwell writes. “The focus on her naked sexual body has shifted, and we are left gazing upon her dissected dead body.”

“I can make my face do anything.”

Marilyn is pictured in black-and-white, looking away from the camera as though lost in thought.
Marilyn Monroe rides in the back of a car with producer Dick Shepherd on March 30, 1955, in New York City.
Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Andrew Dominik, Blonde’s director, recently described Marilyn to a journalist as “this huge cultural thing in a load of movies that nobody really watches.” This statement is untrue on its face (even choosing to discount the bulk of Marilyn’s filmography, Some Like It Hot remains a beloved classic and perennial pick for one of the greatest movies ever made), but Dominik appears to be trying clumsily to get at an idea that does have some truth in it.

Marilyn probably is more famous and more iconic for her image than for any one individual acting performance. That’s not because she wasn’t a great actress who delivered a series of strong and varied performances across a tragically short career, but because her image on its own is so strong, and remains so strong. As Churchwell said, Marilyn isn’t finished yet. So I would like to propose that it is worthwhile to take that image seriously as an artistic work.

What happens if we imagine a Marilyn Monroe who was the author of her own persona? Might we have room to imagine Marilyn building her star image not out of self-hatred and internalized misogyny, not dumbly obeying sadistic and powerful men, but for its own sake, and for hers?

In the documentary Marilyn on Marilyn, Marilyn matter-of-factly tells an interviewer the story of how she got her stage name. In her version of events, the choice is a collaboration. “I wanted the name Monroe, which was my mother’s maiden name,” she says. “He [Ben Lyon, a talent agent at 20th Century Fox] always said, you know, I reminded him of Jean Harlow and Marilyn Miller. He said, well, Marilyn goes better with Monroe.” Here, Marilyn isn’t inflicted on Norma Jeane. The name “Marilyn Monroe” is part of a creative choice, one Marilyn herself helped to make.

Marilyn’s longtime makeup artist, Whitey Snyder, tended to say the same thing about the establishment of the iconic Marilyn look: that it was a collaboration, and that Marilyn was intimately involved. “Slowly but surely we changed the eyebrows and the eye shadow and things like that,” Snyder says in Richard Buskin’s Blonde Heat, describing the period around the filming of Niagara, “and the look was established.”

The dress designer Billy Travilla quotes Marilyn as saying, “I can make my face do anything, same as you can take a white board and build from that and make a painting.” Travilla thinks Marilyn was being narcissistic in her claim, but as Churchwell notes, the boast seems to be less about Marilyn’s beauty and more about her craftsmanship.

“Her body was her work of art,” writes Churchwell. “She knew it was her instrument (likening it once to a violin), but if she was at once artist and work of art, she lived in a world that could only let the beautiful woman be picture, not painter; object, not subject.”

Marilyn even talked about her own sex appeal in the way an artist might, with detachment and a close attention to the ironic effect she wanted to achieve. Graham McCann’s scholarly study of Marilyn quotes her as saying about Mae West, “I learned a few tricks from her — that impression of laughing at, or mocking, her own sexuality.”

So let us imagine, then, that Marilyn knew what she was doing. Imagine that she did it on purpose. Imagine that powerful men took control over her body (because Marilyn, like all of us, lived in a world in which powerful men do so) and that Marilyn struggled with depression and self-loathing, and yet that these dark facts do not define either Marilyn herself or her work.

Imagine that Marilyn Monroe was an artist and that her star image was her great work of art: an icon of sex, radiant with joy and shining with the possibilities of danger and tragedy. Imagine what happens if we do her that courtesy.

Would she stop being a corpse of herself at last?

Clarification, October 17, 11:30 am ET: This story has been changed to reflect that the lyric to the Elton John song “Candle in the Wind” was not written by Elton John.

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