Marilyn Monroe's Journey to Blonde (and how it reflected the male gaze)

Monroe in 1948, when she was still
relatively unknown.
Everyone knows Marilyn Monroe as the most iconic blonde in film history. But how many people know the journey she took to get there? What we don't know about celebrities, like Marilyn, can pose a real problem.

I learned a lot of what follows from my favorite podcast, "You Must Remember This", which is currently running a series of episodes titled "Dead Blondes". The topic brings context to many of the women who, ironically, still symbolize glamour (something very different than beauty) as something aspirational.

It also sheds light on the juxtaposition of many of their harsh and untimely deaths...which are not at all unrelated to their carefully constructed images.

For better or worse, I spent my entire childhood watching hours and hours of classic film. One memorable summer, sometime in the early nineties, my oldest sister made it a point to rent classics from the library every weekend. She used VCR to VCR editing to dub her own private collection. (Video piracy. Shocking, I know.)

That was the year I saw my first Marilyn Monroe movie, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". (On Netflix now.)

We were more of an Audrey Hepburn/Judy Garland household. All I knew about Marilyn was what I heard over conversations at the dinner table. How Madonna copied her in the video for the song "Material Girl". How she was beautiful and tragic. Like so many others, I knew Marilyn's image (via Andy Warhol's art) long before I knew the identity attached to it.

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" surprised me. Monroe was smarter, funnier and far more talented than I was expecting. Her character and performance very directly addressed her image. She was as much a reflection of the desires of American men as she was anything else.

I hope this blog does two things:

1. Convinces you to listen to "You Must Remember This" and watch one of the classic movies it deconstructs.

2. Makes you think twice about who you idolize, why and how you came to idolize them.

Stop Number One: The photo below is of Marilyn Monroe in 1944. It was taken years after she was first surrendered to an orphanage, years after she was passed from guardian to guardian and just a few years after marrying the son of a neighbor at the age of 16...yet again for the purposes of transferring legal guardianship.

This was when she worked in a factory during World War II.

Here she is on her lunch break the same day, where she was asked to pose for a "sweater picture".

Stop Number Two: Here's Marilyn on one of the many magazine covers she was able to book as a model after those lunch break photos started to get her attention. 

These types of photos, pin-ups, were to the forties and fifties what greek and Roman statues were to their day. Idols. Works of art meant to be revered. (By the time she posed for these, Marilyn had also undergone a few minor cosmetic surgeries to her nose and jawline.)

Stop Number Three: After years of hard work as an extra and model, Marilyn went blonde in 1948 at the urging of a mentor.

Two years later, in 1950, after excessive bleach damage, Marilyn went short, arriving at her most iconic look. Short was not a problem thanks to the styles and fads of the fifties. In fact, going short was the makeover move of that decade. 

If you know your film history, you may remember the iconic scenes from Audrey Hepburn's seminal classics "Roman Holiday" and "Sabrina", where going from girlish, long "horse" ponytails to chic short cuts symbolized a transition into womanhood. (Aforementioned haircut scenes linked via the film's titles.)

This brings us to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". Monroe's character, Lorelei Lee, is in love with a wealthy nerd archetype. She is often frequently of being a gold-digger in the film. In many ways, she is a gold-digger. 

The plot centers around the double standards of artifice. It asks the question, is it more authentic for men to engage in identity or gender politics, but manipulative in a negative way when women do it? 

The film is full of relevant quotes on what it means to be disingenuous and superficial. But this one, in particular, sums up the film best...

Marilyn Monroe, like so many other iconic blondes of the classic film era, died young and alone.