The most enduring female icon of the 20th century was not a politician, religious figure, scientist or major sports figure. It was a woman who represented both the image of woman’s vulnerability as well as the new and emerging one. It was a woman who took chances and strove towards independence, yet struggled with stereotypes defining a female as having definition only within a specific and formalized relationship with a man.
About Marilyn Monroe there are many stories, photographs and speculations. She was that sort of person difficult to categorize, because her private complexities, coupled with the historical stereotypes of women, mingled in the imaginations of both men and women in the 50′s and 60′s as the female ideal began to change in the United States.
She was born in 1926, emerged as a woman child during those early post World War II years. Men came home from the military with hope for a new life, for domestic life with the perfect partner. Betty Grable, an actress who was one of the Hollywood sex symbols of the era, had been pasted inside men’s lockers everywhere. But that Grable image was not as captivating, and long-lasting, as Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean, whose screen innocence mixed with sensuality, made her a favorite of both men and women and created an icon that continues to fascinate people the world over.
Marilyn had that quality of screen presence folks maintained was different from any other Hollywood actress. Her skin glowed in the light of the camera. Her smile was provocative but not the kind that told women, “Stay back. I’m taking over.” Instead this sex symbol became a standard bearer for women to strive to have an enticing look but also to find an independent direction that did not depend on the male leading the way. Women could see Marilyn’s struggles with finding the right man. Marilyn was in the cross-hairs of change for women who hoped to find their own path in life, while struggling against the old stereotypes of what a real woman was and wasn’t. She stepped into the crevices of the American conscience and proclaimed the female body to be celebrated. Women learned they could express themselves uniquely. Knowing no one could expect to be that glittering screen image like Marilyn, most women saw her image as representing the ultimate goal of being beautiful and independent, yet maintaining vulnerability that made men want to step forward and lend a hand.
The stories of Marilyn and her difficult childhood, her emotional ups and downs, and her need to be accepted were tales with whom both men and women could identify. Would those hurts continue? Would she survive them and continue on into maturity, as she developed both her acting skills and ego strength? The questions were unanswered for Marilyn Monroe, that little Norma Jean who tossed aside inhibitions to forge a new path for women, as she died at age 36. And she died amid the speculation that she was struggling with growing older in front of the camera and believing that her beauty was faded and her love life in turmoil by killing herself in her bedroom in 1962. The 50th anniversary of her death is memorialized this week.
Norma Jean was that lost little girl, the innocent woman, leaving the unspoken message that being just a cardboard cut-out of a female was insufficient for living a full life. She had feet in both the old and new worlds of women, whereas those women who came later, like Allie McGraw and Diane Keaton presented the girl-next-door personality with wholesome good looks that was much different than the smoldering images of Marilyn. But it was that lost little blonde, girl child with the wide-eyed innocence and provocative ways, that remains the most fixed image of the 20th century woman that continues long past Marilyn Monroe’s death and will likely will continue for years to come.