Marilyn Monroe, More Than A Sex Symbol


Marilyn Monroe reading

Marilyn Monroe reading

Marilyn Monroe would have turned 88 on June 1, had she lived. And while her star rose in the middle of the last century, she remains the ultimate sex symbol even today.

Yet she yearned to be so much more.

Her beauty masked her intellect, which Karina Eileraas portrays over at Ms.

Insatiably curious about art, literature and philosophy, she routinely carried books to movie sets. Auctioned by Christie’s in 1999, Monroe’s library encompassed a range of works that spoke to her longing to achieve intellectual and spiritual transformation. From James Joyce’s Ulysses to F. Matthias Alexander’s Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Tolstoy, Twain and Gibran’s Jesus, many of the books evidenced Monroe’s active engagement in the form of underlining, pencil marks and marginalia.

And she was astutely aware of both the costs and privileges of her objectification, as she mused,

That’s the trouble: A sex symbol is a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of!

Feminist, Gloria Steinem writes about a chance meeting with her. Back when Gloria was a student and Marilyn was a star, they both ended up at the celebrated Actors Studio, where students were acting out the highbrow plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O. Neil and the like. Marilyn wore a shapeless sweater, a scarf over her hair, and no makeup as she sat in the back and watched. Steinem says:

She was a student, too, a pupil of Lee Strasburg, leader of the Actors Studio and American guru of the Stanislavski method, but her status as a movie star and sex symbol seemed to keep her from being taken seriously even there. She was allowed to observe, but not do scenes with her colleagues.

In a grab at respect Marilyn eventually persuaded Laurence Olivier to direct her. But the accolades never came.

Marilyn Monroe, lost a in book.

Marilyn Monroe, lost a in book.

Later, she married Arthur Miller, perhaps hoping that some of his respect might rub off on her. It didn’t. Steinem points out, “Women don’t gain serious status by sexual association.”

Still, the marriage took courage since Miller had been labeled a “subversive” and was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Later, in a stand against racism when a career-making LA nightclub refused to book Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn promised the owner she’d sit at a front table every night that Ella performed. Ms. Fitzgerald was grateful, saying she never had to play small clubs again.

In her last interview Ms. Monroe asked a reporter to end with this:

What I really want to say: that what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers… please don’t make me a joke. In the interview with what I believe.

When women, young and old, become obsessed with looks, thinking hotness is all, maybe we can remember Marilyn and what she has to teach us.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 28, 2014, in body image, feminism, objectification, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. I have always liked and respected marilyn monroe because of her strong desire to be respected and accepted for more than just a sex symbol. Even in society today women who are pretty or sexy are basically looked at as just that. I have never once heard a man say wow she’s pretty..i bet she has a great personally. Instead they say wow she’s love to sleep with her. I wonder if society will ever change this. Its not fair to be judged based off of your looks.

  2. Personally, i have always been fond of Marilyn. Not because of her status of sex symbol but because i really think she went through a lot in her early life and was mostly able to get through it. She was also very empowered about her body image, which i always admired. Nowadays, women are expected be a stick, but marilyn was curvy just like a normal woman. I find it incredibly frustrating that it is so hard for people to move past the sex symbol status and focus on her as an intellectual person.

  3. I am a huge fan of Marilyn, not because of who she was but because of the influence that she has had on women. Through my years in high school and college and struggling with body issues Marilyn was someone that reminded me that my body was beautiful. One of the most famous pictures of Marilyn features her on the beach in white bathing suit. By all means Marilyn is not a stick in the picture, she has curves and no thigh gap, yet she is so beautiful. Marilyn shows girls that you don’t have to typical models body in order to feel beautiful. Marilyn has inspired me to love my body no matter what shape or size. It is sad to see how much changed has been made in terms of what a beautiful body is. How I wish things could go back to the way they were but the past is the past. Marilyn shouldn’t be viewed as just a sex symbol, but instead an inspirational figure to women.

  4. It is interesting to see progression in feminism as time goes on. There have been major improvements in women rights since the 50s, as evident in the way our “sex symbols” act. Marilyn Monroe was not popularly known for her feminist views because she was not very vocal about her opinions, which was a dissenting opinion at the time. Now a days, we have Beyonce and Lady Gaga who are sex symbols, but are also vocal about their views; one focusing on feminism, and another focusing on LGBT rights. We are at a point in openness and acceptance where certain male celebrities endorses feminism as well.

    Progress is being made.

    • I don’t see Gaga as all that progressive. She just jumped on the bandwagon and targeted her music to the LGBT community because that is a large part of her fan base. She’s an attention seeker like most celebs of her Ilk.

  5. I feel that it is one thing to use your looks to make money if it is what you are comfortable with but having respect from your friends and family is what it is really all about. I learned from a very young age that it is not about what the world thinks of you but instead what the people you care about thinks of you, as long as you know they care for you and are full of good intention and selflessness. Everyone will judge you, everyone, but it is only the people that love you who’s judgements really matter at all. It is something that everyone needs to learn in order to be a happy healthy individual, that not caring about what the rest of the world thinks of you is the key to being the most whole person you can be.

  6. Super interesting. Everybody knows who Marilyn is and a little about her story, but I have never heard this about her. It seems like the only thing that really pops up about her recently, is that she was a larger dress size and that she was thick by our standards but was still a sex symbol. If you search “ marilyn dress size” you will get a ton of pages about what size she was, if she was fat or hot, ect… Ive heard it all before, but never once read about the intellectual side of Marilyn. I think its very very important that people shine a light on this side of Marilyn becase it shows how much more there was to Marilyn Monroe. It shows a different side of Marilyn that people might never have known about. She wanted everyone to know she’s not just a pretty picture.

  7. Marilyn Monroe has always been a role model of mine for this exact reason. She was so beautiful but she was also so intelligent and hardworking. It’s unfortunate that in history women can only be identified as one or the other. I think this is an issue that feminists have been contending with a lot lately, whether or not a woman can play into societies ideals about beauty and still be a feminist. This argument comes off a lot in the form of the debate over whether to wear make up or not. I’ve come down strongly in favor of self-expression through make up, but I see the point that they try to make. I think Marilyn Monroe really brought this point home. She expressed herself through her art, and became very popular, but used it for good.

  8. Marilyn have been the criteria of a sexy woman, and the only image I have from her is the picture of a woman wearing short dress, full-heavy makeup and making such an attractive face. It was very interesting that Marilyn Monroe hated to be considered as a sexy symbol. I think mass media or the press tried to make her as a sexy symbol by exaggerating to some extent in order to earn money or use it in commercial ways. Although, for women, it would be good to be looked pretty or sexy, not only appearance, but also internal attractions like having own thoughts or being independent herself is important.

  9. I don’t know a ton about Marilyn Monroe but I have heard her story many times. From what I do know about her I have gained an appreciated for her outlooks regarding being a women. However from the quotes and stories I have heard, not once have I ever heard any reference to her having a love for books and a range of intellectual interests. It doesn’t shock me that the press didn’t think to interview her about her intellect since she was associated with being a sex symbol, but it does surprise me that in the years since she died more have not brought it up. It’s nice to finally hear a different side of Marilyn Monroe because it shows that there is more to women than what you see. The ultimate sex symbol liked to read and that’s really cool. Unfortunately she lived in a time where smart and sexy did not correlate but hopefully now future generations of women can grow up to appreciate her beauty while also knowing that she had a brain too. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Although Marilyn was and still is one of the ultamit sex symbols, I actually did know before that she strived to be known as more intellectual. Many women even now post some of her quotes on social media. Lately I see this mostly from men, they will post other things on social media saying why would you quote Marilyn Monroe? She was a hoe not a philosopher. Yes, she did live up to reputation in some ways but I’m sure if those people also read this, they might see her slightly different.

  11. Often times when the name Marilyn Monroe pops up in conversation or the media, the immediate image of a soft-voiced blonde laying down on a piano, singing came to mind. However, a few years ago, I wondered how such an individual could gain so much fame and stardom by merely being seen as a sex symbol and the supposed mistress of President Kennedy. After reading a bit more about the life of Marilyn Monroe, I came to much of the same conclusions as listed in this article. What we tend to forget is that the general image that society saw of Ms. Monroe was not her as an individual, but rather an object of sex; a thing.
    Unfortunately, even during the present day a woman’s physical appearance can lead to the masking of her inner beauty and intellect. In such cases where women are objectified, society is lead to believe that because of their sexual objectification, they most probably lack the intellect and all they care about is anything dealing with sexuality. Likewise, society’s inaccurate beliefs may lead to such women having their intellect masked for reasons such as either it will not increase their fame and/or media attention, which leads to decreased profits for various individuals and organizations, or they are shy to portray their inner beauty and intellect for the fear of possibly being laughed at or not taken seriously. In any case, Ms. Monroe says it best when she states that if she was to be a symbol of something, it might as well have been sex instead of the other symbols which existed.
    In the present day, I often compare Kim Kardashian as this era’s Marilyn Monroe. Commonly viewed as a mere sexual object, most individuals when reminded of Kardashian automatically assume that (although scripted television does help my defense here), that she is an ignorant, naïve individual who is merely known for her infamous sexual exploitation. Although in some cases this may be accurate, it is not entirely true. As an Armenian American just like Kardashian, we often have community fund raisers and events for our motherland and culture. Often times, Kardashian is present at such events and is shockingly quite an intelligent and eloquent speaker, unlike what we usually see on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” However, just as in the case of Monroe, this aspect of Kardashian is merely a thing which she symbolizes and has chosen, however, most of it is done for profitable gain, which often times will very well mask such an objectified individuals intellect.

  12. I can’t really say that I know much about Marilyn, but I can say that every time her name has come up I can see mens jaws drop and swoon at the idea of having someone like Marilyn. And women simply shaking their heads or comparing themselves to her and hoping to one day resembler her in any way. Personally, I do think Marilyn was a gorgeous woman, and I feel that by everything I have read that if she stopped being this symbol than she would not still be famous today. This is a bit sad because as much as we are called names for using our figures to attain what we want in life, we get joked about when we use the knowledge we hold in our minds. In the end, I feel that she gave in some way feminism a great start by helping woman want to fight more for what they want in life and what they believe in. We can be quick to judge, but at the end of the day if woman can sleep at night because of what they did to gain respect and to accomplish their dreams than who are we to judge.

    • Then again, if we blame men for objectifying women, what about the women who perpetuate this objectification? I mean she took advantage of the ‘patriarchal power structure’ to attain fame and popularity, so it could be argued she also did little to help feminism. Of course if not her it would be somebody else. I see her as a complex individual, tragic in some ways, but no feminist hero.

      • No she’s not. She’s a great example if the trap women fall into when they objectify themselves — which I’ve written about before.

  13. Christine Cortez

    I have always viewed Marilyn as a symbol, however not a sex symbol. For myself, I have always yearned to be skinny and to have the perfect body. Growing up in an oriental community I always found myself to be curvy with wider hips and bigger bones than my peers. After reading about Marilyn monroe in my early teen years, I began to feel better about myself. 60 years ago, being curvy was considered beautiful. Not like todays generation, we feel that we have to look really skinny in order to find beauty in ourselves. I’ve always found it hard to become as skinny as the models we see in magazines and eventually accepted the fact that I am built differently, just as every woman is. There are so many different body types, and Marilyn showed women that you need to love who you are and be comfortable in your own body. The pictures that I have seen of her in a bikini or lingerie have never given me the impression of a sex symbol, but an idol to look up to and feel beautiful no matter what we look like.

  14. Yes Marilyn is seen as a symbol: a symbol of idealised artificial American beauty. As Norma Jean, she was rather plain, unassuming, but as Marilyn, she was very much just a symbol of ideal feminine beauty of the 1950s. Yet she was a lot more intelligent than the breathy blonde bombshells she played on screen, and of course could not help but be aware of her objectification. When young girls or women today have posters of her or idolise her, they do so for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, while some might look up to her as a person I think many just idealise her the same way they do sex symbols today.

    • I think you’re right. I’m hoping to pull the blinders away from those who think that being a sex object will be satisfying or make them happy.

      • Yes, it’s interesting, too, when you compare her with some of the other famous actresses of the era. She was sort of the trope of the tragic blonde sex symbol, from a troubled background who slept her way to the fame. At least that’s how it’s usually portrayed. Jean Harlow was an earlier example. Whereas others like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, while certainly beautiful women which many women aspired to be and many men dreamed of being with, seemed to have more respect. Their roles also tended to be more rounded and three-dimensional than most of the roles Monroe played, often as a rather clueless ditz, a gold-digger.etc. When we think of her we often think of certain famous images, her pose, and the infamous shot of her skirt being blown up in the ‘Seven Year Itch’, an image to project on. While not ugly, I wouldn’t say Norma Jean had the type of conventional Hollywood natural beauty of the time:

        Which makes her sort of the prototype of the manufactured star. Publicly I think she became very much an image, a sex symbol, and she probably felt that while it brought her tremendous fame it sort of belittled her as a person.

      • Yes. And thanks for the link.

  15. It always seems to be a catch 22. Women want to be taken seriously for their intelligence but they also want to be beautiful. Society seems to have a stereotype that a woman can only be one or the other.

  16. Marissa Gonzales

    I have always been a fan of Marilyn Monroe not because she was a “sex” symbol but because she had a lot to share as a woman. I have read many books about her and even though she was trying to be a role model. The things she said made her different from all women she wasn’t afraid to show off her voluptuous body, this is the attention she craved because it’s all she ever known. She did have a lot to teach woman, like being okay with the body you’re in. She stood against racism and help out ella fitzgerald, she hoped to gain respect by marrying someone who is well respected but still that wasn’t enough. Society looks down on her because of her sexual appeal and her affairs but we should look up to her for being different because now days that’s how many people get famous. Kim Kardashian for example basically built her fame upon her sex tape and many people look up to her. Miss Monroe actually stood for things, and still never gained the respect she deserved.

  17. That’s the trouble: A sex symbol is a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of!

    Exactly. Such a wonderful woman and such a great opening to the issues that keep coming up today in regards to women and society.

    Thanks for this article.

  18. ” needed it to feel like she mattered (not judging, speaking as someone who knows what that is like)… and how deadly that can be… the loss wasn’t just her life”

    That sure didn’t help. But I thought I read or heard that Marilyn Monroe was bi-polar and I think clinically depressed which lead to her suicide I believe. Later on in life she was discovered to have some type of mental disorder. During that time it wasn’t really recognized or something treated. The pressue she felt probably didn’t help though.

    • Being objectified probably didn’t cause her suicide. Still, she didn’t like it and wanted to be seen as more. So like you said, it may not have helped.

  19. I obviously didn’t know her personally but when I see her I get the sense this was a woman who, as much as she hated being objectified, needed it to feel like she mattered (not judging, speaking as someone who knows what that is like)… and how deadly that can be… the loss wasn’t just her life but everything beyond her looks that she was.

    • When she was a child her parents ignored her. She thought she was invisible. When she grew up her body gave her visibility. But later, she realized it was just one-dimensional.

      • Agreed. It’s just too bad that the world wasn’t able/ready to see all that she was even when she finally could. Undoubtedly very frustrating.

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