The human mind is prone to working in symbols—we see an image and we associate it with the larger part it represents. Brand-name advertising works off of this model. If we see golden arches, we know there’s a hamburger nearby. When we hear a certain sequence of notes on television, we know that a certain cell phone carrier is being advertised. When we see a picture of Marilyn Monroe, we think of a rather naive blonde with a soft voice. There’s a reason that certain celebrities are labeled as an icon or sex “symbol” and it has to do with the repetition of that image that triggers associations in our brains.
Marilyn Monroe understood how to make a brand stick. Her platinum blonde hair was a deliberate choice on her part, as was her whisper-soft voice and beauty mark. The dresses she wore to public events tended to be white, which emphasized the color of her strikingly blonde hair. The same mannerisms she uses in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would appear in interviews she would give for Life magazine. She even suggested one of the more famous lines in the film [“I can be smart when it’s important”] herself, showing that she was not just aware of her image, but knew how to control it.
When does a person, a celebrity, stop being famous and start being an icon? How many times do you need to promote your image to the masses before it is ingrained into the pop culture consciousness of the people?
Before seeing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the first time, I could summarize the film fairly simply: Marilyn Monroe plays a sexy but airheaded blonde and sings about being best friends with diamonds at some point. I knew of the Monroe Iconography even if I had never seen Monroe in a starring role before.
She has, after all, been appropriated by every generation since hers on posters, purses, and pieces of pop art. That is the true nature of good iconography: the repetition of image creates a motif. It provides its own interpretation.
What I was not prepared for was the magnetism Monroe exhibits throughout the film and I cannot attribute it solely to her beauty. She is also fascinating to watch, stealing almost every shot she is in. Her expressions, her mannerisms, her humor [physical as well as verbal], and her commanding powers in front of the camera are difficult to describe and intriguing to watch.
But where does that power come from? Is it the icon, or the woman? It’s hard for me to tell as I watch her performance so many years removed from her initial stardom. Have I been brainwashed by her brand, manipulated by her iconography into associating her with something more grand? Is it all a marketing plan that has extended through the pop culture consciousness of generations and tricked my mind into seeing platinum blonde and thinking “celebrity?”
Shit….isn’t this how cults work?
Should I be questioning this need to believe in the higher power of Marilyn Monroe, or whoever she truly was behind the red-lipped smile? Should I be concerned that the doctrine of her belief, her sex symbol status and innocent naivete was already ingrained into my cultural awareness before the film had begun?
Before watching the film, I had no idea that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a musical comedy. I was uncertain of who Jane Russell was, or what the general plot of the film would be. I did not even know Howard Hawks had directed it. But I knew who Marilyn Monroe’s character was before she even appeared or sang a single note.
Is this what drinking the Kool-Aid feels like? And should I be wanting more? They don’t call it a “cult of celebrity” for nothing, after all.
Watching the film and separating the legacy and the expectation from the reality of who Monroe was seems almost impossible at this point. Instead, all that is left is the perception and the fantasy, which is perhaps what Monroe wanted all along. As the old song goes, “we all lose our charm in the end,” but diamonds never lose their shape. An image repeated on celluloid, over and over again for all time, maintains its identity long after the reel ends, and the icons captured on that reel have a way of burning themselves onto our collective memories—sometimes before we’ve even watched the first frame.