Can we leave Marilyn Monroe alone already? !

The theme of The 2022 Met Gala was the golden age, so Kim Kardashian came dressed as Marilyn Monroe. To be more specific, Kardashian wore the exact crystal dress Monroe wore six decades ago when she serenaded President Kennedy on his birthday. The dress is a real piece of fashion history, although you wouldn’t necessarily have known it when Kardashian wore it. On top of that having nothing to do with the theme of the event, Kardashian styled it with slicked-back blonde hair and platform shoes to make up for the height difference between her and Monroe. She also put on a great show telling vogue that she lost 16 pounds in about three weeks to fit in, a process that involved wearing a sauna suit twice a day and eating only “the cleanest vegetables and proteins.”

The dress belongs to fashion’s most beloved archivist, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Orlando, Florida. They paid $4.8 million for it at auction and usually keep the dress in a climate-controlled safe. Since the dress couldn’t be altered to fit Kardashian, it didn’t cover her back, which she kept hidden with a fur stole. Kardashian explained that she interpreted the Golden Age theme to mean “golden glamour” and “the most American thing you could think of,” which to her meant Monroe.

According to Kardashian (she then changed into a replica dress for the rest of the evening.) Lili Reinhart took to social media to condemn Kardashian for promoting an unsafe diet to fit into the dress, which she later took down. Fashion writers had their thoughts on the choice, as did Kardashian fans and detractors. When I saw it, I just remember sighing and thinking, ‘God, they really aren’t going to let this woman rest, are they?’

Seems like there have been a lot of Marilyn Monroes in the world lately. Andrew Dominik’s next biopic Blond garnered much of its pre-release hype around the fact that it’s going to be rated NC-17 thanks to the sexual and violent content. Some TikTokers have gone viral for trying to claim that Monroe was asexual based on her diary entries (Monroe’s diary and personal papers were published in 2010 and many are readily available online.) Fresh off the Met Gala news, JC Penney announced a limited-edition collection inspired by the Monroe’s own style, launched in collaboration with Authentic Brands Group, the owner of the Monroe domain. The group’s brand portfolio also includes the estates of Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali and the still living David Beckham.

Authentic Brands Group acquired the Monroe intellectual property after it was sold to them by Anna Strasberg, the third wife of legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg. When Monroe died, she left everything to her beloved friend and mentor, with whom she worked at the Actors Studio. Monroe’s will stipulated that Lee Strasberg “distribute them, at his sole discretion, to my friends, colleagues, and those to whom I am devoted”. This never happened, although Lee Strasberg did not sell any of his things at auction. Upon his death, Anna Strasberg assumed responsibility for the estate, which had been in storage for many years. She quickly put most of those items up for auction through Christie’s, including this dress worn by Kardashian. Soon, Monroe’s personal effects of all kinds—from makeup to letters to clothes—became popular and common sights at auction houses. You could even buy a maternity dress that she wore. In 2016, another auction was held at the Strasberg estate which included Monroe’s spoons (sold for $1,062.50), a bottle of prescription pills ($8,125) and her SAG card ($2,240) .

You’re more likely to find Monroe’s face or name on just about anything these days, thanks to Authentic Brands Group. You can buy Monroe jewelry and clothing. Her face has been used to sell perfume, hairspray, Coca-Cola and lottery games. Louis Vuitton “hired” her for campaigns. And yes, there are also NFTs. So many NFTs. It all hinges on the hyper-specific but pervasive image of Marilyn Monroe as the “sex symbol,” the ultimate beauty, the blonde bombshell who still inspires imitators in the 2020s.

As is often the case with celebrities who died tragically and before their time, Monroe is horribly easy to project our own ideas and preconceptions. Its image is conveniently flattened into one that is easy to sell, consume and perpetuate. When you slap Monroe’s face on an ad, the message is simple: she’s glamorous and so are we for using her to sell our shit. She’s not the only late-night celeb this has happened to. Look at the branding of James Dean as the eternal thug or Steve McQueen as the fast-driving bad boy. The deceased singers are now strangely expected to have hologram tours to keep audiences satiated. But the particular way Monroe is sold for parts long after she ceases to be able to make those choices for herself reflects the cruel ways in which she has been misunderstood and exploited in her lifetime.

Monroe fought hard against the stuffy guy Hollywood put her in. She was constantly dismissed as a dumb blonde, someone to ogle but not really listen to. Her acting skills were constantly ignored, even by her creepy husbands. An ambitious and talented woman who loved books, survived a sexual assault and suffered immense chronic pain from endometriosis is rarely mentioned as such. What she is thrilled with is the sexy girl in the white dress. She’s glamorous, as Kim Kardashian said. The most American glamour. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how a woman who made her fortune commodifying her heavily modified body would think of Monroe in such restrictive terms.

Stardom is rooted in the notion of selling a dream to the public, of positioning yourself as special in a way that the majority of us are not. It breeds many toxic ideals, from grudges to entitlement, and it takes a lot to temper those forces. Monroe could never satiate the fans, the studios, the men she loved, or the filmmakers who doubted her. In death, any semblance of control she had over her situation disappeared once people realized how much money there was to be made by feeding this impossibly hungry beast. Her movies are still being watched, but the way we primarily see Monroe is as a body, as an illustration of sex, and unfortunately that’s not going to stop anytime soon. I doubt that Authentic Brands Group would consider licensing some schlocks based on Monroe’s intellectual activities.

There’s that famous quote often attributed to Monroe that goes, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” It is pasted on many mugs, Instagram quotes and “Live Laugh Love” style posters. Monroe never really said it. We have no evidence or attribution to suggest she ever made such a comment. Of course, we’ve rarely let the truth get in the way of a good sale or viral moment.

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Kayleigh is an editor and managing editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to his podcast, The Hollywood Read.

Header image source: Noam Galai // GC Images via Getty Images