Marilyn Monroe was one of America’s most well-known stars to come out of Hollywood. Though the peak of her career was in the 1950s and 1960s, Marilyn Monroe’s stardom has lasted until even today. Almost half a century later both her name and image are still easily recognizable, a sign of how well her legacy has endured. This long-lasting history makes Marilyn Monroe an excellent case study for the phenomenon of stardom. Film theorist Richard Dyer, in his essay Stars, describes various aspects of stars and stardom, and provides ways to analyze them. Marilyn Monroe’s career provides us with several examples of a real application of Dyer’s star theory. Her own status as a star is a microcosm for the stardom phenomenon as a whole.
One of the first components of Dyer’s theory is to examine the star as a construction. The star figure is not actually real, and is instead artificially produced both on and off screen by studios, directors, and actors. The platinum blonde sex symbol that appears throughout Hollywood films is not the real Marilyn Monroe, but rather a mere portrayal of her star persona. Monroe’s persona was deliberately constructed and promoted throughout her career. In fact, her real name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, which she used throughout her early career as a pin-up model. It wasn’t until her first contract with Fox that she picked the stage name Marilyn Monroe. Her star persona developed through the films she performed in, playing characters such as “the girl” and “the blonde.” These roles highlighted her beauty and established her sense of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” These qualities and appeals to the male gaze eventually became defining features of Monroe’s stardom. To complement the on-screen construction, Monroe’s appearances in off-screen settings also perpetuated her star persona. In TV and magazine interviews, she presented herself as naive and unashamed about her natural sexuality. Through the combination of both on- and off-screen construction, Monroe developed as a star, known as an American sex symbol. According to Dyer, stardom is somethign that is carefully constructed and promoted. Had this construction process not occurred, Monroe may have remained Norma Mortenson and her career gone in a completely different direction. Marilyn Monroe, as a star, is the product of construction.
Dyer also wrote that stars can be studied as commodities. They are, according to him, commercial products that can be sold and consumed to generate studio profits. For example, Monroe appeared in advertisements for various products and helped increase their value and appeal. Additionally, many of her films were star vehicles — films written specifically for her to appear in. Audiences weren’t necessarily coming to the theater to see the film, but merely as an opportunity to see and consume the star image of Marilyn Monroe. Not only did Monroe contribute directly to a studio’s bottom line, but she also promoted consumption and consumerism in general. In her interviews, and film appearances, Monroe represented capitalism and the importance of spending money as a signifier of success. In these ways, Monroe as a star fits right in with Dyer’s theory of the star as a commodity.
Finally, Dyer has written that stardom can be studied in the context of ideology. Stars can produce and promote ideals that appear throughout the rest of culture as well. In a cyclical fashion, trends in culture contribute to the creation of stars who in turn promote and reinforce those same cultural trends. This is most apparent in Monroe’s status as a sex symbol for Americans. She was a “household name” equated with the idea of sex. Monroe’s star persona as a sex symbol developed alongside the 1950s new ideals regarding sexuality. In the 1950s, sex became much less of a taboo subject. Playboy started publishing, people were willing to talk about sex, and in general sexuality was being embraced. Sex was now considered natural, normalized, and acceptable. Monroe not only adheres to these characteristics but perpetuated them throughout society as well. Her star image — eyes half closed, mouth open, large lips, and lit face — appeared throughout media, further helping to normalize the 1950s sexual revolution. The ideological development and the appearance of Monroe as a star occurred concurrently and perpetuated each other, much as described by Dyer’s theory of stars as ideology.
Marilyn Monroe was quite possible one of the most well-known stars in the history of Hollywood. Her rise to stardom as well as her successful career are indicative of the general phenomenon of stardom as a whole. In perhaps the most tragic paradox of stardom, nearly all of American knew Marilyn Monroe, but very few people knew the “real” non-star version of her. This outcome of the stardom phenomenon is common and perhaps still ongoing. By using a single star such as Monroe as a case study, we can begin examining the entire notion of stardom in general.
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