Tell me truthfully: have you ever felt like you had to dress in a certain way for work or for an event; worried about whether you were pretty/polished/groomed enough (delete as applicable); lain awake wondering if you drank too much, or danced too chaotically – and beaten yourself up for doing so?
Have you ever panicked that your clothes were too revealing, or not revealing enough; silently berated yourself for laughing too loudly, or for your voice being too shrill (or too quiet); regretted not speaking your mind, or for feeling unable to say “no”; or told yourself off for speaking it too publicly, too abrasively, too ferociously... too much?
Chances are, if you’ve felt any one of these things, you are probably a) a woman (though none of us are immune to “imposter syndrome”), and b) suffering from what has recently swum into the public consciousness and been duly coined “the Marilyn Monroe effect”.
The term has come to light thanks to the trailer for a new film about the Hollywood icon – Blonde, which is released on Netflix on 23 September, starring Ana de Armas. Fittingly, it lands some 60 years after the star’s death by drugs overdose on 5 August 1962, and promises to give us an insight into the “inner world” of the woman whose platinum curls, doe eyes and billowing white dress have been rendered immortal and immediately recognisable, long after her death; whose likeness is framed by a thousand Pop Art and graffiti displays; whose name will for ever be synonymous with sex, and glamour, and husky-voiced seduction.
According to author and self-confessed “hug mobster” Edie Weinstein – who came up with the concept of “the Marilyn Monroe effect” and wrote about it here – it describes a certain “non-verbal communication of confidence”; the tendency or ability to step into the shoes of someone who can own a room; the uncanny knack of transforming “from the ordinary into the extraordinary”, when few (if any) of us are taught to see ourselves in that light.
Yet Monroe, aka Norma Jeane Mortenson, is said to have harboured many insecurities. Reading between the lines, I think “the Marilyn Monroe effect” means being able to blag it – or, perhaps, to “fake it until you make it”. And I believe we can all relate.
How? Well, as the trailer for Blonde tells us, “there is no Marilyn Monroe”. Instead, as De Armas’s character reveals: “I can’t face doing another scene with Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn doesn’t exist. When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera’s rolling. Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.”
This, I think, is the crux of her appeal – and her relatability. Monroe is timelessly alluring, fascinating because she is both known and unknown; approachable yet unreachable; at once ever-present yet frustratingly opaque. She is a multifaceted Hollywood icon, more famous than any of us is ever likely to be (or to want to be) – yet even now, we don’t know that much about her. We can only guess. But if that line about feeling like her life is a “performance” feels familiar, then that’s probably because it is – for all of us.
What this new take on her life appears to offer (and we should remember it is a fictional biographical account of the star, based on this novel by Joyce Carol Oates) is familiarity – the rare chance to feel a certain kinship with celebrity. And why? Because we are all Marilyn Monroe, now.
Who of us hasn’t felt the emotions laid out for us in flashbulb-popping monochrome; the tragedy of having to “put on a brave face” and go out there and face the world, even when we are sad, and hurt, and grieving? How many times have we had to “take a deep breath”, plaster on a smile, calm our nerves, and do something that makes us feel sick, and small, and scared? How many times have we told people we care about to “just do it”? How many times have we been told the same?
And while some fans are upset with the new film, accusing it of “exploiting” Monroe – “contacting Marilyn Monroe via ouija board to tell her that my take on the Blonde trailer is the only one with her best interests at heart”, one wrote – I think it can give us all a moment’s pause.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
It is a chance to reflect on the “idealised” image that so many celebrities – and we ourselves – put out on screen, and to consider that it doesn’t really matter whether that screen is Imax-sized or simply the shape of our iPhone 13, because we are all acting, all of the time. And the image we put out (or post, or blog about) on Instagram or Twitter – or on a massive billboard on a bus, or the side of a building in Leicester Square – isn’t the real “us”. None of it is.
Not many of us – even those who ooze confidence or charisma, even those hallowed few who have whatever it takes to light up a room – feel that way, deep inside. Each of us feels like a character in our own curated movie.
And in Blonde, Monroe urges us to remember that the woman onscreen is the same one who slips into bed each night, exhausted and afraid; that “being Marilyn” is an act, a persona, an identity thrust upon her as much as it is a choice for her to adopt the name.
We are all Marilyn Monroe. We should remember that.