Why Marilyn Monroe’s famous pink dress remains a relevant symbol.
I once saw Marilyn Monroe find a missing child. I was at the Universal Studios theme park, coming down a long escalator, and I saw Monroe sitting below on a director’s chair, smiling and taking photos with fans. She was wearing that famous white dress with pearls and red lipstick, like every image I had ever seen of her. Then, suddenly, a woman stepped forward in the crowd, about to frantically shout someone’s name. The woman had only gotten a syllable out before Monroe noticed and jumped to her feet to help. She ran over and began asking direct questions, like what the woman’s daughter had been wearing, and where she last saw her. Then she was scanning the crowd, gathering other park workers, and comforting this woman. They found the girl before I even reached the end of the escalator, although it was hard to tell with the crowd that had gathered around Monroe and the woman. What I remember most, however, is that Monroe was the first to act and she was still Monroe the entire time.
It was the first time I had ever seen someone dressed up and doing an impersonation of Monroe, and it left a very distinct impression of who Monroe was, even though this incredible woman wasn’t actually Monroe. I saw this actress sprint in full heels to help another woman, and she was so calm the entire encounter. She knew what to do and was busy instructing workers as they approached. This was someone you could trust, someone who knew how to read a situation and instantly recognize when someone needed help. The only reason I saw this woman was because Monroe jumped up, it was the reason the other workers came over as well. Everything changed because she was paying attention to an extremely tense situation even before the woman could fully articulate what was going on.
Monroe is often referred to as the ‘Blond Bombshell’, which condenses her identity to two key features: her famous blonde hair and her killer looks. Looks so devastating and overwhelming that the only appropriate term to describe them is violent. Bombshell is both an aesthetic term and a form of violence, both of which play a part in Monroe’s broader legacy. It’s one thing to be beautiful, another to be a bombshell. The word is very similar to an older and well-established term that the Romantics threw about, called sublime. That word was used to describe feats of nature that were so monumental that men were either driven insane or emotionally devastated. Witnessing something sublime is not fun nor pleasing, it’s the opposite, it’s too much for the viewer to fully comprehend, because the viewer is trying to put themselves in relation to that sublime thing. A common example, and one often depicted in Romantic imagery, is a man standing below a tall wave, realizing that he is absolutely miniscule in comparison, and that whatever sense of self he had is utterly insignificant.
What is noteworthy here is that a sublime thing is something the viewer can never control, as they are both literally and emotionally affronted by it. Suffice to say, being sublime means you are more than one thing, you represent something to viewers, and that can often be violent or chaotic. The Romantic poets used sublime imagery to describe nature and women, essentially suggesting that women are inhuman and made to be idealized from a distance, like the sun. I draw Monroe to this term because it’s the very same way her image gets treated. As horrific as it is, Monroe is forever tied to a violent form of male gaze, whether it’s the paparazzi or her the way her death has been sexualized in media. I think the ‘bombshell’ term is appropriate here, or at least appropriate enough to discuss Monroe’s legacy in our contemporary culture. A ‘bombshell’ means a few different things: it means someone who is a knock-out, some gorgeous person, but it can also be something devastating, like a piece of gossip or news. A ‘bombshell revelation’, for instance, would be any big event, in fact, it’s a term that got used a lot during the early days of the Me-Too movement. Even 2019’s film about the abuse at Fox News was titled Bombshell, mixing the two meanings behind the word – its sexualization and its inherent violence.
“The French are glad to die for love.”
I have already dedicated a few posts to Monroe on this blog because I find her treatment in contemporary media quite interesting and telling, especially when told by female creators. Monroe never worked with a female director, and she was often pitted against female co-stars so she would be easier to manipulate on set. There were a few films where those efforts were unsuccessful, notably in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), where the other actresses either sympathized with Monroe or even became friends with her, but she often had to fight for certain storylines. It got to the point where a frustrated Monroe started her own production company 1954 with photographer Milton Greene, and she was one of the first women to do so. It’s been speculated that along with her frustration around salary, she started the company because she was angry with her character’s constant sexualization. She received plenty of bad press from this move, as it was essentially a declaration against the male dominated studio system, a move that went on inspire others. I think it’s especially noteworthy that Monroe started the company after The Seven Year Itch finished production, as that is perhaps the most traumatizing film Monroe was involved with.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in particular, has its feminist moments, where Monroe is playing a character, but inadvertently also speaking as her ‘Monroe’ persona. Her characters are often extremely sexualized, but aware of that sexualization, so it comes off as their decision. That is not the case in a film like The Seven Year Itch, where Monroe’s character is absolutely clueless and Monroe herself was extremely uncomfortable on set. She is often remembered as being difficult to work with and desperate to being taken serious, neither of which Monroe was ever able to discuss herself. The closest comment she ever really made was a line she is often credited as writing in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, where she notes, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it”. This clueless comment is more of a label that just gets attached to her, because even in death, Monroe has to represent something for people. She has become a symbol for a type of brutalized woman in Hollywood, which is unfair to her, but in some ways helpful when this comparison is made by women and not a male observer. Women, and those who identify with Monroe, use that to understand their image and situation, so Monroe is not an active participant here, she is more like a language that some have sexualized, and others have found purpose and recognition in.
It’s unfortunate that Monroe’s famous white dress over the subway grate defined how so many people see her today, as filming that sequence was deeply traumatizing. She stood outside for three hours filming the scene while thousands of fans, possibly 5,000 spectators, jeered anytime her dress fly up. They actually had to re-shoot the scene in a private studio because the crowd got so loud, and Monroe was so upset. It also apparently led to a violent fight later that night between her and her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. The woman I saw at Universal was wearing that dress, otherwise she would have just been a woman with blonde hair to parkgoers. There is one other dress, however, which went on to have more of an impact with female creators. I am speaking of course about Monroe’s pink dress in the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical number from the 1953 film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is one of the most referenced numbers Monroe was ever a part of, meaning that different creators have approached and reinterpreted the song, but often in light of Monroe. She wasn’t the first to sing it, that was Carol Channing in the stage production, and she also wasn’t the only singer on the track. Some of her vocals were performed by Gloria Wood or possibly Marni Nixon, although there some debate over how involved these singers were, and what is or isn’t Monroe singing. The dress was actually a last-minute addition, as the creator’s initially wanted Monroe in a full show girl outfit, to match the scene’s casino vibe. When the designs were shown to 20th Century Fox, however, they demanded a more conservative outfit, hence Monroe’s full dress.
“But I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels.”
The song itself is pretty simple, it’s a tongue and cheek number about being smart with relationships and not just picking partners based solely on love. What is controversial about it is that Monroe’s character, Lorelei (like the siren), is not just talking about an open secret, she is praising it. She gets criticized in the film for this position, but as she very wisely points out, “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”. There is nothing wrong about having ambition, and that is essentially what the song is about. What is more interesting is that the song is meant to have two audiences. It’s instructing men to get diamonds, to understand that women like Lorelei aren’t interested in just flowers or being penniless, they are smart enough to do something about their circumstances. For women, however, it’s telling them how to play this game, and more importantly, how to stay safe while doing so. The song has very specific instructions, like “he’s your guy when stocks are high, but beware when they start to descend”, “a kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental”, and of course “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, because diamonds won’t ever betray you and will always have worth. Of course, later in the film, Monroe’s character is given a tiara and then accused of stealing it, leading to a court battle because she refuses to give it back, as it’s rightfully hers and she earned it. The film is somewhat critical of this character and her choices, or at least teases them, but she still ends up marrying a wealthy man and being happy. She might be played off as silly, like in my favourite moment where she walks into her ship quarters and declares, “it’s like a room! It’s got a window and everything,” but she is smart when it comes to this. Her sexuality is a manicured image that she is actively using, with zero shame, and it’s hard to distance Monroe from that character, or any of her others.
“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” went on to become a motto, although a somewhat troubled one. Most of the films and projects which elicit this song go on to trouble it, as their characters eventually give up money and marry for love, which is not what happens to Monroe’s character. I thought it might be useful to go through some of the most famous versions here, because it feels like each version approaches Monroe and her legacy from a different angle, and that together, they form a more cohesive message about Monroe. If Monroe is a bombshell, then these are the aftermaths, the ripples formed long after the initial impact or event. But at the same time, the very evoking of Monroe implies that the trauma and violence she endured, also tied to this bombshell word, is still around and women are still dealing it.
The incident where I saw Monroe help this woman incidentally became the very way I see Monroe today. Her image, this impersonation, is still helping women because it knows what to look for. It is not sexualized, like the way male creators often frame Monroe, it’s a way women can recognize and talk about trauma, ambition, and shaming, making this song extremely noteworthy. It’s also a rather ironic song when sung to a woman, because diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but so is the singer. She is instructing her female audience, giving them little pieces of advice and encouraging them. That sounds like friend behaviour to me, and so the song is about teaching this next generation. It should be no surprise that this next generation spoke back.
“Material Girl”– Madonna
Madonna released this music video in 1984, and it’s perhaps the most well-known homage to Monroe on this list. She is wearing the same dress in the same setting, it’s just the music that is different. The song was a massive hit and is ‘currently’ a TikTok trend, where people will put a filter on to make themselves look old, and then switch to their ‘younger’ selves listening to the song. It shares the same message as Monroe’s number: to be smart because you have to support yourself, and more importantly, there is no need to be ashamed if you want nice things in life. What is funny about the music video, however, is that it goes with a totally different message, as Madonna ends up with a producer who never tries to impress her with luxurious gifts, like everyone else. At the end of the video, we see him paying off a poor man to borrow his beat-up truck and then driving off with Madonna, pretending that his poor when in fact he is extremely wealthy.
I am a little confused by this music video, if we are being honest, because Madonna is filming a video in the video, as she is performing as Monroe and then as herself. It’s as though Madonna is telling her audience one thing, through this Monroe homage, and then contradicting it with the ‘real’ Madonna. I wouldn’t say the video is trying to insult Monroe, it’s just that Madonna is making it abundantly clear that although she appreciates Monroe, and learned from her about the dangers of fame, she has no intention of becoming like Monroe. She will choose love, not money, which means that her song is not meant to be taken at face value, but as a commentary on commercialism. The only tongue and cheek here is that the producer is still wealthy, so Madonna is technically getting the best of both worlds, but because she chose love first, it means more.
Moulin Rouge! (2001) – Nicole Kidman
Baz Luhrmann’s jukebox musical is an incredible film which effortlessly mixes dozens of songs into new forms. One of the most memorable is his version of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which Satine sings the first time we see her. She floats down from the ceiling in a hoop, dressed in shiny silver, like a diamond, and Christian immediately falls in love her. It’s also a foreboding moment, as we see cutaways to the moment of Satine’s eventual death as she sings the line, “the French are glad to die for love”. The music quickly picks up and Satine performs the number while surrounded by men, as Monroe did, but notably, these are paying customers. You’ll notice that Satine is often referred to as the “Sparkling Diamond”, hence her diamond-like outfit in this number, but that also suggests that she is the diamond in the song. She is the expensive thing coveted and valued by all, but with no real agency of her own. In other words, she is singing about being gifted and traded at the Moulin Rouge.
The big difference between Monroe and Kidman’s characters here is that one was just an independent woman talking about something controversial with zero shame, while the other is a prostitute working at an exclusive brothel, is dying of tuberculosis as a result, and can’t afford to fall in love. She often sings about the same issues as Monroe’s character did, about how love won’t pay the bills or save you, but she eventually chooses love over money, and the film celebrates this. Like Madonna’s music video, this reference chooses differently, and while acknowledging that these characters come from a similar background, it ultimately has them choose being penniless and refusing some terrible rich man. That said, I think this early number returns to this mix of appeal and violence, like that ‘bombshell’ term. Satine is comfortable in this world but also dying because of it, and so her song seems empowering but it’s also devastatingly sad. This version of the song was later re-interpreted in the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! (2018), which notably mixes it Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, and similarly, both film and stage production mix briefly with Madonna’s “Material Girl”, proving that Monroe’s number remains relevant and similar enough to other contemporary works. Once again, however, the song is mixed with violence, as in both film and stage, Satine suddenly cannot breathe, and she collapses in the film.
The song here is not for a female audience, and I think that makes a huge difference. Monroe’s character, at one point, runs over to a group of women, leaning in and telling them this open secret. There are women around Satine in this number, but she never acknowledges them, and none of this is news to them. Satine is advertising a certain choregraphed and attractive ambition to the men at the club, and not to any women. She is labeling herself as someone who likes money more than love, which is appropriate for this environment. Christian’s first move is to try and convince her that this perspective is wrong, and so the song loses some of that satirical grin of Monroe’s performance. There is shame here, one which often comes between Christian and Satine, most notably at the end of the film where the two fight and Christian publicly humiliates her. Compare that to the version even shown on The Muppets in 1980, where Carol Channing performs the number as a duet with Miss Piggy. The song here is tongue and cheek, where love is a tactful and luxurious thing, more luxurious than a diamond, because unlike a diamond, there is no assured stability in it. Moulin Rouge! might make the song about prostitution, but that is the opposite of Monroe’s character, who is accused of being one several times, but is ultimately unashamed and proves that she is just willing to talk about something rich women and men have done for ages when picking a partner.
Birds of Prey (2020) – Margot Robbie, Megan Thee Stallion, and Normani
I won’t speak for long about this film, as I have technically already written a giant post about my great appreciation for it and this scene. It’s one of my all-time favourite films, for the reasons I detail there, but most notably of those, it includes this heartbreaking reference to Monroe. Harley Quinn often represents herself through old Hollywood icons, as though interpreting her world as they do. She views love in a similar way, thinking of it as this grand romantic thing reserved for happily ever after films. When that illusion begins to break, and she and the Joker break up, her understanding of these icons becomes more complicated.
In this scene, Harley is tied up and about to be tortured by Roman Sionis and his men. She is able to escape after promising to find the Bertinelli diamond for Roman, but before he lets her go, we see a sudden musical number where Harley is dressed as Monroe and recreates this scene. It’s more horrific though, as Harley bites the finger of one of the nearby men, we get cutaways to what is actually happening to Harley, and then gunfire begins to rage above their heads as she dances. At one point, she takes Roman’s hand, dances with him for a moment, and then he violently hits her, and we cut back to the real world. The implication here, which I spend more time discussing in my other article, is that Harley is using Monroe to understand trauma, both past and current. She is trying to recontextualize the abuse happening around her using something else, but notably, through a figure who endured something similar. Harley is essentially using a different version of trauma to understand what is happening to her, because if she can understand what Monroe was doing, she can understand herself. It’s a modern version of Monroe’s number, and one where Harley is clearly herself, not just a carbon copy of Monroe. She is notably wearing a jumpsuit version of Monroe’s pink dress, and the environment is far more deadly. Harley is an ambitious person, and unlike the other references I have mentioned, she is living true to the message in Monroe’s song. She has just gotten out of a relationship, and realized that its version of love was abusive, and that she has to make her own way and find value in things other than that type of romantic love. The diamond here is literally Harley’s best friend, as it’s the only thing that will save her from Roman. She goes on to make more friends while seeking this diamond, because each of the women in the film are also inadvertently looking for the diamond before Roman and his men control it. The diamond represents far more than the financial stability Monroe sang about. It’s literal stability, like not having your face carved off kind of stability.
The film is also, among many other things, a commentary about Monroe’s world, and the rampant male gaze and abuse she had to endure, both while she was alive and what is currently happening to her image and how that reflects women and society as a whole. It feels true to what I saw at the Universal Park, this moment of Monroe reaching out to help someone before anyone even knew that something was wrong. She gave the woman a voice, shouting and instructing people when this woman was so frantic that she was having trouble speaking. I think it’s makes perfect sense that Harley sees Monroe in a similar light, even unconsciously. Her image, this song, and her legacy, it’s all connected. At least here, she is not overly sexualized like every other Monroe adaptation, as even My Week With Marilyn (2011) is taken from a guy’s perspective, not her own. Here, and even in Madonna’s video, it’s a woman talking about what it means to be a woman through this unfair bombshell term, and simultaneously being critical of the inherent duality in that term.