Evolution of the Blonde Bombshell

MARILYN GEEWAX

May 29, 1991|By MARILYN GEEWAX

ATLANTA — "TC Atlanta. - Fashions and hairstyles come and go, but one thing American men seem to like decade after decade is the Blonde Bombshell.

Jean Harlow tantalized the male masses in the 1930s, but Marilyn Monroe perfected the role in the 1950s. She was flirtatious, fluffy, well-rounded and soft-spoken. Her arms and legs showed no ripples of muscle to undermine the image of vulnerability.

But while the Sex Goddess role is still being filled by voluptuous women, today's bombshells add up to much more than their measurements. Madonna and Dolly Parton are pumping new life into the old form.

In many ways, the two women have little in common. Madonna is urban, sophisticated and trashy. Dolly is down home, corny and patriotic. But both have made their first names household words by exploiting their sexual attractiveness. Like Marilyn, they are blonde (usually), beautiful and eager to display their body parts.

Unlike the 1950s prototype, they are business executives firmly in control of their fortunes. Dolly heads a $100 million entertainment empire that includes two production companies and Dollywood theme park. Forbes magazine estimates Madonna has made about $125 million since 1986, and she's picking up steam. Her records, videos and movies are white hot.

Both Madonna and Dolly ''sell'' their sexual attractiveness the way other corporate executives package and promote their brand-name breakfast cereals.

Marilyn's great appeal stemmed not just from her beauty, but from her willingness to please men. I recently read about how she allowed herself to be sewn into the gown she wore to sing ''Happy Birthday'' to President Kennedy. She managed to get the dress so tight she couldn't wear underwear or walk more than a few inches at a time.

No doubt some men still appreciate such willingness to please. But many more now seem to prefer the strength of Madonna and Dolly. While Marilyn popped pills and clung to the arms of big strong fellas, Madonna revels in her own physical strength. A vegetarian, she swills spring water and exercises up to four hours a day. Her arms and legs bulge with muscles.

By the time she reached her 30s, Marilyn was feeling washed up. At 45, Dolly looks anything but tired. At 32, Madonna is more of an up-and-coming business tycoon than a fading femme fatale.

Recently I saw Madonna's new documentary, ''Truth or Dare.'' Men in the audience seemed to love it when the demanding performer would bark orders at her employees. Marilyn used to sit in her dressing room getting drunk while handlers struggled with her hair to keep up the image. Before a show, Madonna conducts business while assistants follow her commands to design the look she chooses.

Stories I have read about Marilyn Monroe suggest she was a woman of considerable intelligence and humor. How sad that her times denied her the ability to use those strengths to manage her ''product'' and maintain her self-respect. Madonna and Dolly continue the tradition of the Blonde Bombshell, but have transformed the role by controlling it. Their power, both on and off stage, expands our perception of what ''sexy'' women can do.

Marilyn Geewax is an Atlanta Constitution editorial writer.

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