Beyond Blonde

Hollywood used Marilyn Monroe to create the Dumb Blonde brand, but she took the label and made it her own.

August 05, 2002|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If there hadn't been a Marilyn Monroe, we would have had to invent her.

This maxim, posited by film critic Molly Haskell, plays off the pessimistic crack about religion: If it didn't exist, man would have invented it. And yet the notion of Monroe as a necessary part of our existence - as the celluloid version of universal truth, as D-cup deity, as peroxided opiate of the masses, as religion in Cinemascope - makes perfect sense.

For Monroe is a brand.

Forty years after her death - on Aug. 5, 1962 - Monroe is still Hollywood's most successful invention, its most instantly recognized product. And she comes with, even four decades later, undiminished brand loyalty. As a distinctly American brand, she is synonymous with the infectious, highly narcotic, wretchedly excessive U.S. pop culture export.

Monroe is dead, but her supreme incarnation, the Dumb Blonde, lives.

"The iconography of the Dumb Blonde has been developed over many years in the same way as a good brand," said Susie Watson, a pop culture analyst. "The image of Dumb Blonde is one of the most successful public relations campaigns in our culture. Every single facet of media builds it up constantly. They all continue to support the role of Dumb Blonde and elevate it."

If Dumb Blonde was Hollywood's best PR campaign, then Marilyn Monroe was the campaign's ultimate brand.

"The idea of Monroe as a brand is very interesting," said author Yona Zeldis McDonough. "I think it's true. Hollywood made this enormous effort to make this thing called a Dumb Blonde. Yes, she's a brand, but she's more than a brand."

And that's the point of McDonough's new book, All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader (Touchstone Original/Simon & Schuster Trade Paperbacks), published to coincide with the anniversary of Monroe's death. The book, a collection of essays (a reprint of Haskell's "We Would Have Had to Invent Her" is packaged with previously published essays by Gloria Steinem and Clare Boothe Luce and original works by Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Elliot Dark, Albert Mobilio and Lisa Shea), seeks to explain Monroe's lasting power.

McDonough said she agrees with Haskell to a point. "Except that having invented her, Monroe turned out to be more than the sum of the parts, more continually fascinating than the invention," McDonough said. "She proved to be far more interesting than her inventors could have predicted."

Indeed, film historian Jeanine Basinger said Monroe transcended the stereotype of the Dumb Blonde in its two most potent cinema forms - the Dumb Dumb Blonde and the Smart Dumb Blonde. She didn't fit neatly into either, she said.

"Her two most famous Dumb Blonde roles are Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where Lorelei Lee is the smartest person in the room, no matter what's happening, and How to Marry a Millionaire, where she's not so much dumb as she is blind because she can't see," said Basinger, who heads the film department at Wesleyan University. "The thing about Monroe that's significant is that she could have been relegated to the Dumb Blonde, but she rose up out of that character and added the dimensions of vulnerability, fey sweetness and a kind of ethereal quality."

The "great coup" of Monroe's career, Basinger said, was her ability to invest the Dumb Blonde with enough smarts and charm that her fans, while happy to pay to see her as a ditz, firmly believed she wasn't.

"She's the spearhead of the Dumb Blonde brand. What they sold about her was her dumbness, and the funny thing is that she wasn't," Watson said.

The Dumb Blonde as a cinematic conceit remains popular, though one that has morphed somewhat over the years. The sister golden-haired heroines of Working Girl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlie's Angels, Bring it On and Legally Blonde have all transcended the stereotype by summoning their own brand of moxie.

"The Dumb Blonde is built into our culture. We live with certain kinds of cultural stereotypes. The great thing about today's movies is that they can play with those stereotypes," Basinger said. "Legally Blonde plays with it in a very modern way. Buffy plays with it, too. It makes it fun because you can activate the old stereotype but change it with the modern way society perceives the Dumb Blonde. We're riffing on the stereotype because we're comfortable with them and don't take them seriously."

The Dumb Blonde routine went platinum when The Anna Nicole Smith Show made its debut last night on E! Entertainment network. The new reality series proves, Watson said, that America still hungers for a blonde puttin' on the ditz.

For all the smart blondes, such as Reese Witherspoon, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, dumb Dumb Blondes like Smith and Alicia Silverstone still enthrall. Why? Because they're vital to the brand.

"What's interesting is that the Reese Witherspoons of the world are using blonde to increase their power. She can play the dumb blonde, but she's going to use her blondness in Hollywood to get what she wants, to run the show," Watson said. "Marilyn couldn't have done that. The new trend is to use the blondness to your advantage as a power chip."

Basinger said the Dumb Blonde, in whatever manifestation, is here to stay.

"Having invested so much money in dumb blondes over the years, Hollywood is not going to let it go," she said. "But they have to use it differently now. After all, we have made some progress in terms of attitudes toward women or attitudes about physical beauty."

Or have we?

Greg Morago is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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