7 Sensational Things Marilyn Monroe Can Teach Us about Feminism

“She wasn’t a feminist, but she can teach us about feminism.”

Marilyn Monroe Reading

I did Pilates under Marilyn Monroe’s white billowy skirt. That doesn’t sound right. But I did exercise beneath her 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound statue in Palm Springs during a free class in the park. (Should I have moved my mat to honor her memory?) This week, the statue is moving and we mark the anniversary of the premiere of “Some Like it Hot.” During Women’s History Month, let’s learn from the famous MM about being strong women.

Years ago, as a copywriter at CBS, I wrote about Marilyn and her movies. I was haunted by her. She still casts a large shadow. For me. And apparently for many others. The 1950′s bombshell remains one of the top ten earning dead celebrities, according to Forbes. But more than a pop-culture phenomenon and hot skirt, she was sexy savvy. She’d be right at home as a sexy feminist nowadays, during this age of girl power and sex-positivity.

Yes, she was a tragic, tormented woman. But Marilyn can teach us more than how exuding sexuality can make a guy hot. She wasn’t a feminist, but she can teach us about feminism:

1. Own your power. Marilyn said, “As soon as I could afford an evening gown I bought the loudest one I could find. It was a bright red low-cut dress, and my arrival in it usually infuriated half the women present. I was sorry in a way to do this, but I had a long way to go and I needed a lot of advertising to get there.” Emphasizing her feminine and sexual power, she ambitiously sought a way out of her constraints. While I could live without the cattiness towards other women, Marilyn promoted herself and boldly made her mark.

2. Orchestrate your persona. Marilyn created the electrifying goddess character. Her look was the product of meticulous calculation. She capitalized on that killer hourglass figure by insisting that she’d be regularly sewn into her dresses. She orchestrated her image—the makeup, the wardrobe, the walk—but it wasn’t the woman born Norma Jean. Other creative forces who craft their images like Madonna and Lady Gaga salute Marilyn. Though Marilyn never was taken as seriously as she yearned to be, the luminous icon endures.

3. Speak up. She publicly disclosed the sexual abuse she experienced during her childhood and adulthood– a shocking confession, especially at the time. It was a brave, feminist act. She didn’t hide during a time when our society held to the ideas that abuse rarely occurred and if it did, blamed the victim.

4. Be the boss. Many fans don’t know that Marilyn Monroe was the second woman to head her own production company. Mary Pickford was the first.

5. Stand up for equal rights. When Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t be booked at the Hollywood nightclub Mocambo because she was black, Marilyn called the owner and promised to sit at a table in the front of the room every night that Ella performed. It worked. She generated publicity. As a result of Marilyn’s intervention and the knockout performances, Ella said she never had to play a small jazz club again.

6. Educate yourself. Marilyn was no dumb blonde. She took literature classes at UCLA. Her library, diary entries and poems show her passion for works by Walt Whitman, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Her hero was Abraham Lincoln. She purchased Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln and purportedly kept Lincoln’s photograph by her bed.

7. Become an icon or leader. A parade of stars have at one time or another adapted the glamorous “Marilyn look” even now fifty years later. Talk about branding! Seventy percent of her Facebook fans are under the age of 24. Young actresses are still affected by her. Blake Lively pretends to be Marilyn when walking the red carpet because Marilyn “projected this incredible aura of self-confidence.” Mariah Carey bought Marilyn’s white baby grand piano for $662,500. Katy Perry, Rihanna and Eva Longoria also remain ardent fans.

Okay, the breathy voiced star serves as the poster child for vulnerability due to her crazy-bad childhood, miscarriages and rotten luck with men. But let’s not forget her fortitude. Marilyn was a damaged soul.  But the celebrity actress worked her way from foster child to legend.  She always tried to evolve. And check out her heart-crushing performances in Bus Stop and The Misfits.

She’s more than the sex goddess of the week. As Gloria Steinem has suggested in her book, Marilyn, it’s time to view her through a more nuanced lens. Yeah, she wiggled her way into every man’s wet dream. But her actions spoke of her belief in equality and humanity. Marilyn Monroe is also the one who said, “A wise girl knows her limits, a smart girl knows that she has none.”

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

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