“The most important film representative of the 1950s voluptuous woman was Marilyn Monroe, who differed from the others by combining with sensuality strains of childishness reminiscent of the adolescent stars. She thereby created a powerful combination that encompassed the era. Technically unschooled and often intellectually vacuous in her film characterisations, she nevertheless possessed both the shrewdness of the classic chorus girl (a character she often portrayed in film roles) and the intuitive genius of a child, able to see more clearly to the heart of a matter than others more sophisticated around her. As a down-and-out member of a seedy female band in ‘Some Like it Hot’, she taught fleeing mobsters Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon the meaning of friendship and love; as a chorus girl in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’, she taught the same lesson to Laurence Olivier, the head of a fictional kingdom. Most of the other voluptuous film stars had dark hair, but Monroe’s was peroxided a light blonde – a colour that invoked traditional images of angels and virtuous women, reflected the light locks of the era’s adolescent film stars, and both legitimised and heightened her sensuality.
Previous exemplars of female sensuality had also had blonde hair: one thinks of the British Blondes in the 1860s and Jean Harlow in the 1930s. But Monroe differed strikingly from the Lydia Thompson troupe and from Harlow. They were tough, wisecracking, even masculine in type. With a slight, lisping voice, a soft curvaceous body, and a seriousness about life, Monroe projected an intense femininity and an inner vulnerability. Her sensual posturings were reminiscent of Mae West, although with no hint of the parody that West intended. Monroe regarded her body with dead seriousness. Long before she was acclaimed as movie actress and sex queen, she had posed for the first nude centrefold in ‘Playboy’ magazine, destined to become a trendsetter in liberalised sexuality and a showcase for the bodies of beautiful women. [Actually, Monroe had posed for a trade calendar – the shots were acquired by Hugh Hefner four years later, after her rise to fame.]
Monroe’s popularity ensured the triumph of the vogue of dyed blonde hair, which cosmetics companies had been promoting. Sales of hair colouring soared; platinum blondes seemed everywhere. The widespread dying of hair to be light blonde indicated women’s acceptance of a model of looks and behaviour that had them be feminine, sensual, and unintellectual. Women were to seem like children, expressing their adulthood primarily through their sexuality. The ‘dumb blonde’ who ‘had more fun’ now became the dominant image of beauty for American women.”
Dr Banner is currently working on two new books about Marilyn.
Read my comparison of Monroe and Harlow, ‘American Bombshells’.