By: Samantha Cox-Parra
Marilyn Monroe committed suicide before her death and she is still alive and thriving. The American actress and model was born as Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1ST, 1926, but died as Marilyn Monroe on August 5th, 1962. While the natural Norma Jean was alive she produced and commoditized herself as Marilyn Monroe, the pop culture icon. Although Marilyn Monroe changed her name during the time that she was alive and on the rise of fame, Norma Jeane is representative of her as the natural and producer of the commoditized Marilyn Monroe. Due to the commodity fetishism in a capitalist society, Norma Jean’s social relation to herself as a product –the commoditized Marilyn Monroe– were masked by market exchange. Essentially, the commoditized Marilyn Monroe was presented as the real Marilyn Monroe, but is in fact a simulacrum that inevitably shares certain “true” symptoms with the real. This indistinguishable quality between the imaginary, commoditized Marilyn Monroe and the real, natural Marilyn Monroe results in the death of the real.
Drawing on Karl Marx’s idea of social production relations, once something natural becomes a commodity its social meaning completely changes. Norma Jeane transformed her natural materials to most benefit her in a capitalist society; she was no longer a human but rather a commodity. The commoditized Marilyn Monroe masks and perverts the real Marilyn Monroe. When this view is combined with Jean Baudrillard’s concept that reality is not what we perceive it to be, and once realized that this simulation has masked the real, se cannot determine what is real and what is not, so reality is dead. This ambiguity between the commoditized and the real Marilyn Monroe lends way to the death of the real while her commoditization simulacra artificially resurrects her from the dead. In commoditizing herself, Marilyn Monroe metaphorically committed suicide, as she no longer came to represent her natural self as Norma Jeane.
As a commodity, Marilyn Monroe no longer needed to display the real in order to make a profit. After her physical death the production roles shift to the Authentic Brands Group (ABG) firm’s advantage. In the unique case of celebrity fetishism, the duel natural material, producer, and capitalist Norma Jeane is simultaneously analogous to both the serf and the lord, while the natural dies at the hands of the commodity. The ABG “owns, manages, and elevates the long-term value” of the “Marilyn Monroe Brand” after her death, the firm becomes the producer and capitalist of the commoditized Marilyn Monroe. As seen in the ABG image of Marilyn Monroe, she is displayed to reflect her iconic features; platinum blonde hair, sparkling eyes, bright red lips, and a perfectly placed beauty mark all packaged in a white dress. Even her signature is depicted in such a way to further embody the facade and pop culture icon that is Marilyn Monroe.
In accordance with the ABG firm, Coca Cola released an advertisement in 2015 featuring an old publicity shoot of Marilyn Monroe drinking a Coca Cola for the film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953). While this advertisement appears to be a simple celebrity endorsement, it is rather a commodity endorsement; both Marilyn Monroe and Coca Cola are pop culture icons. To the ABG and Coca Cola capitalists, the advertisement offers a mutual benefit of combining brand values to promote each other. As for the two commodities, the advertisement promotes the humanization of Coca Cola with the phrase “I’ve Kissed Marilyn Monroe,” while the sugary drink further reduces Marilyn Monroe to a commodity. Coca Cola is humanized only to mask that Marilyn Monroe is no longer human or real in an attempt to preserve the reality principle.
While the ABG firm and Coca Cola advertisement mask the absence of the real Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol’s 1962 silkscreened painting of Gold Marilyn exposes that there is no real Marilyn Monroe. As a pioneer of pop art, a vast majority of Andy Warhol’s artworks are focused on the reproduction of pop culture icons. Instead of working in a studio, Warhol created art in what he called “the factory” and often had his workers create art for him. Through a reproductive style, his work contains a transformative message from the original, which can be viewed as a critique of capitalist consumerism. Warhol’s Gold Marilyn daringly unmasks the Marilyn Monroe image to exhibit that there is nothing there. Made right after her death in 1962, Warhol chooses a 1953 magazine publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe for the film Niagara. Although there are a number of images that could have been used, the original work was an advertisement, reflecting Marilyn Monroe’s memory as a carefully structured illusion. Similarly, the comic book color choices of the face are indicative of her artificiality. Additionally, there are an unknown number of pieces in the series depicting Marilyn Monroe, coming to suggest the multiplicity of Marilyn Monroe as a commodity and the absence of the real.
Interestingly, Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face is floating in the center of a golden background. Surrounded and engulfed by gold, Marilyn Monroe can be interpreted herself as a natural object that has become artificial; much like the natural element of gold has developed the social properties of an exchange value. She was a human with the strange social properties of being a celebrity, holding an exchange value comparable to gold. Additionally, the golden background can also come to suggest the displacement of religious worship by celebrity worship in a capitalist society. Similar to the death of God through Byzantine icons, Gold Marilyn comes to suggest the death of Marilyn Monroe due to her commodification as a pop culture icon. This equation of Marilyn Monroe to Byzantine icons not only suggests that capitalist consumer culture has replaced worship to religion with celebrity, but also that both forms of worship are to empty icons. Once unmasked, there is nothing to worship except for an illusion of the real.
This death of the real Marilyn Monroe due to commodity fetishism unmasks the impossibility of identifying a true reality. Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in becoming a commodity; yet being a commodity has given the pop culture icon a life longer than the one she actually lived.
Jean Baudrillard, “Precession of Simulacra,” Simulacra and Simulation (1981)
Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, Section 4, p36-46 (1867)