At five years old, while eating dinner at a TGI Fridays, I sat facing a large black and white portrait that depicted a blonde woman in a white dress that blew up in the breeze. With such a large portrait, every detail, even in black and white, captured the beauty of the woman. Despite not knowing who she actually was, I knew she was someone iconic and important seeing as she was omnipresent. It was, as my mother explained to me, the iconic still of Marilyn Monroe in 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch.”
Marilyn Monroe has long been an emblem of Hollywood’s golden age. Spending portions of her childhood in foster care and marrying at 16, Norma Jean Baker (née Mortenson) became a model before taking on minor roles in films under the name Marilyn Monroe. When her breakout came in the 1950s with comedic movies like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” she quickly became immortalized as the glitzy sex symbol of her era and beyond. In many ways, it’s the contrast between these two worlds, Norma Jean and Marilyn, the scared girl and the sexy star, that continues to draw eyes to her story over half a century following her tragically early death in 1962.
Nearly 20 years after Monroe’s passing, a new idol was found across the pond in the form of Diana Spencer. The daughter of an earl, Spencer married then-Prince Charles in 1981. Taken by her beauty as well as her philanthropic pursuits, the public named her the “people’s princess.” While she represented the grace and sophistication many have historically attributed to the British royal family, she also stood as a mother, a divorcée and a simple woman that many could relate to. Her death, like Monroe’s, came early when she died in a car crash in 1997.
Over half a century since Marilyn Monroe’s death and 25 years since Princess Diana’s, these women’s influence continues to permeate our pop culture. While always a fixture of pop iconography, Monroe’s name made more and more headlines earlier this year when Kim Kardashian wore her iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress to the 2022 Met Gala, sparking a frenzy of debates and memes across social media. Monroe’s name came up again following the release of “Blonde,” a Netflix original film adaptation of the fictionalized story of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates. The memory of Diana has faced similar abstraction over the past couple of years, as her life within the royal family was depicted in both the Netflix Original Series “The Crown” and the movie “Spencer.”
Even in death, the memories — or rather, the Hollywood version of the memories — of these women continue to attract media and audiences alike. And these fixations are not limited to Monroe and Spencer. Think of Sharon Tate, Selena Quintanilla, Amy Winehouse, Aaliyah or Anna Nicole Smith: all women characterized by their beauty and, as fate would have it, gone too soon. But what is it about these women’s lives that is so intriguing even decades after their deaths?
In these beautiful dead women, the significance of their beauty cannot be overlooked. It is often because of their beauty, and more so that they will always be remembered in their physical primes, that make these women so memorable. Would Marilyn still be known as the most beautiful woman if she could have aged like, say, Elizabeth Taylor? While it’s unlikely that any fan would wish for anything else but for these women to have lived longer, happier lives, the fact that these women never reached an age considered unattractive by society’s standards is a large factor in their continuing popularity. In short, only those who die young can stay beautiful.
In addition to dying with a beautiful face, the memories of these women are even more intriguing when their deaths are shrouded in tragedy and mystery. This is definitely the case with Monroe and Spencer. While Monroe’s death was initially ruled a “possibly accidental” overdose, her death became well known as a “probable suicide.” Even now, some also speculate whether it was a murder by the likes of Jimmy Hoffa or the Kennedys. Similarly, following Diana’s death in a car crash, some conspiracies have come to prominence suspecting the royal family’s involvement in the fatal crash. While mystery is not required in the making of a beautiful dead woman, these conspiracy theories surrounding the passing of both Monroe and Spencer help cement the two as perhaps the most iconic faces in media, even decades after their deaths.
Beyond the lives and lasting impressions of these women and their deaths is perhaps what’s most important in connecting them to a modern audience: a parasocial relationship. Coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, a parasocial relationship is a “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” Given these women’s popularity across the media industry, fans during and after their lifetimes naturally know more about these women and feel more of a connection to their stories (or media’s depictions of them) than what these women would ever know about each individual fan, thus creating this one-sided relationship for the fan.
In watching films centered on Marilyn Monroe or documentaries about Princess Diana, the reader learns the personal details of Norma Jean Baker and Diana Spencer and may even relate to them. One begins to feel that they know these individuals on a deeper level, and that perhaps in another life they could have been the one to save their idol from their tragic fate.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from innocent in avoiding the worship of these beautiful dead women. Often on Instagram or TikTok, I’ll find myself drawn to watching yet another clip or scrolling through countless photos of Marilyn Monroe or Sharon Tate. After watching Quentin Tarantino’s revision of Sharon Tate’s murder in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I found myself yearning for a world where at least one of these women lived a longer life. The problem with this worship, however, is rarely individual fans — the fault falls instead to the media.
It’s no secret at this point that the media makes a woman’s life hell, a truth especially applicable in the cases of Monroe and Spencer. Even in her last moments, Diana Spencer found herself chased by paparazzi. For the case of Monroe, her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio arranged a private funeral for her after her death, believing her death was caused by Hollywood.
When it comes to retelling the stories of these dead women, the women themselves become almost unimportant. Instead, their faces often become masks for whatever idea the writer or director is presenting. This is certainly the case of “Blonde,” and the director, Andrew Dominik, doesn’t try to hide the film’s fictionalization, claiming: “I saw an opportunity of how to turn it (the original book by Joyce Carol Oates) into a film. Of how to take what she set up in the book, which is the childhood trauma. The idea of what childbirth might mean. The idea of the desire for the absent father to return and stabilize her mother. And then it seemed to me that there was a way to see the adult life through the lens of that trauma.” The facts of Monroe’s life — her absent father, her mother’s mental illness and the abuse she faced in foster care — became a backdrop to false and sensationalized events, such as a talking fetus, a forced abortion and sexual assault at the hands of President John F. Kennedy.
Particularly with the popularization of these tragedies, it becomes easy for fans and the media alike to dwell on the wrongs committed against these women. Beyond considering the “what if?” of a longer life, considerations of what could have been different begin to arise. If the media had been kinder or perhaps less invasive, would Marilyn Monroe have lived a longer, happier life? Would we still have Princess Diana, Selena Quintanilla or Amy Winehouse?
In only dwelling on the tragic deaths of these mistreated women, we often forget women who’ve undergone similar treatment who are still living. Women like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky are only recently receiving the apologies they’re owed for the houndings by the press they each faced. Had a tragic death befallen any of these women, would they be yet another name on the list of worshiped female personalities, complete with apologies and regret only after they’re no longer around to hear it?
While incredibly gripping even in death, it’s important to reflect on what each one of us takes from the stories of these women. Whether fan or creator, we each see something relatable, important, beautiful or tragic in the figures we idolize and tell stories about. At the same time, we all must take a step back to respect the more personal details and even the mysteries of these figures’ lives that we may never know. Hindsight will not bring these women back, but it can serve to inform how the media and culture at large can approach women facing similar mistreatment. And while these women will likely never be forgotten, perhaps no more ghost stories may try to use them as dolls in some greater tale; perhaps these women may finally rest in the peace rarely afforded to them in their lifetimes.
Audra Woehle is an Opinion Columnist who can be reached at email@example.com.