Marilyn Monroeis one of the most recognizable figures of 20th-century pop culture. But many of us don’t know that much about her beyond the provided male narrative – her sexiness, her seductive vulnerability, the overall stereotypical “dumb blonde” persona.
Over the last few decades, the women’s movement has claimed Monroe, originally Norma Jean Baker, as one of their own.
As a woman exploited for her beauty and experiencing many of the issues that form the focus of feminism, Monroe, if she had lived, would likely have been a “card-carrying feminist,” Gloria Steinem has said.
And not just because she experienced the worst of sexism; but also because she fought it. And often in shockingly fearless ways.
She was brave in a time that didn’t applaud women’s boldness.
And consistent in her progressive views even while her fans, for the most part, chose to ignore her political commitments.
Taking Monroe's example, we can learn how to embrace our own fortitude.
Here, then, are five ways Marilyn Monroe teaches us to be bold.
She Spoke Up
At a time when sexual violence was rarely discussed, Monroe talked publicly about the abuse she suffered in childhood and adulthood. In doing so she gave voice to women who had felt silenced by the stigma of similar experiences.
This was shockingly brave. After all, it was the 1950s, and a decade or more before the feminist movement would begin building upon the idea that women were not to blame for their own abuse.
She Bossed Up
Marilyn Monroe was the second woman in Hollywood history to head her own production company (Mary Pickford, producer, screenwriter, and star of the silent movies was the first, in case you’re curious).
The iconic film-star established Marilyn Monroe Productions as a response to Fox Studio’s consistent sexist behavior towards her. These misogynistic moves included casting her continuously in “dumb blonde” roles, refusing to let her look at scripts before she filmed, and paying her much less than her male co-stars.
She Skilled Up
Marilyn Monroe never stopped developing her skills, even when the press and the public ridiculed her ambitions. When, for example, she commented in an interview that she would like meatier, more dramatic roles such as Grushenka in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, reporters later questioned whether she could spell Grushenka, let alone play the part.
But she didn’t let that stop her. She studied with Lee and Paula Strasburg at the acclaimed Actors Studio and took literature classes at UCLA.
She was a voracious reader, with an equal fondness for the classics and contemporary works. In her library of over 400 books, she counted writing by Walt Whitman, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Grace Paley, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Emily Dickinson amongst her favorites.
She Stood Up
There’s a powerful story that shows Marilyn Monroe standing up not just for her friends and beliefs, but being bold enough to use her Hollywood star status to boost both.
A passionate Ella Fitzgerald fan, Monroe learned of the singer’s inability to get a gig at the Mocambo, a famous L.A. nightclub, and an important springboard for singers’ careers in the 1950s. According to the venue owner, along with being an African-American, the jazz singer wasn’t “glamorous” enough to perform at the club.
Monroe stepped in and proposed that if the owner booked Fitzgerald, she would come and sit at the front of the house for each performance, celebrity pals in tow.
Though Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland showed up with Monroe that first night, such star power wasn’t necessary. Fitzgerald sold out every performance anyway.
As well as becoming lifelong friends with the actress and producer, Fitzgerald's career moved onto a different level after that. In a 1972 interview, she told Ms. Magazine, “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt.”
Along with her progressive views on racial equality and her support for the then-burgeoning civil rights movement, Monroe raised eyebrows for other causes she championed.
She was open about her pro-Castro views on Cuba and, in the early sixties, helped found the Hollywood sector of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
She also made sure to keep a residence in Roxbury, Connecticut, where she held a role as an alternate delegate to the Democratic caucus.
In other words, she didn't call quits on her political activism nor the beliefs that she felt were part of who she was.
For sure, Marilyn Monroe was beautiful. And she lived through many private - and not so private - traumas.
But she was also politically brave and professionally bold in spite of the world wanting her to be less of both.
She was, in other words, a whole person - and an inspiring reminder to women everywhere to persist in being the whole of who they are too, even when others try to stand in their way.