When Kim Kardashian wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress to the Met Gala recently – the shimmering, crystal-studded, second-skin gown in which MM sang her infamous rendition of ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ to JFK in 1962 – many people had a collective fit of the vapours. You’d have thought someone had wiped their nose – or worse – on the Stars and Stripes in front of the White House, that some act of sacrilege had been committed.
Kardashian (with the good manners characteristic of her – there’s a scene in an early season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians where her monstrous sister Khloe mocks her for being courteous to a nobody who is late with her new car) anticipated this: ‘I’m extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history. I would never want to sit in it or eat in it or have any risk of any damage to it… it will forever be one of the greatest privileges of my life to be able to channel my inner Marilyn in this way, on such a special night.’
Kardashian recognised that the cult of Marilyn is stronger than ever. It has been announced this week that a new Marilyn Monroe biopic by Netflix, called Blonde, is due to be released this year. The director Andrew Dominik promises that it ‘will offend everyone.’ But even though Marilyn Monroe was a cultural figure dwarfing Kim Kardashian and all her sisters combined, if I was forced to choose between them as a ‘role model’ for young women (despite the fact that I loathe the idea of role models) I’d choose Kim – because I am a feminist and believe that the best way for women to be in what is still very much a man’s world is tough, not tender.
Both women were shamed for their nakedness, but the tough one toughed it out – trapped between the bullying sisters and the money-mad mother, KK's was a Cinderella story in which not the shoe but the sex tape was the tight fit which opened the door to a whole new world. Marilyn never got over selling herself to pay the rent and putting out to get roles. There’s a bit in a book by her maid Lena Pepitone (in the New York years, when Marilyn was studying method acting) when Pepitone tells MM that she too had wanted to be an actress but her strict Italian father told her that being an actress was no better than being a hooker and Marilyn says sadly ‘He was right.’ She accepted the objectification which had such a disastrous effect on her, killing her at the age of 36.
Kim K, at this age, was just getting started on her political activism, ranging from everything from publicising the Armenian genocide by Turkey and working for the release of non-violent drug offenders; in 2019 she funded the 90 Days to Freedom campaign, an initiative to release nonviolent drug offenders from life sentences. The sneering query ‘But what does Kim Kardashian do?’ Is easily answered with ‘She raises four children, oversees a billion-dollar empire and gets under-privileged, non-violent people left rotting in jail out – what do you do?’ The Kardashians are a functioning matriarchy, where men come and go wearing the same baffled expression and the females have the final say. Marilyn was used by men until the end, the last years of her life becoming a two-Kennedy car-crash.
I’ve often wondered if it would have been different if she’d been around today in the age of MeToo. We’ll never know, but this tender and troubled woman is still being used by men, though these are now artistes rather than the casting couch Philistines – so obviously, that makes all the difference. What started with Norman Mailer (Pauline Kael called his study of Monroe ‘an offensive physical object – perhaps even a little sordid’) finds its latest expression in Blonde, which has already been rated an 18 for its sexually explicit content
Marilyn was exploited by a chain of men, and eventually it killed her – and if anything, she is more exploited in death. But Kim owned her own shaming and now thrives. Marilyn wasn’t even allowed to progress from being a sex symbol to a serious actress; Kim – whose bum was once her raison d’être – studies to become a barrister. And – unlike poor lonely Marilyn – she is likely to live to a ripe old age, dying surrounded by grandchildren, reflecting that the wages of sin can really be rather rewarding, so long as one holds one’s head high, sticks one’s bottom out and does not rely overmuch on the kindness of strangers.