June 1 marks Marilyn Monroe's 90th birthday, and over 50 years after her death, the actress remains a powerful pop culture icon.
And it was that early death that Shari Zeck, Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University and WGLT's culture maven, said helped cement Monroe's reputation as an icon.
"When some one has lived a long and fabulous life and made lots of movies, there's a sense of completeness to that. But when there's someone who dies quite young, in the middle of things, perhaps before they transition to what they will be at middle age, then a space is left open that requires us to fill in with our imagination."
As a culture, Zeck explained, we tend to be caught in narratives of 'what if.' "What if we had met that day, what if I had gone to graduate school instead of getting a job? Those kinds of what ifs are the things that we turn our brains around over and over again in lots of situations. It's a central animating idea for us. When it comes to celebrities, of whom we make quite a bit, when that what if can be employed, it allows us to develop a narrative about them. And there is a kind of possession that goes along with that. There is a passion that we have as a culture for those who are gone too soon, and we invest what might have been for ourselves."
Marilyn Monroe might have been a good actress, even a great one, said Zeck, but we didn't get much of a chance to find that out, although she did contribute good performances both comedic and dramatic. "Her timing was terrific and her ability to hold the camera is not just about being beautiful, so she had many talents."
Monroe's off screen life looms large in her legend. "I think the real tragedy of Marilyn Monroe was the rape and abuse she suffered," said Zeck. "When we look through that lens, then her life comes through in a very different way. The rest of her life was about trying to feel like she was worthwhile. She attached herself to those who she thought would help her feel that way, and it didn't work. In her life, she didn't have the support she needed."
There's such real hunger for icons in our culture that Zeck thinks it's possible that Monroe could endure for many more years as a popular icon, though there's always the chance she could one day be eclipsed.