Here is a classic picture of Marilyn Monroe—an iconic figure of Hollywood and arguably one of the most famous actresses of all time. Looking at this photograph, we can produce a detailed semiotic analysis of how Monroe’s body and face in this image encapsulate a broader argument of culture. We have the signified: a beautiful, sexy, white, blonde woman (primary level of signification) and this produces the signifier: a vulnerable, innocent and highly-sexualized woman. This leads to the secondary “signified”. This image denotes a sexy and vulnerable woman and thus connotes a tragedy, as well as a sense of evanescence. Then, finally, the myth of this image would be that people’s images change overtime. Outward appearance can only tell us a surface level judgement; but just below that, one level down is often a level of emotionality that society tries to hide but is only exacerbated, in this case, by the machine of Hollywood and fame.
Just as Barthes had to put the history and biography of the ‘Negro’ aside, we must do the same for Marilyn Monroe. Many of us know her history and her story, but in this case we cannot see Monroe as a direct symbol of our myth. Rather, her image is an “natural relationship” (Barthes, 114). That is, the myth of Monroe in this image is one that naturally evolves. Monroe has been frozen into a reference that ultimately always lands on the tragedy of Hollywood Stardom. She is the very presence of Hollywood tragedy. As Barthes would argue, if I simply said outright that Monroe represents Hollywood tragedy without explaining why and what it connotes and denotes, it wouldn’t have a pure, “natural and eternal justification” (Storey, 122).
We start, of course, with the denotative aspects. She is a woman, she is white, and she is blonde. Her dress is unzipped. She is staring straight ahead, she looks natural and unblemished. Her cleavage is showing, she has red lips, her hair is tousled and somewhat free. She seems to be bent over or scrunched up, and her shoulders are raised. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyebrows are slightly raised. Her eyes are glazy; eyelids lowered and a sultry stare. The background is black, her pose is in the center of the frame. She has a mole on her left cheek. She is not really smiling, but not really frowning.
On a connotative level, we can say that this woman is acting out sex, innocence and vitality. In this image she looks innocent, yet highly sexualized. Her dress is unzipped, she looks like she just had sex…or she just rolled out of bed. Her gaze is both confident and innocent, but also troubled, or confused. Her bent over position makes it seems like she’s about to collapse, or bend over. Additionally, her hunched shoulders make her seem vulnerable. She looks like she has something to hide, or something to cover. The fact that her dress is still unzipped implies that she was perhaps left like this: used and worn-up, not fully completed and clear-cut. She’s clearly condoning multiple facets of femininity in the time period of this photo: the expectation to remain virginal, but also sexual.
It is here that we “reach the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature” (Barthes, 114 ). This image has fabricated the idea that this highly sexualized woman has literally collapsed under the weight of her image…or even further, the combination of flaunting sexuality and manipulating those around her is such a large weight to carry that she physically can’t maintain it–she can’t even stand upright.
In this sense, this image of Monroe represents the myth of Hollywood tragedy—taking a beautiful woman, sexualizing her and making her an object of a conflicting set of standards, which inevitably led to her confusion and troublesome drug addiction and eventually, her death. This is the myth of Hollywood: a dream land that produces stardom and glamour in how they objectify and produce their stars, but also the land that crushes them to the ground, not caring to notice the effects it has on the person itself, only seeing the profit and fame that occurs from it.