8 Marilyn Monroe’s Expression of Female Sexuality in the ’50s

Deirdre Glynn


During a time of suppressed female sexuality in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe thrived off showcasing her sexuality, or so it seems. She appeared to feel at home in the limelight, while most women felt at home in their domestic bubble. What I want to look at is why did she feel compelled to showcase her body. How did it feel for Marilyn to receive so much male attention, and simultaneously universal praise and criticism? It’s hard to know what was going through her mind, and it’s clear her life wasn’t everything she hoped for in the tragic way it ended. A lot of Marilyn’s aura is held in her mysterious physique. It has been said that the challenge of making sense of Marilyn Monroe in academic pursuit is a “daunting one.”[1] I want to make sense of why she chose to sell her body and display herself in such a public way.

Marilyn’s upbringing and her early desires for sexual expression

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, did not have a traditional upbringing. She was brought into this world by her Mother Gladys Baker who suffered from schizophrenia and depression. Baker put her daughter in the foster care system at the young age of 2-weeks old. Although she visited her often, she was not a stable mother figure throughout Marilyn’s life. Marilyn’s dad was out of the picture and she has been deemed an illegitimate child.[2] It was never determined which beau of Gladys was Marilyn’s father. Norma Jean was brought into a foster home where she lived for many years, her mother would often show up unannounced and take Monroe for outings. The foster care house she grew up in was incredibly strict, and her foster parents forced modesty and religion onto Marilyn. She expressed as an adult, that she once dreamt of “standing up in a church with no clothes on, and all the people were lying at her feet.” She revealed that she sensed “freedom.” This vision of Marilyn’s to me is a clear foreshadowing of the future that was to come. At a young age, she had the desire of expressing her sexuality and showcasing her body in a public manner.[3]

The nude calendar display and first Playboy magazine

In May of 1949, Monroe sat for a nude photoshoot for a calendar. At the time she did not know that these photos would be on the cover of one of the most famous magazines for men in America — Playboy magazine. It wouldn’t be for another 6 years that she would be featured in playboy, but these photos caught the eyes of many. It is said that Marilyn originally hesitated in participating in the nude photoshoot, but ultimately complied. Allegedly Marilyn was struggling financially, late on rent, and did not have enough to eat. She had already established herself as an actress and this would be her first venture into nude photography or pornographic exposition of herself.[4] Although she was an actress, she was nowhere close to her peak fame and did not have a solid income. One photo taken this day would establish the famous Marilyn as we know her. This photo would be the epitome of what Marilyn as a sexual icon looked like. This photo would be titled “Golden Dreams,” the same photo later featured inside the first edition of Playboy.

Image Source: “Golden Dreams” shot by Tom Kelley in 1949. Published by Playboy enterprises https://www.revelist.com/celebrity/playboy-marilyn-monroe/9647

Playboy Magazine

A few years after her first nude photoshoot, Marilyn was featured on the cover of the first-ever edition of Playboy magazine in 1953. Her nude photos were additionally featured inside the magazine. The notorious Hugh Hefner, founder, and editor of Playboy magazine had what seemed to be an infatuation with Marilyn. Hefner purchased the photos from the calendar and published the magazine without Monroe’s permission.[5] This magazine made Marilyn’s image as a sexual icon explode. This exposure was essential in the perpetuation of the fame that she would receive in the coming years. Millions of copies were sold and Americans fell in love with the image of her body.

Cover of first-ever Playboy magazine (1953) produced by Hugh Hefner and photo shot by Tom Kelley (1949)

Marilyn featured in First edition of Playboy 1953. Image Source: Playboy enterprises, New York, NY. Edited and published by Hugh Hefner. https://www.revelist.com/celebrity/playboy-marilyn-monroe/9647

Her First live Public Display, A Military Marilyn

In February of 1954, Marilyn traveled out to Chunchon Korea to the N-47 Base. This was going to be Marilyn’s first public display, and she would be showcasing herself to one 60 thousand American troops at a post-war show. She was brought in because at this point in her career she had established herself a sex symbol, especially to American men. She had been in over twenty films by 1954 and was reaching her peak as a Hollywood star.[6] Monroe has also just married famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio, who often expressed his discomfort with Marilyn’s performances and sexual expressions. The issues revolving around their relationship soon lead to a divorce.[7] The average American man would be delighted if the presence of Ms. Marilyn, seen both as a sex icon and an American sweetheart. One of the soldiers expressed that they were “buffaloed-over” Marilyn coming. Many soldiers had seen her in her calendars and various films.

What she said about her experience ~ A quote from Marilyn herself

Marilyn expressed “I felt I belonged. For the first time in my life, I had the feeling that the people seeing me were accepting me and liking me. This is what I’ve always wanted I guess. Please come and visit us in San Francisco.” ~ Marilyn Monroe[8]


Marilyn seemed to enjoy the limelight in this instance. It may have been just what she spoke to the public, but to me it seems genuine. She enjoyed the male gaze and felt confident displaying herself, yet didn’t express herself as only a sexual object. A soldier spoke on the fact that Marilyn acted as if she wanted to be there and took time to talk to many soldiers. In participating in casual conversations with the soldiers, Marilyn acted as if she wasn’t famous at all.If Marilyn did not truly enjoy the attention, then why would she be so cheerful and personable? It is possible that she was just a very good actress? It is undeniable that she was rather convincing and gave the impression that she enjoyed what she did.

Marilyn Monroe performing for American troops in Korea (1954). Image source: Michael Orches Archives, “Vintage Photos Show Marilyn Monroe Entertaining Troops in Korea”


Returning back to the childhood dream of Monroe’s that included revealing herself in front of the church, encapsulates what I believe Marilyn Monroe stood for. She wanted to shock and she wanted to radiate confidence that she wasn’t afraid to show off her body. In the short life that Marilyn lived, she accomplished her goal. I believe she serves as a model for many women today. Although some aspects of her public display were too male dedicated and her life was very complicated, I believe that her courage to go against the grain of what was considered the norm was admirable. In many ways, it would be rightful to call Ms. Monroe a feminist. It is obvious that she catered to a male audience, but what she accomplished was considered taboo for a woman of that time. Her choice to expose herself in the way she did lead to a divorce and criticism from some fields of people. However, this did not stop her, she continued doing what she loved and performing for people. It was not until her marriage with Arthur Miller, a famous play writer, that her life started to fall apart. Her marriage troubles caused her to have emotional issues herself leading to several psychotic breaks. It can not be completely ruled out that the pressures of fame is what led to her downhill spiral, but is something we can never truly know. On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead from an overdose on sleeping pills. It has been thought that it was a possible suicide but it was never confirmed.[9]

  1. Laura Mulvey, "Thoughts on Marilyn Monroe: Emblem and Allegory," Oxford Academic 58, no. 2 (2017): https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/hjx019.
  2. Laura Mulvey, 2017
  3. David Spoto,Marilyn Monroe”. Rowan and Litchfield (2001) https://www.google.com/books/edition/Marilyn_Monroe
  4. Kristi Good, “Marilyn Monroe.” Theatre History Studies, volume 3 (2014). Photo taken by Tom Kelley and featured in playboy franchise http://www.nudepmates.com/playboy/723-marilyn-monroe-is-the-ultimate-playboy-playmate
  5. Kristi Good, “Marilyn Monroe” Theatre History Studies, volume 3 (2014): http://go.libproxy.wakehealth.edu/login?ur
  6. Kristi Good, 2014.
  7. Krist Good, “Marilyn Monroe.” Theatre History Studies, volume 3 (2014). Photo taken by Tom Kelley and featured in Playboy franchise
  8. Spoto, Donald. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. United States: Cooper Square Press, 2001.
  9. Editors, The History Channel “Marilyn Monroe Born.” www. history.com


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Deirdre Glynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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