Filling the feeds of Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok, it is impossible to have missed the images of Kim Kardashian donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic gold gown for the recent Met Gala. It has also been impossible to miss the fact that people are not happy about it. Potential damage to the garment is one thing, but the criticism started beforehand. Some fret that the gown is meant for a museum instead but, weeping historians aside, why are people so upset?
Most of the arguments against Kim Kardashian is that she is somehow unworthy of the dress. Bob Mackie, the designer who originally sketched the dress worn for Marilyn’s 1962 ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ performance, remarked: “Marilyn was a goddess. A crazy goddess, but a goddess… no one else should be seen in that dress.” The idea is that Marilyn was a national treasure and that Kim is her shallower counterpart, using the dress for clout, when Marilyn wore it for… what exactly? Comfort?
“Kim and Marilyn occupied similar cultural niches in their eras, and both did what they could to maintain fame in male-dominated industries. To Gen Z at least, both are as iconic as each other, so why the differential treatments?”
There are plenty of parallels between the two women. Both were influencers that pioneered the beauty standards of their respective decades. Marilyn embodied the curvaceous body ideal of her time, with women eating raw eggs mixed with hot milk to try and achieve her image. Similarly in 2015, the year after Kim’s bum broke the internet, a cosmetic bum procedure was performed every 30 minutes. Additionally, both women were relentlessly exploited on the basis of their looks: Marilyn was abused in care from as early as age 8, continuing to face harassment in the entertainment industry as she aged. Meanwhile, Kim was famously a victim of digital violence when her former partner Ray-J leaked her sex tape, as well as the recent coercive control and public harassment she has undergone by her ex-husband, Kanye West. Both women’s careers also evoked subsequent controversies, often for their sexualised displays. As we can see, Kim and Marilyn occupied similar cultural niches in their eras and both did what they could to maintain fame in male-dominated industries. To Gen Z at least, both are as iconic as each other, so why the differential treatments?
The answer lies in their sexual presentations: one of which is palatable to the mainstream and one of which is not. Marilyn is a symbol of a particular kind of sexuality: a soft, sweet seductiveness and a submissive, blonde innocence. She is sexy but bashful, with an appropriate amount of humility. She is also afforded passivity in this narrative. She is a symbol in the literal sense, something that does not make its own meaning, but onto which desire is projected. Norma Jean herself described Marilyn as a persona, not a person. She was a fantasy, an illusion. Not only this but we understand her as exploited, so there can always be doubt as to whether her more sexual presentations were products of pressure or free choice.
“Visibly deliberate expressions of sexuality, or the owning or taking advantage of another person’s attempts to exploit one’s sexuality, pale in comparison to Marilyn’s feigned unintentional allure.”
Kim rose to fame due to her sex tape, and has been photographed fully or partially naked a number of times since then: a modelling style that Marlyin also engaged in. The difference is that Kim is assumed to be in control of these decisions and, even when she has not been (the release of her sex tape, for example), she is not granted a Marilyn-esque victim narrative. Instead she is said to be profiting from it, with her rise to fame accredited to the tape, or she is accused of doing it for followers and clout. Ostensibly deliberate expressions of Kim’s sexuality, or her reclamation of another person’s attempts to exploit her sexuality, pale in comparison to Marilyn’s feigned unintentional allure. When Kim behaves as an agent she is shamed for having the audacity to not even pretend she is performing under a guise.
That is not to say we should all be fans of Kim Kardashian. Kim is not beyond criticism: the promotion of unrealistic body standards, cultural appropriation and blackfishing being some of them. But you don’t have to support her to agree that the two celebrities have occupied almost identical cultural spaces — if anyone should wear Marilyn’s dress it makes perfect sense that it’s Kim Kardashian. No one else is iconic enough for all the same reasons.
“These criticisms stem from the fine line we make women walk between overt and covert sexuality. Marilyn seduces, Kim invites. One is sweet, kind and classy, one shallow and tacky.”
These criticisms stem from the fine line we make women walk between overt and covert sexuality. Marilyn seduces, Kim invites. One is sweet, kind and classy; the other shallow and tacky. Kim cosmetically cultivated her figure to draw attention while Marilyn stumbled upon a gold mine physique. Marilyn’s presentation was not always so coy. She posed semi and fully nude a number of times and her performance in this particular dress was steeped in agency and decisiveness. However, the Marilyn that is cherished is the girl upon the grate, tentatively holding down her billowing skirt from revealing her undergarments against her will. Accidentally desirable and powerless in its wake.