Like the essayist Joan Didion, Marilyn Monroe has lost her edge. Her sexual roles and nude Playboy pictorial made her one of the most controversial women of the 20th century, but the masses turned her once forbidden image into a backdrop for inspirational quotes posted on Pinterest and Instagram. (Users often credit Monroe with Susan B. Anthony's and Confucius's famous lines.) A new group of Monroe devotees believe they have bucked the trend. Under the hashtag #ThugMarilyn, they're posting questionable pictures of Monroe covered in tattoos and wearing trendy streetwear on Pinterest and Instagram.
"She looks hot either way, but she looks so much more attractive this way," explains Instagram user @Emilyyyyaf.
ThugMarilyn posts cover Monroe in a 20th century aesthetic that opposes the sanitized version of her that appears on dorm room posters and alongside inspirational quotes, but it's questionable how the hashtag associates tattoos and basketball jerseys with a dangerous coolness. Even more questionable is the invocation of the word "thug," a term often used by Megyn Kelly when referring to black youth.
But the images of Monroe and Los Angeles have always been open to interpretation: Monroe played comedic roles while suffering from depression in her off time, and the underground has always lurked under the surface and around the corner from movie studio lots. The characters in the 1939 novel The Day of the Locust—dubbed one of the most revered Los Angeles novels by the Los Angeles Times—include a struggling actress, an accountant, and a little person. In a now-notorious 1947 murder that inspired countless cable TV documentaries and a Brian De Palma movie, an unknown killer sliced struggling actress Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, in half.
Monroe grew up in the underbelly of society—she spent most of her youth in foster homes and died unaware of her father's name—and even during her mostly comedic acting career, stories of her depression and lurid affairs filled the tabloid Confidential. She spent much of her career striving for prestige work, according to the popular podcast You Must Remember This, and following her death in 1963, conspiracy theorists have accused the Kennedy family of murdering her. (Historians and the Kennedys have rejected the claims.) Despite the dull quotes that millennials now attribute to her name, the underworld and hustling has always defined Monroe as much as her movie stardom—just like Los Angeles itself.
Pinterest shows an endless scroll of tatted Monroes, gun-toting Monroes, and Monroes clutching guns and wearing bandanas over their mouths. On Instagram, the oldest public post of #ThugMonroe goes back to July 2012. User @ryanball displayed a painting of Monroe covered in tattoos. "Got the first piece of artwork for new place," he captioned the post.
In another early picture, an Instagram user called @iamdonn_e shows off his tattooed Monroe shirt in a parking lot. "#Parkinglot #Peace #ThugMarilynMonroe," he writes. Later, @Thatcrazynerdyshortgirl, a young woman gives the middle finger while wearing a shirt of Monroe holding two guns.
Most of these shirts lack the approval of Authentic Brands Groups (ABG), the company that owns Monroe's image. (They also run Juicy Couture, among other brands.) Instagram user @Emilyyyyaf gained her #ThugMarilyn shirt after her friend bought her one at the local mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I'm not friends with her anymore," she notes. "She's a bitch, but I will always treasure that shirt."
@Emilyyyyaf finds Monroe's original edgy persona in the new repurposed photos. Today Monroe seems beige, but in the wholesale, post-war 1950s, her nude phones and outspokenness about being abused as a child ignited controversial debates. "You really just have to look into her life story," @Emilyyyyaf says. "Some people (retards) thought she was a slut for [posing] in Playboy."
Forty-two-year-old Los Angeles-native Laetina Burns also believes the tattoos accentuate Monroe's authentic image. She discovered the hashtag after she moved back to Los Angeles following a decade in Brooklyn. She lives downtown, and one weekend was strolling through the wholesale fashion district, where counterfeiters mix pop culture and streetwear and sell "Commes Des Fuck Down" shirts. "There is a plethora of weird, random, irreverent crap all over the streets there," Burns explains. She stumbled across a blanket that showed Monroe with a stomach tattoo that says, "Never Stops Dreaming," and bought it right away.
"I like that particular image because it was on a blanket. A blanket!" Burns remarks. "I like how 'LA' the image is. Wrapping myself in the blanket was like embracing my return to weird LA culture, letting it embrace me."
As much as #ThugMarilyn drawings rely on glaring stereotypes, their creators believe they're bringing authenticity to Monroe's life and legacy, which contain multitudes and contradictions. Monroe never flashed guns or paid for a tattoo sleeve, but her public persona consisted of playing dumb blonde comedic roles while navigating a tragic personal life and a sexuality the public deemed controversial. She was as weird and contrarian as her hometown.