Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Alan Nadel


Although Marilyn Monroe was one of the most famous American film stars, and a monumental cultural figure, her film work has been studied far less than her biography. Applying C.S. Peirce’s semiotic categories of icon, index, and symbol, this research explains how Monroe acquired meaning as an actress: Monroe was a powerful, but simplified, public image (an icon); an indicator of a particular historical and social context (an index); and an embodiment of significant cultural debates (a symbol).

Analyzing Monroe as an icon reveals how her personal life, which contradicted her official publicity story, generated public sympathy and led to a perceived intimacy between the star and her fans. Monroe’s persona developed through her roles in films about marriage. We’re Not Married (1952) and Niagara (1953) expose the pitfalls of marriage. In response to fan criticism of Monroe’s aggressive persona in these films, however, Darryl F. Zanuck, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), consciously distanced Monroe both from her aggressive persona and her implicit criticism of marriage. Monroe’s films, in particular, The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956), and Some Like it Hot (1959), also revealed the tensions inherent in postwar understandings of female sexuality. Monroe’s role in her final completed film, The Misfits (1960), both acknowledges and resists her status as a symbol. This film unites Monroe’s screen persona and off-screen life in resistance to conventional values: her character embraces divorce, lives with a man who is not her husband, and openly criticizes men who betray trust. This film most extensively interweaves Monroe as an icon, an index, and a symbol. In so doing, it reveals how Monroe embodied the contradictions inherent in both postwar culture and Hollywood stardom.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)