Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Let's Talk: Dorothy Dandridge & Marilyn Monroe (Part One)

It's never really been much of a debate. It's just been more of a question. Many questions actually. Why is Marilyn Monroe so glorified and Dorothy Dandridge is not? The answer is simple. Dorothy Dandridge was a woman of color, specifically--a Black woman. The answer isn't that simple however. First, let me break down my personal opinion on each of these women.

Marilyn Monroe. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Smoldering. Sexy. The quintessential sex symbol and love goddess. I love Marilyn Monroe. I love her work and I admire her as a person. Yes, I admire Marilyn as a person. Call her what you want--slut, whore, dumb, whatever. Marilyn's personal life is not my business and even if it was, I wouldn't judge her for what she does/did with her vajayjay unless it somehow makes/made its way onto my boyfriend/husband. Nothing to do with me! 

Based on some of the things I've read about Marilyn, she was a very smart woman--very different from her film roles, but the roles she played--she played them well, despite what anyone says about her acting ability. Marilyn just had an unhappy life and she was pretty much BORN into chaos. Like someone said about Dorothy Dandridge, to me Marilyn's death was was simply a "murder that took a lifetime". 

Do I look up to Marilyn Monroe, as a role model? No, I don't and that's not for any particular reason. But I certainly do admire her for her beauty and her style. I do believe that Ms. Monroe was a lovely, lovely woman. 


Dorothy Dandridge. Dorothy Jean Dandridge. MY QUEEN!!! Need I say more? I don't need to, but I will.

Beautiful, gorgeous, radiant, sexy--and even though a lot of people may not know this--funny! Dorothy also made a few mistakes in her personal life (although the majority of them were little to no fault of her own), but hey what can you do? We all make mistakes. 


The fame of Marilyn vs. The Fame of Dorothy
(Merely my opinions, not facts or anything researched)

In some ways, Marilyn Monroe filled the void left by Jean Harlow and the void that Mae West had become "too old" to fill in Hollywood. She was blonde, curvaceous, talked with a breathy voice, an exuded sex appeal, but the thing about Marilyn is that her star began to rise when "sex" began to peek its way back into movies (and now television) after being smothered by the Production Code. Necklines were getting shorter (again), the long, glamorous, Hollywood gowns were becoming shorter and more form-fitting. Women young and old were now returning to the "small waist, big bust" look. Physically, Marilyn had everything to offer the post-war, 1950s public.

 In my opinion, Marilyn seems to be a symbol of the freedom that had been ripped from American women once the men returned home from the Second World War and for American men, she represented something that average American man felt he wasn't rich and/or handsome enough to have. 


Dorothy Dandridge has been referred to as "our Marilyn Monroe" (I believe by Lena Horne). "Our" meaning Black America. Dorothy Dandridge had the painfully gorgeous face, the slim yet curvy body, the deep dark eyes. On screen she was electrifying and confident, but when she wasn't on a movie set you could see her vulnerability as clear as day. 

Of course for Hollywood, a gorgeous, elegant, stylish, and poised Black woman was like a display in an art museum--look, but don't touch. Dorothy Dandridge was the kind of woman that Black America wanted and needed to represent their women, but of course--what can Hollywood do with a woman like Dorothy Dandridge? A beautiful woman with class, style, sophistication whose skin color happens to be a little dark than what's "normal" and a little too light for what's normal for the "abnormal". "What in the world can we do with this oddity?" Hollywood asked. 

She wouldn't be a convincing mammy or maid (because of her complexion and other physical attributes). Most Hollywood films had a Leading Man and a Leading Lady--there weren't enough Black Leading Men, and they certainly wouldn't put her with a White man. The only thing they can do with a Black woman like Dorothy Dandridge was cast her in bit-parts and as a specialty act (a simple song and/or dance scene) and if she dare want anything more, well the femme fatale, sexpot role (more than likely in an all-Black cast film--which were few and far apart) is the only role she can play. 

Eventually, a woman gets tired of playing the same role and her fans get tired of her playing them as well. Dorothy Dandridge stated in her autobiography that she literally would get so many letters from fans asking her "Why do you keep playing whores?" She kept playing these roles (which really wasn't even that often) because there were no other roles for her to play and like Nina Mae McKinney and Lena Horne--the other gorgeous stars who happened to be a lighter shade of back, Dorothy Dandridge would basically become unusable in Hollywood. 

Dorothy Dandridge had everything Marilyn Monroe had and more--she was a more natural (It would be too blunt if I just flat out say "better" like I really want to) actress and even though she herself said she wasn't that great a singer, she still was a better singer than Marilyn. She could have reached the same heights and popularity, but the color of her skin stunted the growth of her career and fame.


Their Legacies

Well I think we all know how much and how well Marilyn Monroe's legacy has been preserved...

Dorothy Dandridge's legacy?

Wanna know what came up on the side when I Googled "Dorothy Dandridge t-shirts?"

During the 1990s there was a sudden burst of interest in Dorothy Dandridge  which led to a scramble over rights to her life story. Women who were born during the same decade that Dorothy died--Vanessa L. Williams, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jasmine Guy, and of course--Halle Berry were fighting to play this woman. In 1999, we got to see Halle Berry portray Dorothy in the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. A younger generation came to know who Dorothy Dandridge and she once again became a household name...but much like when Dorothy was alive and soon after she died--the mention of her name slowly made its way back to a whisper strictly among Black Cinema enthusiasts and hair/makeup/fashion lovers. 

However, I will say that since being on Tumblr, I've discovered many Dorothy Dandridge fans--ones who appreciate her work just as much as her beauty. Her name has also come up with talks of Whitney Houston's recent passing and its eerie similarity to Dorothy's passing (in terms of where she was found, how she was found, and of course the similar cause of death that has replayed itself with too many entertainers). Can I also note the fact that both of these women were anticipating new and exciting chapters in their careers before they passed as well?

But now, I come to "the question". The question that's sticking its little head up further and further from the ground.....

Why do people like Marilyn Monroe more than they like Dorothy Dandridge?

or better yet...

Why do Black girls idolize Marilyn Monroe, but not Dorothy Dandridge?

...To be continued...

What are your thoughts so far?

To read Post Two, completed on August 8, 2012. 


Read by July 2014 follow-up to this post here.


  1. I think the main issue is, mostly Dorothy being black, Marilyn has more iconic roles and movies than Dorothy. The average person can't name one of Dorothy Dandrige's movies outside "Carmen Jones."

    With Marilyn, you have Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and some people can't even remember the title of the movie, but one of the scenes have been redone so many times, like "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," that it has basically become ingrained in culture and not just US culture, but the world.

    And overall, most have been more informed about Marilyn than Dorothy. We know Marilyn Monroe is not her real name, we know her backstory, we know her rise and her fall. What do we know about Dorothy without researching her? She was a popular black actress, with that distinction of her being black usually close by since she can't just be "an actress," and that she starred in Carmen Jones. Some may also know she died, but mostly because they were looking for naked pictures of Halle Berry and they came upon her movie about Dorothy.

    That may just be my insane opinion though.

    As for your 2nd question, let's be frank. Our culture has yet to and may never heal from the degradation that has taken place. Marilyn Monroe is to me similar to Bill Clinton in terms of how black people may see her (all my opinion). You have this curvy women who at times seems powerful, but still has her sensitive side. She came from basically nowhere and poverty (if I recall right) and become world wide famous, while being a style icon all the same.

    To wonder why the Nicki Minajs, and such of the world, idolize Monroe over Dandrige simply comes from the fact that we as a people don't teach damn near nothing about the culture we know of. We have already lost any information on where we come from, and modernly, unless a movie is made about them, we let our stars fade away into black holes as well. Monroe, even in her short life, found a way to penetrate history. Meanwhile, lady Dandrige is our first Academy Award nominee, and her claim to fame is one single movie that plays every once in awhile and the music from the Carmen song we hear every now and then in a commercial.

    Excuse my ranting, spelling and grammar mistakes if they are there.

    As always, interesting post misses.

    1. Welp, looks like I don't have to make a part two because you sir have just written about 90% of what I was going to say in it lol. I'll just mention you in the next post =)

    2. Bright road tamamgo porgy and beds just to name a few. I've seen all three I love her!

  2. I would like to thank you and applaud you for this blog. I just had this exact conversation today and I always ask "why do you have that white woman on your wall?" whenever I see a poster of Marylin and Audrey all over my friends or associates walls. I have painted pictures of Dorothy and Eartha Kitt on my wall, with plans of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker and many more. I prefer these beautiful women to grace my walls than to follow the trend that society wants us to. I happen to come across this blog as I was researching about copyright information and looking up images, as I hope to get interest to my generation and younger of the strong beautiful black women that should admire and give them options rather than only having access to two white women. Again thank you for this

  3. aigespeaking12/7/12, 1:29 PM

    Thanks so much for your comment! I think it is important that while our people know who the white stars are, they must know the women of color! It is important that they embrace them just as much--probably more. Good luck with your search, I'm glad to have been able to help! =)

  4. Great article and I agree. I dislike seeing all these black young girls calling themselves the black Marilyn Monroe. What bother me more is to read and hear the black actress always name a white actress as their idol for fashion and film.

  5. @Anonymous #1 - Why would it bother you if black woman identifies with a white woman? As women, we should admire other women we like regardless of their color. That's the kind of short sightedness and obsession with skin color that Dorothy (and to a lesser degree, Marilyn) fought against. To put it bluntly, it's not about your damn skin color, it's about the content of your character. Many women find Marilyn's ability to be sexy and vulnerable an irresistible combination. Many identity with her struggle to find real love and there ain't a thing wrong with that.

    As far as why Marilyn is a cultural icon and Dorothy isn't - there's no great rationale for that. Race surely comes into play but there are loads of white actors who were better performers than Marilyn that are equally forgotten by the masses. Let's be real here - the masses (by that I mean the folks who only know classic cinema in brief passing and only know classic film stars from their limited exposure to them via commercials, brief mentions in relation to some new star or biopics that come and go) are only interested in the now. The Kim Kardashians, the Teen Moms, etc. Real actors or performers that don't resort to publicity stunts or multiple rehab trips are boring to lots of young people today. I find that sad because things that happened or people that existed before 1990 aren't uninteresting or old fashioned. It would also help if Dorothy's movies were more readily available but again, studios that release DVDs go by what the public wants. That's why the Warner Archive exists - numerous studios don't want to put money into old films or television shows as the audience is limited.

    1. Totally agree with a lot of your commentary.

      The point that Anon #1 is making is that although as women we should admire all/most women despite skin color, there's a trend of black girls and other girls of color only (or mostly) looking up to white women and white stars--and that certainly IS a problem. It's not an issue of prejudice or racism, but it is the consequence of misrepresentation. When a black girl looks at pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge side-by-side and can only tell you who one of them is (Marilyn Monroe)--that is a big problem.

      However, people like Anon #1 also don't seem to realize that the reason black girls don't know anything about Dorothy Dandridge or Eartha Kitt is because they aren't constantly exposed to them and no one is willing to teach them. Fortunately, I was blessed with a mother who is deeply interested in all aspects of American History--especially Black American History and I learned a lot through her, and what I learned through her made me eager enough to want to go on the internet and discover more. If I weren't fortunate enough to have such a mother (an entire family, actually), this blog probably wouldn't even exist.

      Also, I don't think "young people of today" are disinterested in real actors/performers, I think young people of EVERY generation tend to lean more towards what's popular in the moment. Our generation has the socialites, past generations had the minimally talented-but-good looking actors, the pop music stars who couldn't act, etc. I do think that the internet has changed the game, however--I know people my age (early 20s, teenagers) who know just as much about classic film stars (even some of the most obscure) as the adults, if not more, sometimes. I'm in college and I'm learning things about classic performers from people still who are still in high school! It's quite amazing actually.

      I do agree with the gist of your commentary, though! Thanks so much for checking out the post. Happy Holidays!


  6. Hello, erm to add to your discussion id like to say that I am 22 years old. I didn't know anything about the existence of Dorothy before this year. I had known of Marilyn for quite some time, she became somewhat of an inspiration to me as an entertainer myself. BUT I cant believe that I could take to a person so quickly as soon as I found Dd. I was just amazed I wanted to know everything about her I wanted to know why I'd never seen anything about her ever before! At the same time the relationship between Dorothy and Marilyn only inspired a new admiration for me towards Marilyn to be honest. Although now I feel like I have found a part of my life that I was missing out on, and I dont think the issue is about black women identifying with a white womenn, I think the concern is .. why should we have to. WE DONT. We, have Dorothy!! She is just a blessing in the history of colored folk and for this reason we should honour and respect her for who she was and what she did for that. Im all for her recognition. All I know is that I am a better performer because of this woman I have a deeper drive for my career that through all the experience I had with knowledge of Marilyn Monroe, she just couldnt give to me. Anyways, I'd also like to say i'm writing an ethics report regarding Dorothy. I am writing about the ways that she opened doors for black women in the industry after her. or how she might have inspired them.
    Obviously Im finding very limited sources on her the library of my hometown has TWO books on the woman and I live in quite a big city. I was livid I almost cried about it, and i aint no cry-baby!
    So Id just like to ask finally if anyone has any useful sources about her for me or points for me to consider in my research.
    Im really opposed to changing my subject due to lack of sources, I wont be happy writing about anything else I think so please .. any help could help!

    1. Love reading about your experience w/discovering Dorothy. We're the same age, too :)

      Which books does your library have? If they have Donald Bogle's biography, I highly advise checking that out. Also, check out his books: "Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood" and Brown Sugar: Eight Years of America's Black Female Superstars (a documentary based on this book is also available on Youtube)--if the library has them, that is. Also, some documentaries on Dorothy's life are on Youtube, also.

      Matter of fact, visit this post: http://pocinclassicfilm.blogspot.com/2013/11/dorothy-dandridge-marathon.html

      I would also recommend checking out Google Books for book previews and magazines as well. The Google News Archive has been under construction for awhile--either it's still under construction, or everything is done and I just don't know how to access it yet, but you might be able to figure it out quicker than I can--you may be able to do a search in simple: Google News and customize the search with a specific date range. You probably could also check out vintage newspaper sites.

      You may also be able to find vintage mags/newspapers on the Internet Archive (archive.org)--you may have to search the actual magazine (ex: Variety, Photoplay, maybe there's some Ebony, Jet, or Hue). Someone sent me the link of a Photoplay magazine with a story on Nina Mae McKinney, but I was unable to actually return to the magazine article by simply searching her name, I had to actually bookmark the link.

      Good luck with your research and report!

    2. I see, Thank you so much. You've suggested sources that I hadn't thought about. I'm deeply grateful! The books in my library, I know that one of them was the biography which I actually intend to just buy. Also the other, I dont remember the title because the purpose of the book wasn't really about her it was relevant to her or mentioned her in some way. This is why I was so frustrated.
      Since I last posted I have found a lot of websites that credit my research. I will look into all of your suggestions. So I believe I'm creating a good foundation of research sources.
      Another thing, I had a tutorial for my report. My tutor says that she finds my study to be very relevant and that she actually looks forward to reading my proposal!
      So I'm feeling very positive about it all. as I say I'm so thankful to you for your time and effort in helping me with my sources.

    3. But cyril dandrige and Dorothys mother were not white parents..they were black....

  7. Probably the biggest problem I have with the Marilyn v. Dorothy argument is the "Marilyn Monroe came from nothing and therefore had it as bad as Dorothy Dandridge" argument. Its not that I don't sympathize with Marilyn's problems, but she wasn't the first celebrity to "come from nothing" to become a star, and she certainly wouldn't be the last. Lucille La Seur AKA Joan Crawford came from a background so downtrodden that it would have straightened Norma Jean's hair, but while she did have her own problems (in the form of an estranged relation with her daughter and alcoholism), she didn't draw the type of negative attention to herself, or cause the type of problems, that Marilyn did, and rather lived to advanced age and settled into private citizenry by the time she died. Being born poor doesn't doom you for life. Marilyn Monroe had choices and generally made the wrong ones. She had a great more control over her life, as a privileged blonde-haired, blue-eyed white Hollywood bombshell, than Dorothy did.

    Don't get me wrong, Dandridge also made some poor career choices. She definitely should have accepted the role of Tuptim in The King & I, but she was so hung up on listening to the advice of Otto Preminger, who later stabbed her in the back, that she passed up involvement on possibly the biggest movie musical of the decade, and probably killed her career as a result. But, every choice she made was a direct reaction to the institutionalized racism that gave her few choices, as opposed to Marilyn, who did deal with sexism, but not systematic abuse in the form of a studio intent on casting her as servile maids, promiscuous ill-fated jezebels, or exotic and sexualized "slave girls." Marilyn got choice material in the form of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like it Hot, Bus Stop, and the Misfits, along with a great deal of material she chose to turn down. Marilyn had a choice as to how she was going to react to her lot in life, and she generally made the wrong choices.

    This is opposed to Dandridge, whose life was made hell on the basis of her skin color, and not only as a black woman in predominately white Hollywood, but also as a half-black woman continually ostracized within her own community. She also couldn't control the fact that her daughter was born with special needs during a time when people didn't understand how to care for people with these disorders. The fate of her daughter is even sadder than the fate of Dorothy herself, who incidentally found herself in abusive marriages (whereas Monroe's romances with Dimaggio, the Kennedys, and Miller have become the stuff of legend). There wasn't a Black American in the Deep South who probably wouldn't have loved to be in her shoes, and yet her life was still hell.

    That being said, since the Halle Berry film, Dandridge has begun to gain more acknowledgement steadily. She's one of four women honored at the Hollywood Walk of Fame Gazebo, along with Mae West, Dolores Del Rio, and Anna May Wong - the latter two who have gotten even less attention than Dorothy has. But, even then, she's still in Marilyn's shadow, as there's a statuette of Marilyn in her famous "Seven Year Itch" pose, in the form of a weathervane on the top of the Gazebo, as if to imply that Dandridge, Wong, and Del Rio are somehow "conforming" with Monroe's set standard for beauty.

    1. Excellent, excellent commentary. Ironically enough, I've never thought about it in this way, through the lens of how different the reasoning behind their decisions were. In the past I've also pointed out to others that we also have to remember Dorothy's life and how young she started out. This was a woman who became an entertainer at the age of three, who, along with her sister, was left in the care of an abusive woman for a little over a decade, struck out on her own at the age of 18, married by the time she was 20, had a child at 21. People don't really think of Dorothy Dandridge as being a "child star", but her life really became familiar with that of other child stars, and as you stated, unlike others, racism played an ever bigger factor. I don't think she ever really had an opportunity to really stop, rest, and think about her next career move--if someone wasn't making her decisions for her, she was in a position where making career moves was the farthest thing from her mind (marriage, child, etc.)--and by the time she started to take the reins, she was way beyond the peak of her career.

      Dorothy came from nothing herself, then worked hard and worked consistently to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood, only to just as quickly become, for lack of a better phrase, a "has been".

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  9. I actually attended a Melissa Harris Perry lecture at Clark University in Worcester, MA back in 2012, the topic being Black Women's representation in American Pop Culture, and asked about her opinion on Dandridge's representation on film and was surprised that even Prof. Perry wasn't was familiar with Dandridge as I thought she would be. Its weird, because Dandridge's relative anonymity can't be explained away by the color of her skin.

    Josephine Baker never made a single conventional "movie" in her career, and yet contemporary black women, performers and civilian, idolize her and still mimic her style. She even has a cameo in Fox's Anastasia film, she's so readily identifiable. Lena Horne, similarly, never really "broke the barrier" in Hollywood as an actress. She was generally isolated in single musical numbers which could be cut for Southern releases, with the exception of Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, which were pretty low in terms of quality. She would eventually leave Hollywood for a successful Nightclub career, but still she's a few steps below a household name. Her voice is immediately identifiable to Americans, black or white, and she acknowledged as a trail-blazing talent (which she was, but so wasn't Dorothy). Even Hattie McDaniel is honored as the first black actress to win an Oscar, despite the negative connotations of the roles she played, but for some reason Dandridge is ignored for her own groundbreaking status as the first black woman to be nominated for Best Actress.

    Is it because, despite the opportunities she made possible for future actresses, she died before she could fully reap the benefits of her efforts? Whose to say what she would have been capable of if she had just held on for a few more years. Her co-star in Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess, Diahann Caroll, achieved historic fame as the star of "Julia," making her the first black woman to head off a television series of her own. Perhaps Dorothy would have gone down that road if she had been cast a better lot in life. Or perhaps she would have just made gains in the "Blaxploitation" Circuit (which I can't see her enjoying) Would she really have sealed iconic status if she had lived to become the star of, say, Foxy Brown or Cleopatra Jones, instead of Pam Grier or Marsha Hunt?

    Or is it simply because the lives of Lena Horne or Josephine Baker simply are determined as more empowering examples for black women, and therefore are made more visible by people who seek to educate the youth? Josephine Baker lived a life so daring and brazen most people wouldn't even conceive of living; performer, spy, activist, sex symbol, socialite. Lena Horne lived to a ripe age and was generally free of scandal for most of that life. Perhaps the general consensus that dying penniless and addicted to painkillers isn't the path young black women should aspire to, given the hardship they already have had to face historically. Of course, that's bull. Dandridge's fate is depressing, but there's something to be said for the way she carried herself even at her lowest; with a certain dignity and sense of self, and determination, that would melt a heart of stone. Dorothy had the cards stacked against her, but she railed against them. And, very briefly, she won out. That type of determination, IMHO, is worth emulating.

    1. When Dorothy began writing her own autobiography, even her "friends" wanted to know why would she "want to do that?"--basically that she should be ashamed and embarrassed to tell her story, that she'd only bring black women down. I definitely do think it's safe to say that, especially in the years after she died, that Dorothy Dandridge became a name we "swept under the rug". This too, is something I've never thought about--in why Dorothy became so ignored when she probably broke the biggest ground in Hollywood and could most definitely agree that this is the exact reason why the black community took so long to begin acknowledging her again. I think some of these same things could be said about how little Dinah Washington is recognize today, too--especially in comparison to Ella, Billie, and Sarah.

  10. Very nice collection of maryln monroe.Take a look at my version Screen

  11. Not sure if my last comment published but basically I believe Marilyn Monroe is just regarded as a sex symbol and sex sells whereas, Dorothy is regarded as graceful and personally, i 'd rather that not be tarnished. I do however wish she would be more idolized for her grace but i do believe that if there were more memorabilia of Dorothy black women would support it. In a nutshell Marilyn is trending and people flock to trends. If we did more to idolize Dorothy she would get that same attention. She's not less attractive or appealing in any fashion.


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