WHY IS IT WRONG FOR MADONNA TO COPY OFF MARILYN MONROE?
originally written, May 2003 - updated May 2010
The Short Answer
Why is it wrong for Madonna to rip off Marilyn Monroe?
In a nut shell:
1- it's always been wrong to steal, to pass off someone else's work or creation as your own (and she has in fact done this at times); and
2- Madonna's theft of Monroe's "look" was not a 'one time' thing - it happened frequently, it was long-term, and it was excessive;
3- it shows that Madonna lacks creativity - she's always been far, far too reliant on other people's ideas, styles, looks, and fashions (not just Marilyn Monroe's)
May 2010 update:
Pop singer Lady Gaga has been very popular for the last two years.
Particularly since the release this past month of a video by Christina Aguilera (entitled "Not Myself Tonight"), I have seen many people on the web - Gaga fans, Aguilera fans, and Madonna fans - all bicker among themselves on entertaiment blogs as to who Aguilera was "ripping off" in her new music video.
The Gaga fans generally believe, naturally, that Aguilera was borrowing imagery from Gaga, while one common theme I see on blogs can be summarized as 'Aguilera, Gaga, and all the other recent pop singers are all ripping off Madonna anyway.'
And, by the way, that anyone would allgedly steal any of Madonna's tricks bothers or angers some of these people.
Now, only now, are people beginning to feel what I did for so many years in regards to Madonna.
Only now are they beginning to understand how utterly annoying it is for a celebrity to mimic another, get away with it, and receive credit for it, as though she was the originator of it, when in fact, she was not.
Shamefully, stealing from others has gotten so common place that, as of 2010, a Madonna-related blog appeared about two or three years ago, which routinely steals work from my Anti Madonna site, (especially from my "Madonna is Unoriginal Gallery") and passes my work, my research, off as their own.
Please appreciate the irony:
Here I am chronicling how unethical it is for Madonna to base an entire career upon stealing other people's work, and I do this by investing my time researching photos and uploading them to this site, and along comes someone with a blog stealing my work on this very issue.
This Madonna-related blog to which I refer regularly copies and pastes the very images from this site, ones I have tracked down, customized, and scanned from books, and they have uploaded them to their blog without giving my site credit.
I. Postmodern Society and the Loss of Moral Absolutes
The first, and perhaps biggest, reason I am addressing the issue of Madonna's deliberate acquisition of Marilyn Monroe's image is this: we all live in an era when more and more people have abandoned a belief in moral absolutes, and this, as far as I am concerned, is highly problematic.
I am having to write such a page because there are now so many people who do not see anything wrong with stealing, with failing to accredit proper sources.
We live in a postmodern society that claims that there is no Ultimate Truth, and even if It existed, we could not know that Truth, and, in fact, one who claims otherwise is thought arrogant or else woefully out of step with the times.
All truth claims, especially ones pertaining to religion and spirituality, are thought equally valid and valuable.
One consequence of the acceptance of moral relativity and postmodern thought is that American high school and college students see nothing wrong with different forms of dishonesty, including plagiarism, and so it has become more prevalent:
With the advent of the Internet, a wealth of information became available to students -- perhaps too much information.
Many teachers say cheating, especially in the form of plagiarized term papers, is on the rise because of the easy availability of material on the Internet.
Students have always been able to buy ready-made term papers, but the Internet has lowered transaction costs and drastically increased inventory. [source: Plagiarism On The Web Is As Easy As 1-2-3 ]
What exactly is plagiarism?
Plagiarism means copying someone else's words without giving them credit. American students are taught from an early age that plagiarism or copying are a serious offense. Americans learn how to avoid it. If they do it, and they are caught, they are not surprised when they are punished.
For foreign students, the situation is different. Sometimes a student copies another student's work (a paper or a test) intentionally. Maybe this is a more acceptable practice in the student's home country, but here [in the United States of America] a teacher will get very angry about it, and the student will be punished. . . [source: PARAPHRASING, SUMMARIZING, and PLAGIARISM ]
Obviously, I am not using the term 'plagiarism' in its strictest sense. I am applying it to more than the written word.
Furthermore, I do not mean to suggest that plagiarism, and other difficulties created by a postmodern, morally relative culture, is restricted to the United States alone, as it is not.
I am sure the attitudes of Madonna fans (and Madonna herself) are not much different from that of society at large. They are bound to ask themselves: "What's so bad about Madonna ripping off other people's creative ideas? Who cares?"
Some Madonna fans, unfortunately, admire Madonna's frequent thefts, and the fact that she is unoriginal.
They may not be applauding unoriginality or theft per se, but these characteristics are the practical outworkings of their Madonna fanaticism nonetheless.
A 'sin of omission' may be at play here, for there may be a segment of Madonna fandom who are not honestly aware of just how much Madonna has stolen from others.
Among these may be the fans who have never heard of Marlene Dietrich, Jean Seberg, and so forth.
I still find this phenomenon of 'ignorant Madonna fans' almost as frustrating and irritating as those who are cognizant of Madonna's thefts but who excuse her for it anyway.
Regarding the older Madonna fans, (those born anywhere from, let's say, 1968 to 1973), I find their ignorance of pre-1980 pop culture, music, and cinema nauseating and inexcusable.
Regarding the younger Madonna fans (yes, Madonna actually still has a few younger fans, though not very many, from what I have read lately), I find their staggering ignorance of pop culture, music, and cinema before the early (or mid) 1990s nauseating and inexcusable.
I do not mean to portray myself as an expert at all things past, and, in addition to this, I freely admit that I ignored most pop culture during the 1990s (Hootie and the Blowfish. Marilyn Manson. N'Sync. Backstreet Boys. Can you really blame me for tuning out during the bland, lackluster, unappealing '90s?)
However, in spite of all that, I at least do not assume that the world of fashion, music, and hairstyles all end and begin with Madonna, as do so many Madonna fans.
(I notice with amusement that Madonna fans are typically annoyed by Lady Gaga fans who behave as though fashion and music goes back no further than Gaga's 'Just Dance' or 'Poker Face.')
It does not help matters that the media continually heap praise upon Madonna for remaining in the spotlight for so long, which she was able to do in large part because she kept changing her image so often.
However, (and here's the key part), these were images which Madonna pilfered from other entertainers, or from those who work 'behind the scenes' in the show business industry (such as art directors and stylists).
Some Madonna fans seem to believe that
1) Madonna's practice of using many different looks over the years is something to be admired; and that
2) she is the originator of many of these styles and that
3) as long as she does not admit point- blank to stealing them that it is morally acceptable
For example, one Madonna fan, (whose first language is not English, it would appear) writes in very glowing terms that
No one artist in the whole world has been able to make with their look what Madonna has made in the last 20 years.
Known by all the world as a changing woman that one day appears of girlfriend, another of night dancer, First Lady, executive, cowgirl, Gothic woman or geisha... anyway. One of the things that more characterize Madona (although she says that she hates that they tell her that), it´s her capacity to reinvented herself . . . [ source: Gallery ]
II. Paying Homage Verses Thievery: A Difference
Before we directly address why I have a problem with Madonna's copying Marilyn Monroe and other famous individuals, I want to set the ground for a distinction I will be making.
I do not always believe it is wrong for one famous person to pay homage to a legendary entertainer, even if doing so may mean copying off the sound, the clothing, mannerisms, hair, or makeup style of that entertainer.
Nor do I believe it is wrong for an entertainer to employ or otherwise utilize the services of a personal stylist (i.e., to be 'coached' on how to dress or how to apply makeup).
During the 1950s, A photographer from Life magazine, Richard Avedon, had screen actress Marilyn Monroe dress up and pose as legendery stage and screen icons Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Lillian Russell, Clara Bow, and Theda Bara. (This photo session of Marilyn as Harlow and the rest can be viewed at a Marilyn Monroe fan site.)
Marilyn is said to have admired Jean Harlow and Olivia de Havilland. Monroe did not mimic Harlow or de Havilland her entire life, publicly or professionally.
Members of the The Beatles, and Elvis himself, have said that singer Roy Orbison was influential in their work. Despite their admiration for Orbison, The Beatles still had their own sound, as did Elvis.
John Lennon never tried to fool the public into thinking that he was Orbison.
Elvis did not continually dress in all- black and wear the '50s styled sunglasses, as did Orbison.
As time went on, we can see many rock bands of the 1970s through the 1990s that cited The Beatles as their inspiration. The band Oasis is said to have a few Beatle-esque sounding songs in their catalog.
Elvis impersonators can be found by the dozen on the web offering their services for parties, and they can be spotted in person playing in lounge acts.
Many country singers still do the occasional Hank Williams Senior cover song.
So many female country artists have performed Patsy Cline covers or "sound alike" tunes that it's just not funny.
Lee Anne Rimes is one such performer, but she eventually got past the "Patsy Cline" stage of her career to make her own unique persona and sound.
Madonna is certainly not the first, or only, performer to borrow from another entertainer.
III. Why It Is Wrong For Madonna To Lift Marilyn Monroe's Image
If so many performers have copied off other performers, why single out Madonna for lifting Marilyn Monroe's style? Didn't Madonna herself shoot off in one 1987 interview (paraphrasing), "So what, a lot of people have copied off Marilyn Monroe."
If Madonna had, say, dressed up and posed as Marilyn Monroe once or twice for a magazine layout (which she has actually done on two or three occasions), and had left it at that, there would be nothing objectionable, in my view.
Madonna, however, has
a) based an entire career upon stealing the works of others;
b) has copied off Marilyn Monroe extensively, beyond the "Material Girl" video and guest appearances on the American television show "Saturday Night Live;" and
c) she either refuses to admit the extent of her copy- cat behavior, or else, only grudgingly so
From an interview Madonna granted Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1987 we read
. . . the Marilyn Monore question irritates her [Madonna] even more. Asked if she thinks of herself as another Marilyn, she bristles. "If I didn't have blonde hair, I don't know what people would do for comparisons."
But Madonna, dear, didn't you imitate Marilyn in your "Material Girl" video?
"She's been imitated by a lot of people," Madonna says. "Marilyn Monroe was a victim, and I'm not. I know what I'm doing, and what I want. If I make mistakes, or fall into traps, they're mine, not Marilyn Monroe's."
Guts, you think. She's right when she says she's nothing like Marilyn, who tried to please, to placate, to be loved and therefore, saved through the grace of some man. Madonna saves herself.
And yet, according to other publications (e.g., a small fan booklet from the early or mid 1980s):
Madonna considers herself very much like the famed actress / sex symbol Marilyn Monroe because both women have the qualities of "innocence, sexuality, humor and vulnerability"
In a summer 1987 appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight show, when Carson brought up the inevitable 'Madonna ripping off Monroe' observation (though he put it much more diplomatically, if I recall, something like, "How do you feel about being compared to Marilyn Monroe so often?"), Madonna repeated the line (I am paraphrasing)
"If I didn't have blond hair, I don't know what people would do for comparisons."
As evidenced elsewhere at this site, one can see that Madonna copied off Marilyn Monroe a lot more than just the blond hair (click here for examples).
Madonna wants to mislead others.
She of the "Blond Ambition" tour wants the public to think that she came up with the blond bombshell look but then has the nerve to act defensive when people correctly and rightfully point out that she has done nothing but steal Marilyn Monroe's look and public persona time and time again.
At the very least, Madonna does not want anyone mentioning that she lifted the looks, styles, and personas she has used over the years from other sources.
Madonna gets too defensive and easily offended when being called on her Marilyn theft. I believe it is because she does not like her unoriginality exposed.
Perhaps, after all, the Madonna fans who learn where Madonna really gets her ideas and image from would begin spending their discretionary income on Marilyn Monroe DVDs and Marilyn Monroe books (or, perhaps, Mae West and Dietrich memorabilia) rather than on Madonna video collections and posters.
Largely, though, I believe Madonna's ego gets bruised when she has her Marilyn Monroe rip-off scam thrown back in her face.
Madonna must find it frustrating that some of us are not fooled, that we realize that she blatantly (and sometimes, not so blatantly) steals hairstyle, makeup, clothing ideas, as well as the Blond Bombshell persona, from Marilyn Monroe, and that she steals from other famous individuals.
Madonna does not like to be confronted by or reminded of any of this.
No, we are all supposed to bow at Madonna's feet since she is allegedly some sort of artistic or stylistic genius who is the Creator of the blond venus image. ('Blond Venus' being the title of a Marlene Dietrich film, incidentally.)
It must anger Madonna to no end that some of us do have some knowledge of pop culture that pre dates 1980 and that we'd rather have the Originals than her second rate, watered down, cheap imitations.
Yes, it is true, as Madonna says, that Marilyn Monroe (who was born in 1926 and who died in August 1962) has been copied by scores of women.
All of this is not even taking into consideration the occasional drag queen who dresses up like Marilyn or the legions of Marilyn clones that the movie studios began marching out during Marilyn's lifetime (and largely during the height of her fame in the 1950s), such as Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren, Barbara Lang, Cleo Moore, Carroll Baker, Sheree North and Jayne Mansfield -- and that is not even the complete list.
More recently, in the book Making Faces, Lisa Marie Presely can be seen made up as Marilyn Monroe in two photos.
Disco queen Donna Summer struck the famous Marilyn Monroe stance, meaning the Seven Year Itch, 'white halter dress blowing up over a subway grate' pose for the back of a 1976 album cover ("Four Seasons of Love").
This same, quintessential Marilyn pose (from The Seven Year Itch) has been copied many times over in beer commericals, at least once in a series of "Nair" hair removal ads, and other films, such as The Lady in Red with Gene Wilder.
The same pose can be witnessed in a preview for a new Jim Carey film set to be released summer 2003, in which his character, who has supernatural powers, has the the skirt of a young lady passing him by on the sidewalk blow up in the air.
Debbie Harry, lead singer of the 1970s band Blondie, admitted to being a huge Marilyn fan who borrowed Marilyn's look.
Other, more current examples ranging from the 1970s to the present could be cited as well.
Notice, though, that other than the studio- manufactured Marilyn clones of the 1950s, none of the people mentioned above used Marilyn as a basis for their entire look over a decade or more, and that one of them who did use the image for some time, (such as Debbie Harry), freely admitted to it, sans the bad attitude -- and they did not try to pass it off as their own creation.
Madonna did not stop at stealing from Monroe, however.
RIPPING OFF PAULA ABDUL IN HUMAN NAUTRE VIDEO
The "Human Nature" video looks like a rip - off of Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted Snake video from the 1980s, what with all the people crawling around inside cube - shaped contraptions.
RIPPING OFF SHERYL CROW LOOK
In her The Ray of Light period circa 1998-99, I think Madonna was trying to rip off Sheryl Crow with the long, wavy hair, quasi- bohemian appearance.
I do not think it a coincidence that Madonna chose this look at this time, as Sheryl Crow had gained quite a bit of popularity, air play, and critical acclaim with Tuesday Night Club.
Even if Madonna was not copying off Crow in particular, she was at least copying off the general earthy, long, wavy hair appearance by Paula Cole, Alanis Morissette, Nikka Costa and others of that time.
RIPPING OFF WORLD RELIGIONS FOR FASHION TRENDS AND PERSONA MAKE OVERS
I also believe that Madonna's dabbling with a Hindu look at various public functions and her singing of Hindu religious lyrics on her album was nothing but posing by her.
Ditto with this Jewish Kabbalah stuff. I believe that she is using this Jewish mysticism belief system, not as a fashion rip off, as there is not some sort of well- recognized set of clothing or accessories that Kabbalahists wear (except for a single red bracelet that is worn to ward off evil spirits or what not).
Rather, I think she is into Kabbalah in order to look more 'spiritual' in the eyes of other people. Sometimes Madonna's shamless copy-cat activities are not always about fashion but extend to other realms, things that cannot be seen -- anything to get p.r.
Madonna already used the "raunchy- punk- Roman Catholic- school girl- look," and there really aren't too many other visually distinctive religions to mimic and rip-off in videos or awards show appearances.
Lutherans, Prebyterians, and Baptists, for example, are not known for any particular set of distinctive dress and potentially hip fashion accessories. If they were, you dang skippy that Madonna would be dressing as a Baptist for her music videos.
Unless Madonna wants to cover herself head to foot in a long, black dress and do the Quaker look.
Knowing her, she'd rip the seat out of the dress, refrain from wearing underwear with it, expect to outrage the Quaker community (in order to get press from their outrage, of course), and then expect the butt-less dress to become a hot fashion trend, which she actually stole from gay club goers in New York.
I doubt that Madonna would shave her head bald and wear orange pajamas to go for a Buddhist monk aesthetic.
RIPPING OFF NO DOUBT'S GWEN STEFANI
I am not a Gwen Stefani fan per se. I think that she is okay, and while I do own one No Doubt CD, I am by no means a die-hard Stefani fan. I am not particularly for or against Stefani. Remember that when you read this next part:
I really think what happened with Madonna's foray into Hinduism in Ray of Light is that Madonna was stumped for who (or what) to rip off next, because she could not think of what theme to go with.
I am willing to bet it was at this time that Madonna happened to see a No Doubt video or photo spread featuring Gwen Stefani, where Gwen was wearing a bindhi or some henna, and decided to 'steal' that look.
MADONNA THE COPY CAT HYPOCRITE
Madonna, by the way, had the audacity and nerve later on in an interview to claim and express annoyance that Stefani allegedly copies off of her.
Meanwhile, Madonna has stolen looks and styles from Billy Idol, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Olivia Newton John, Debroah Harry and dozens of other people -- she's being a total hypocrite.
At this stage in the game, Madonna has already copied off just about every cool and popular famous person there is to copy off of (such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe), including generic classes and types, such as cowboys or geishas.
I think she even posed as some sort of gypsy or swami in a photo spread for Rolling Stone magazine a couple of years ago.
Madonna is incapable of creating one original idea or expression. She relies on stealing from other people. Therefore, all the claims and praises for Madonna's many "reinventions" is so irritating beyond belief.