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Images of Merylin Monroe: Semiotic Analysis

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Roland Barthes is a French critic who distinguished two levels in which we can interpret signs. Barthes (in Hall 1997:39) says that in order to get meaning from an image we need to decode the signifiers into their suitable notions. The first level is the literal meaning of what the image is made up off. He (Barthes in Hall 1997:39) says that images also have “a wider, cultural meaning”.

Barthes (in Hall 1997:39-40) explains what he calls “Level of Myth” by his analysis of the pasta ads and the French soldier poster. Now, I will attempt to use Barthes's theories to analyze two images of an iconic figure in Western Culture: Marilyn Monroe.

Image 1 is an image of Marilyn Monroe recreating a scene from The Seven Year Itch. White Dress of Marilyn Monroe. 2019. [O]. Available:

At first, at a denotative level, we see a blonde woman wearing a white dress, there is air coming up from the underground subway vents which are blowing up her dress. Her hair is done up and she has on statement earrings giving her a glamourous appearance. We see her bending over and trying with very little effort to keep her dress down in order to cover her legs. She doesn’t seem even a little worried as she is smiling or laughing. In the background, behind her, there is a man taking pictures and another laughing.

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The image is of a monochromatic color scheme with simple tones of black and white. Marilyn is in the center of the image, she also takes up space in the foreground, middle ground, and the background where she stands out against the dark, and these aspects highlight her as the focal point of this image.

Now, on a connotative level, what does this picture tell us on a deeper level? Barthes (in Hall 1997:39) says that representation takes place in two linked processes. Firstly, the signifiers and the signifieds unite to form a simple denoted sign - a woman pulling down their skirt in a provocative way. The second process is finding the deeper cultural meaning. Marilyn Monroe is a famous character that established a certain stereotype. This image is a remake of a famous scene from The Seven Year Itch where she purposefully stands over the vent, thus making Marilyn in this particular white dress a symbol. Some could say that she is a sexy woman provoking the men around her in this image.

Marilyn Monroe is in fact known as a sex icon, so we associate images of her with star qualities of glamour, sexuality, and beauty. If this picture was taken later in her life, we can associate it with depression, drug-taking, and eventually death. From a feminist perspective, we can see this image as a show of self-confidence, telling women to be proud of their bodies and femininity.

This is another classic image of Marilyn Monroe – we know that she was an iconic Hollywood figure and possibly one of the most well-known actresses of all time. By looking at this image, we can provide a detailed semiotic analysis of how Monroe’s posture and expression capture a bigger argument of culture. The signified: a beautiful, sexy, Caucasian, blonde woman, and this produces the signifier: a vulnerable, innocent, and highly-sexualized woman. Thus we are led to the secondary signified. I’ve established that this image denotes a sexy and vulnerable woman and connotes a tragedy. One way to look at the myth of this image is to say that people’s images change over time. What we see on the outside can only give us a glimpse of the person, but when you dig deeper, there is often lots of emotional trauma that is hidden by society and in this case, would be the machine of Hollywood and fame.

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Images of Merylin Monroe: Semiotic Analysis. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“Images of Merylin Monroe: Semiotic Analysis.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023,
Images of Merylin Monroe: Semiotic Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2023].
Images of Merylin Monroe: Semiotic Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2023 Dec 6]. Available from:
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