The problem with Blonde, and our disturbing obsession with Marilyn Monroe
Izzy Mein explores the problematic nature of the world's captivation with one of the brightest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, Marilyn Monroe, in the wake of the recently released film Blonde:
Artwork by Alison Laing (IG: @alisonlaingart).
One of our most enduring pop culture icons, Marilyn Monroe, has once again been rendered on screen, in the recently released Blonde, directed by Andrew Dominik, and starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn, or as the film would have it, Norma Jean (Monroe’s real name).
Much like the other enduring screen stars of her time, such as Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn is remembered as one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But, while Hepburn and Taylor remain enduring icons of film, fashion and celebrity, their pop cultural status is significantly lesser than Monroe’s, who is iconic in the truest sense of the word: her legacy is so intertwined with image and iconography to an extent that almost nobody else’s is.
Clearly one thing that differentiates her from Hepburn and Taylor is her tragic death at a young age. Dying young forever froze her in amber as the sensual blonde bombshell, the apex of the 1950s pin-up, an image she would never age from. But unlike, say, Grace Kelly, another Hollywood star who died tragically young, our culture continues to be obsessed by Marilyn Monroe and her legacy.
Marilyn’s life has been depicted onscreen dozens of times in the last half-century, and has been the subject of countless books, both fiction and non-fiction, proving our relentless need to mythologise someone who died so tragically.
But what is it about Marilyn specifically that keeps us coming back? Her natural comedic timing? Her alluring, seductive voice? Her multiple marriages? The conspiracies theories surrounding her supposed suicide? Perhaps it is our inability to reconcile the fact that a woman who brought such joy to the screen could have been so deeply unhappy. This is the paradox of Marilyn, and the focus of so many of the interpretations of her: the chasm between the real Norma Jean, and the legend of Marilyn Monroe.
Blonde proves to be an encapsulation of this problem, and while the film makes a point of saying that Norma Jean is the real person, and Marilyn is merely a constructed façade, it does not care about Norma Jean, only Marilyn.
The opening frames of Blonde highlight everything that is wrong with it. They depict what is perhaps the most enduring image of Marilyn: standing over a subway grate, her white dress billowing around her waist while hundreds of cameras flash. This is the superficiality of Blonde, interested only in the sensational, only in the image, re-treading what we already know of her, but in a way that is more graphic and violent than has been done before.
Ironically, it is the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, who manages to unknowingly articulate the problem with our morbid fascination with Marilyn. When asked in a recent interview about why he chose not to depict Monroe’s civil rights activism, her resistance to the anti-communist witch hunts that plagued 50s Hollywood, or the fact that she blazed a trail in the industry by starting her own production company, Dominik replied that those things were not important to him, as ‘that stuff is not really what the film is about. It’s about a person who is going to be killing themself […] Now to me, that’s the most important thing.’ Dominik does not care about Marilyn’s life, filled with immense talent or passion for social justice , only her salacious and mysterious death.
Obviously, it’s unfair to suggest that Marilyn’s life was as cheerful as her films, and it’s also true that she suffered from depression and ultimately took her own life. She was clearly someone who suffered a lot of pain and trauma, but Blonde is not just brutal, it’s downright misogynistic.
The film posits that being abandoned by her father before she was born was the central wound in Marilyn’s life, and the cause of all her misery. Blonde takes a deeply sexist view of her life, depicting her endless search for a man to save her, and within her cultural legacy, Dominik casts himself as that man. He says this is his attraction to Marilyn, believing that he ‘could have saved her somehow.’ Marilyn is robbed of all agency in this film, which begins by showing her physically and emotionally abusive childhood, and goes on to viscerally depict repeated rape, domestic abuse, and endless sexual harassment, eventually portraying her as a delusional, emotionally unstable drug addict. While these events may have been true to her life, Dominik’s deliberate choice to show them so graphically is nothing more than trauma porn, and an entrenching of the ‘little girl lost’ image Marilyn has come to occupy in the popular consciousness.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, the film seems to want Marilyn to reject her talent and ambition for motherhood, framing her decision to have an abortion as something she has been pressured into by studio heads. ‘I killed my baby for this?’ she asks herself after watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one of her best remembered films, which is dismissed by Dominik as being about ‘well-dressed whores.’ Later on in the film, during a subsequent pregnancy, her unborn foetus starts to speak, and castigates her for having had an abortion. In a political moment where reproductive rights are so under threat, particularly in the U.S, with the recent reversal of Roe vs Wade, the film’s determination to punish Marilyn for not being a mother is extremely troubling.
Blonde is an adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, a novel that self-identifies as a fictionalisation of Marilyn Monroe’s life. The film, similarly, claims to be fictionalised, but at this point in our myth-making, 60 years after her death, even distinguishing between fact and fiction seems redundant, as it all becomes part of the same legend. If this film is fiction, why does it have to be so brutal? Why can’t we use art to correct the wrongs of history, or at least to reframe it, putting the emphasis for once on Marilyn’s genuine talent and incredible achievments? This is what a new documentary, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, aims to do, putting a feminist lens on Marilyn’s story. Dominik claims that to examine her life from a feminist point of view is ‘a mistake,’ proving he cares little for Marilyn herself, and only wishes to subject her to more torture.
The graphic depiction of this woman’s suffering does not accomplish anything. Blonde’s obsession with the mythos of Marilyn seeps into its graphic violence, glamourising her trauma and fusing it with her legacy.
Some of Blonde’s most effective sequences actually occur when Marilyn is at her happiest, for example, in the immediate aftermath of her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller. Ana de Armas portrays her in these moments with a vivacity and joyfulness which are so compelling, it makes it even more frustrating when Dominik’s cruel vision triumphs. This may well have been his intention, but it’s just another example of the film’s disinterest in showing Marilyn’s life as anything but violent and hopeless.
Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth-century, maybe of all time, but our ongoing cultural obsession with her is more than a little disturbing. Blonde’s determination on painting such an unrelentingly bleak picture of her life confirms that we have no interest in either Marilyn or Norma Jean, only in watching a famous woman endure untold pain, an audience perpetually captivated by female anguish.