Content warning: This piece contains references to physical and sexual violence.
When you think of tragic heroines of Hollywood’s golden age, your mind probably goes straight to Marilyn Monroe. The Hollywood starlet ruled the big screen and fascinated the public before her untimely and saddening death in 1962. We know very little about the inner workings of her life as Norma Jeane Baker, but publicly, she’s come to symbolise the dark side of Hollywood fame; her life an archetype of the woman who is promised success and power, and instead encounters an industry bent on exploiting her.
Blonde, the fictionalised Monroe film starring Ana de Armas that debuted on Netflix on Wednesday, is here to confirm all your worst fears of the star’s life. Not only does the film, which is based on the book of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, pile on the gratuitous horrors, adding hard-to-stomach events and scenes that aren’t rooted in reality, but it also presents viewers with an aestheticised version of the star’s actual trauma. In doing so, it glamourises and makes this violence more palatable, undermining and overshadowing one person’s very real pain.
Monroe may have been among the first, but she’s far from the last famous woman whose trauma has been obsessed over by Hollywood. From Princess Diana to Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears, we can’t seem to get enough of belaboring the lives of tragic white women, even when they’re no longer here to give their consent (although Blonde wasn’t made in conjunction with Monroe’s estate, the estate has spoken out in support of de Armas’ casting). And it begs the question: when are we going to stop greenlighting these types of movies, and just start treating women well? Or better yet, just leave them — and their legacies — alone?
From the first moment we meet Monroe in the film, she’s suffering abuse, first at the hands of her mother, who attempts to drown her after having a breakdown, then at the hands of a studio exec who assaults Monroe at an audition at the start of her career. The camera zooms in on de Armas’ cartoon-like wide eyes, expressive to an unsettling point and welling with tears. She dissociates, repeating her mantra to herself: “You carry it with you wherever you go. The circle of light is yours.” In that room Marilyn Monroe the Star was born, but so was her trauma. We continue to see this trauma in action throughout the rest of the film. Monroe suffers violence at the hands of various romantic partners who profit off her body and image, physical and emotional pain from several miscarriages, and exploitation from Hollywood, where Monroe is underpaid, belittled, and called a “whore” and “tramp.” It’s unrelenting, over-the-top, and difficult to watch. As Mark Kermode in a review for The Guardian describes it, Blonde is "a horror movie masquerading as a film about fame."
The fact that these movies and series often blur the line between reality and fiction reinforces how inconsequential the actual person and their reality is to the story.
The film is meant to be a commentary on the dark side of Hollywood and the often ghastly cost of notoriety. As director Andrew Dominik told BFI, “Blonde is supposed to leave you shaking. Like an orphaned rhesus monkey in the snow. It’s a howl of pain or rage.”
Monroe’s experience was not unique. Nor is capturing these less-than-pleasant realities on camera — we as a society have an obsession with the pain of blonde women. Since her death in 1997, Princess Diana’s experience with the royal family, mistreatment by the British press, and death at 36 in a car accident have served as fodder for a depiction of her as a tragic heroine in the public imagination. Spencer, The Crown, and countless docs delve into this trauma repeatedly to show us just how bad it was and how much she endured. Similarly, documentaries about Britney Spears — who last year was finally released from her conservatorship after over a decade — have been on the rise as filmmakers and fans delve into the intricacies of her early sexualisation within the music business, ultimate difficulties with her mental health, and entrapment and exploitation by those meant to protect her.
But retelling this narrative of abuse does nothing to push the conversation about women's treatment forward. Instead, using these women’s real trauma to manufacture a box office hit is just another way that they are being exploited.
First of all, many of these projects fail to centre the actual women they’re about. As Kermode noted in The Guardian, even in its fictionalised telling, Blonde doesn't really dig deep into Monroe's psyche and her experience. “Despite its note-perfect evocation of moments from Monroe’s life, I would argue that in the end Blonde isn’t really about Marilyn at all. It just happens to be wearing her wardrobe.”
The fact that these movies and series often blur the line between reality and fiction reinforces how inconsequential the actual person and their reality is to the story. Blurring the line between the real and imagined harm feels like saying that it doesn’t really matter what’s real and what’s fake, which ultimately undermines and diminishes these women’s lived experiences.
Even when these films are rooted in reality, like the slew of Britney Spears documentaries that came across our screens in the last few years, when they’re unauthorised by the person themselves, or received by the subjects of the films as embarrassing and focusing on a "humiliating moment from the past" — words Spears used to describe The New York Times doc Framing Britney Spears and BBC’s Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship, respectively — you have to ask who these films are really for.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that most of the women mythologised in this way share something else in common — they’re white. There’s an immense privilege that comes with having your story told at all and your experiences validated. How many women of colour in the industry would have received the same acknowledgment, regardless of whether or not we agree with it?
But probably the worst aspect of it all is that we never really seem to learn from our mistakes. Films like Blonde and Spencer, or documentaries like those made about Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith, illustrate how we’ve harmed these women as a supposed way to teach us a lesson. We’re meant to confront their treatment and people’s inaction as a cautionary tale against history repeating itself. But we continue to re-exploit and harm these women in the ways we tell their stories, something director Dominik does by framing Monroe as without power or autonomy.
In fact, Monroe did take control of aspects of her life, forming her own production company and fighting against segregation. But as he told BFI, Dominik wasn’t interested in those sides of her or portraying her as someone with power, instead choosing to focus on the moments when she was at her lowest. “Now, to me, that’s the most important thing,” he told the publication. “It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength.” While it’s an artistic choice, it’s one that also paints Monroe as defined primarily by her trauma.
And despite how much we incessantly dissect the lives and experiences of these women in hindsight, we never seem to take the hint and actually do something about helping others like them in the moment they need it most.
The success of these kinds of stories means more are on their way: season five of The Crown, set to be released on Netflix this November, will follow Princess Diana’s ostracisation and divorce from her husband, and new ones — a movie about the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp defamation trial is currently being made — will be added to the mix. But if the past few years are any indication, these depictions will likely continue to emphasise their women protagonists’ trauma without ever actually leading to real progress on how women are treated.
These stories are usually positioned as commentaries on entertainment and the mistreatment of women. But do we really need these women’s particular experiences and their legacies to get it? Maybe it’s time to stop regurgitating the same stories about beautiful and tragic women and actually do something about their mistreatment. Like Cara Cunningham said in her viral 2007 Britney video, just leave them alone.