Will ‘Blonde’ Do Justice to Marilyn?

Ana de Armas plays Marilyn in Blonde

Amid all the hype surrounding Blonde, due for release this autumn (see here), one very important factor has been largely overlooked. Blonde is not a biopic per se, but a fictionalised take on Marilyn’s life which means that some events are depicted in a manner that distorts, or even fabricates, historical fact – as Zoe Jordan argues in a thoughtful essay for Screen Rant.

Blonde is loosely based on the book of the same name by author Joyce Carol Oates. Oates has stated that her written chronicle of icon Marilyn Monroe’s life beyond the cameras is not a biography and entirely fictional … Even with the assurance that Blonde will not be a true-to-life account, it remains a story about Marilyn’s lifestyle and needs to avoid perpetuating narratives that are harmful to Monroe and other women.

The fact that Blonde isn’t a biopic increases the likelihood Monroe’s personal voice will get lost in translation particularly by dramatizing tragic circumstances in her real life … It is important to bring sexist power dynamics within Hollywood to light and her story is more relevant than ever. However, if the tragedies she faced are used solely as shock value or thematic devices, Blonde may end up exploiting her.

Oates’ novel has received criticism for its exploitative portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. In her review (via January Magazine), acclaimed author Margaret Gunning critiques the book for using dehumanizing language that reduces Monroe to ‘something less than a human being.’ Gunning also points out that the immoderate dissection of every bad moment in Monroe’s life ‘feels like a sort of voyeurism.’ If the Blonde adaptation ignores these criticisms, the film may add to the exploitation of the tragedy that led to her untimely death. Her marital, drug, and sexualisation struggles do not define her and Blonde can avoid implying they do by treating her story with the appropriate compassion … She needs to be humanized in Blonde, with empathy, not sympathy, so that Monroe is no longer objectified as an example of an ideal or a tragedy.

A big talking point surrounding Netflix’s upcoming Monroe film is that Blonde will be rated NC-17 because it apparently contains ‘some sexual content.’ There’s nothing inherently bad with a Marilyn Monroe feature having sex scenes or nudity, especially since she’s one of the most popular and influential sex symbols in American history. Monroe was a major contributor to the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and became an icon for women who wanted guidance to express and empower themselves. However, Monroe experienced heavy objectification because of her status. If Blonde focuses too much on sex, it may detract from the humanization she requires in this story. It may also objectify her the way the press still does.

Marilyn Monroe wasn’t just Hollywood’s sex symbol throughout her career. She was a civil rights advocate and feminist icon, but in a time when misogyny and ‘slut shaming’ were more acceptable, salacious rumors overtook Monroe’s legacy. It’s true that she’s remembered for her exceptional kindness and bubbly persona but is likely remembered more for sensational rumors such as her supposed affair with President John F. Kennedy. Blonde has a chance to reverse the overt sexualization that still dominates Marilyn Monroe’s memory in the public eye. Sex should be used in the narrative as an indicator of the empowerment she inspired in women at the time, rather than further exploiting her legacy with it.”