By Dr Emma Wood
A young Norma-Jean, early on in her career, poses for a family-friendly catalogue, wearing girlish, innocent-looking clothes, and sporting that post-war, picture-perfect, pearly-white smile. But the sultry soundtrack playing in the background – “Every baby needs a Da-Da-Daddy…” – tells us where this is going. As the montage of Norma Jean’s photoshoots progresses, each image becomes more sexualised, ending with an image of the young woman posing, bare-breasted, for a calendar.
This photoshoot montage is the first of a head-spinning sequence of short scenes that take us through the beginnings of Marilyn Monroe’s career. A few minutes later, she sits across the table, at lunch with her agent, nervous about her upcoming meeting with a studio executive. Her agent reassures her:
“Don’t you see, Norma Jean? The world is in the palm of your hands.”
We soon see Norma Jean walking into her appointment. The camera follows behind her beautiful, well-dressed figure. The middle-aged secretary shows Norma in, closes the mahogany door behind her, then sits back down at her desk with a scowl, as if she knows what is about to happen.
On the other side of the door, Norma reads through her script with intensity, and depth, harnessing a raw energy from her own troubled past. As she reads, the wrinkled studio executive slowly moves in, from the side, his nose and moustache almost touching her neck and cheeks. Distracted and unsettled, Norma trails off. She stops reading. Before we know it, the old man pushes her over from behind and pulls off her pants. Another day at the office.
Marilyn comes back out of the office stunned, walking stiffly, shakily, past the secretary’s desk. She has succeeded, so she fights to hold back the tears of shock and disgust. The disorientating soundtrack blares on… “Every baby needs a Da-Da-Daddy/Could my Da-Daddy be You?”
As you watch it unfold, the soundtrack feels like a cruel joke. Just before this sequence, you are first given a glimpse of Norma’s lonely, fatherless childhood. This is how the protagonist is introduced, at the very beginning of the film. Her father had not wanted her. He had told her mother to get an abortion. After attempting to drown her in the bathtub, Norma’s unhinged mother tells the girl: you are the reason he left me.
The recently released 2022 movie, Blonde, written and directed by Andrew Dominak, and based on Joyce Carol Oates’s fictionalised retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe, is not your typical biopic. The film has divided critics, and, though I watched the film with interest and high expectations, it left me feeling similarly conflicted by the end. On the one hand, the film is a complex and insightful exploration of sexual exploitation and reads like a cautionary tale. On the other hand, I can understand why some have described the film as trauma porn. Blonde is a little of both.
The protagonist in the film is cleverly put together. “Norma-Jean” represents a person possessed, taken over, by a persona, “Marilyn”. Norma-Jean wants a family. Norma-Jean looks at the photograph of her father, starry-eyed, and longs to know him. Norma-Jean wants to have her unborn baby, who represent a connection with her innocent inner child. But “Marilyn” requires the death of this baby so that the filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes can go ahead, which Norma despises when she finally sees it (the scene is an interesting juxtaposition to triumphalist pro-choice oscar speeches in real life). “Marilyn” channels the pain of parental rejection into the pursuit of intimacy with men who exploit her. “Marilyn” is a male sexual fantasy, sought out by the grotesquely wide-eyed, big-mouthed fans who shout her name, snap pictures, and reach out to touch her as she walks down the red carpet at her film premieres. “Marilyn” indulges their fantasies as she whispers to the crowd, through pouting, red lips “I love you”, even as Norma-Jean grows gradually more disgusted with the façade. She relies on more and more desperate measures to keep this up, which culminate in her drug use and overdose.
The film is bold in its depiction of unborn life. On three different occasions, we see the unborn child in the womb, and on one occasion it speaks to Norma-Jean, asking her if she will allow it to live. The film is also bold in its depiction of abortion, roundly challenging the narrative that abortion is an uncomplicated path to freedom. The woman on the table is not free, and clearly not “liberated” either, despite abortion being made abundantly available to her.
Having said this, there are other films or stories I would sooner recruit on behalf of the pro-life cause before turning to Blonde. It does not help that many parts of the movie are invented or speculative (including Monroe’s threesome with Charles Chaplin, Jr. and Edward G. Robinson, and the physical abuse at the hands of her husband, Joe DiMaggio). Nor does it help that the film-maker, Andrew Dominik, was not at all motivated to produce a factually accurate retelling of Monroe’s life. “The film is about the idea of Marilyn,” Dominik said in an interview, “Of course it’s fiction. But everything is fiction.”
No doubt, there are elements of truth in the film, despite this post-truth sentiment. The public image of Marilyn Monroe, like many other starlets of the Golden Age, hid tales of trauma and exploitation. But when factual accuracy isn’t the goal, and when many of the scenes are also gratuitous in their depiction of trauma or sex, one has to ask whether this extended exercise in playing with the “idea of Marilyn” does honour to the woman. As I watched the film unfold, I was left with the uncomfortable sense that I was being drawn into the exploitative consumption of Marilyn Monroe as well. It was like watching a horror movie, in which a victim is being slowly mutilated, and yet you can’t look away. I was left with the impression that even the “pro-life” scenes were merely there to add to the shock value. Needless to say, this is not helpful to the pro-life cause.
The Norma-Jean/Marilyn character is represented throughout the film as a person without agency, without hope, without any way out of her pain. All she can do is ride the waves of the sexual agenda of her industry, blowing kisses to the crowds as she inwardly rages. The party must go on, and both her sex appeal and the pain beneath are there for our entertainment. Blonde is not (nor do I think it is intended to be) a cautionary tale for young women to learn from. Watch the film if you’re feeling strong. But maybe don’t show this one to your teenage daughter.
I am, of course, making the quaint assumption that the best art does more than hold a mirror up to the world. It also gives the world something better to aspire to. It edifies. Blonde, like much contemporary art, is all mirror and no aspiration.
Dr Emma Wood is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.