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We Can Never Have A Good Relationship With Marilyn Monroe

I did not like Blonde (2022). 

When the film was being announced and more and more critics I respected were talking about how bad it was, I really tried to have a measured response to it. I did my best to not participate in the discourse surrounding the film because I really don't have the space in my brain for hating films I haven't even watched. I scrolled past. I ignored. I gave a cursory glance at those praising Marilyn Monroe as an actor, and moved on. I knew I was going to watch it at some point but it wasn't going to be when everyone was talking about it with this much animosity.

More and more, outrage sells. We've probably all had a celebrity we once respected saying or doing something outrageous (code for transphobic or racist), and I'm just cynical enough to believe that at least some of them enjoy the attention and the money that comes from it. Bad publicity is better than no publicity in the internet age and thus the hate-watch is solidified in our culture. 

I have, in fact, participated. I have watched three of the After films before deciding to never watch anymore - not for any artistic reason but because the joke had worn thin and I really didn't like giving Amazon my money to watch them.

In this case, I really did try to watch Andrew Dominik's controversial biopic about Monroe in a respectful, analytical manner, looking for anything to like about it, looking for a glimpse of anything interesting it had to say about Marilyn, even in passing. I emotionally and intellectually prepared for it, watching many of her most famous performances, and in doing so, kind of fell in love with her. 

Not to sound morally pure or anything but I don't think my love for her is close to that of the (mostly male) producers, filmmakers and critics that existed when she was alive. I saw her nuances as a performer, the way she smiles, sneers and simmers. The quick and sweet way she delivered quips. The way she worked antithetical to the camera objectifying her by being more dynamic than just the sexy outline she was framed as. She was able to keep my attention consistently, was often the best part of the movies she was in and could carry her own in a leading role, almost always overshadowing her male counterparts.

I held a sense of dread that Blonde would be exactly what I thought it was going to be but kept space for the minute possibility that the film would emphasise what I saw in her, pinpointing and accentuating her skills as an actor. I wanted the film to transgress ideas about female actresses of this period, that they had nothing to offer the audience outside their looks. I wanted the film to look at how she perfected her skills as an actress and the way this clashed against the ideas filmmakers and the public had about her. I wanted the film to transgress the image of her as a sex symbol or a figure of tragedy. I wanted the film to transgress the idea of her as an image, to assert that she was a person that lived and not the series of representations she has become in popular culture.

And I will say, there is a bit of everything from the above in the film, though none of it is done well. Because I can't truly know the intent of any filmmaker, I won't be able to say the following with full confidence but I believe this film was made with spite, by someone who is not very good at looking past his own misogyny to see the nuances of Monroe's life and career.

Masquerading as a film about the horrors of misogyny, the camera is able to clue us in to what is really happening. They will show various acts of sexual assault and implied domestic violence, gaining art points for making the important film 'about something', but will also have a tracking shot following Ana De Armas' backside as she walks through a restaurant. Don't worry though, this is significant too, as you get to leer at her along with the men in the restaurant! The film is about misogyny! Didn't you know?!

I shouldn't have to spell this out but I will - having a shot of someone's rear end in a scene where you are trying to point out the way men will only value women based on looks undermines your discussion of misogyny. There is no argument to be made that this is subversive, or even that the audience is being made complicit in her abuse because there is no substance to the depiction. Dominik has nothing interesting to say about the power structures of misogyny, other than they exist. In turn, he makes Monroe entirely symbolic, not a full person, but the metaphorical end result of unspoken sexism that we can only look back at now with regret.

2022 has been the year of the symbolic woman and I'm really fucking sick of it. In an attempt to 'do a feminism', many mainstream films have decided to eschew subjectivity, personhood and creating an inner world for the their female characters, and instead place a cardboard cutout of a traumatised woman at the centre of their narrative, expecting us to clap at their very noble realisation that women have historically not had a good time existing under patriarchy. With no desire to imbue these characters with recognisable traits or even use their paper-thin characterisations as an avenue for exploring structures of violence, these films have been slog to sit through over and over again, making gendered discussions on screen feel tired.

And I hate this! I want more interesting explorations of gendered violence on screen, not less, and my fear is that putting these thoughts into the universe will come back to bite me. I've just lost interest in watching the same film every couple of weeks. I think Angelica Jade BastiĆ©n said it best in her review of the film for Vulture: "Woman is a myth, is a representation of Hollywood's depravity, of the totalizing nature of white women's victimhood, of the nature of womanhood itself (which is to suffer, of course)."

I think one of the most insulting parts of the biopic for me was the film's complete unwillingness to admit that Marilyn was good at what she did. If it wasn't outright insulting her abilities, it implied that what she was doing wasn't acting at all but instead an extension of her inherited mental illness. In one foul swoop, Blonde was able to insult Monroe herself, actors, women and mentally ill people! Well done!

Being creative already is seen as an inherited trait rather than a honed skill, but when it comes to women who make art, everyone and their dog has to assert some reason why her artistry doesn't deserve the praise it's getting, and suggesting that Marilyn's acting ability was just a projection of her trauma relating to her parents/men/her own sense of identity is sly way to do it.

Similarly, the film is obsessed with the idea of Marilyn not existing at all, with the Armas' Monroe constantly stating (to the point of irritation) that she is actually Norma Jeane, that Marilyn Monroe exists entirely outside of her. In the film, this idea is explored poorly and sets up a tired and fairly obvious Madonna/Whore complex which, again, is not explored well. The mistake the film makes is setting out to show the artifice of the image of Monroe and forgetting (or deliberately avoiding) her subjectivity, her humanity. 

By the end of the film, we don't know Marilyn. We don't know Norma Jeane. We get a half-baked portrayal of old Hollywood with nothing to cling to. An attempt to be artful by forgoing conventional storytelling, but forgetting the necessary emotionality of the character study. There is nothing here and maybe that's what the audience wanted the whole time. Easily consumed nothing about a woman you were meant to objectify, and validation on your already established point of view.

At the end of the day, we are obsessed with Marilyn Monroe as an image. When she was a sex symbol, when she was a wrongly attributed quote passed around the internet, when she was a member of the 27 club, when she was a symbol for the studio system's poor treatment of women. It's not in our nature to see her as a person who lived and who was probably more famous than she should have been.

Our relationship to celebrities has never been a healthy one. We are taught to deify their talents, obsess about their relationships and revel in schadenfreude when they fail publicly. We have a desire to know more than what they are telling us with their words and their work. I'm not above this but I deliberately stopped myself from poring over Monroe's Wikipedia or buying a copy of her journals. She was never given the grace and privacy she desired when she was alive, and to this day, we have a terrible relationship with her.

I think some people see her transition from a sex symbol into a figure of tragedy as a progressive one but both are deeply dehumanising, because neither see her as a person who just existed. She was a talented producer, actor and comedian, consistently giving time to roles which did not love her back. She brought to life frankly underwritten and vapid parts by being as charming and dynamic as she was.  By objectifying her, whether through her body or your perceived ideas about mental illness, we are able to hold her at a distance and also behave as if we are infinitely above someone more powerful than us.

Celebrity is the antidote to our own lonely and insecure lives, where we can love and hate and obsess over someone and then move on when they become boring or, more annoyingly, die. Then we must either reflect on our cruel behaviour and change for the better, or shift modes entirely and rever them once more as martyrs of the system of fame.