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Why is Hollywood so obsessed with female pain?

It’s a tale as old as time; what do Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and even Shakespeare’s Ophelia have in common? They are all women who have been used and abused by those telling their stories, and who continue to be portrayed unsympathetically, without their consent. Well, now we can add Marilyn Monroe to that mix.

Marilyn Monroe was (and still is) already a victim of the industry she was a part of, but last week’s release of Andrew Dominik’s Blonde pushes her exploitation a step further. Starring Ana de Armas as the ill-fated movie star, this highly anticipated release has already sparked Oscar buzz, but the production has come under criticism for its obvious cruelty towards its protagonist and its exploitation of a woman who can no longer speak for herself. It begs the question: why are we so obsessed with the stories of tragic women?

Blonde portrays Monroe as a damaged, beaten-down woman that cannot seem to fight back. Monroe has been reduced to her weaknesses. What the movie doesn’t allow is for Monroe to be seen as a multi-faceted being. Instead, she is a shallow caricature of herself. It blatantly ignores the strength and power she exhibited in her own life, such as walking off-set when her male counterparts were paid more than her, and being a champion for civil rights. Seemingly, there is a denial in Hollywood to allow women to be whole, emotional beings that can experience both strength and fragility. 

Dominik’s depiction of Monroe is demonstrative of the ‘Madonna-Whore’ complex. A term coined by Sigmund Freud, it denotes a psychological complex wherein men can only view women as either ‘saintly Madonnas’ or debased prostitutes. At its core, this theory forces women to be seen as singularities, not multi-dimensional people; they must be either determined or dewy-eyed; fierce or feeble. We keep women in this box to force them to adhere to the status quo of a patriarchal society. Heaven forbid a woman to be allowed to escape the grasp of male authority.

Bizarrely, instead of using Monroe’s autobiography as the basis for this depiction, a fictionalised entity was used as the groundwork. It is not made explicitly clear to viewers, but Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel of the same name. Oates pens Monroe through a fictionalised lens, constructing falsehoods and using the mystery surrounding the actress’s life and death for her benefit. Writing a fictionalised account of a person’s real-life is grotesque and unnecessary, but the decision to use it as the basis for a multi-million dollar blockbuster is even more so. Much of the film promotion pushed the narrative that this is a tried-and-true biopic that accurately portrays Monroe’s life. It seems rather self-gratuitous to utilise a one-dimensional depiction of a woman that so blatantly pushes a false, and indeed sensationalist, narrative. 

Oates and Dominik have completely removed any autonomy Marilyn may have had over her legacy. And this is not the first time this has happened with portrayals of famous women: in 2015 Whitney Houston’s family expressed their disappointment concerning the Lifetime film Whitney, claiming that the film ‘assaulted the legacy of [Whitney]…in an incredible way’. Madonna also took aim at Universal in 2017 when it was announced that they planned to produce a biopic about the singer without her involvement, writing on her Instagram: ‘Nobody knows what I know and what I have seen. Only I can tell my story.’ A production detailing Madonna’s life is now underway, directed and co-written by none other than the star herself. 

The exploitation of female narratives, of women both dead and alive, is very much still present in Hollywood. Like many others, Oates and Dominik are intent on taking advantage of the mysteries of a dead woman’s life for their own financial and commercial gain; for the sake of clickbait, views and readership. Perhaps they see dead people as easy subjects: there is no push-back, and their life is ‘up for grabs’ by any willing, self-satisfying director. In her 2018 book, ‘Dead Girls’, Alice Bolin uses the example of ‘Twin Peaks’ to hypothesise that dead women present us with a blank slate, on which a male protagonist, or director, can project his desires. In death, women are silent – just as Hollywood likes them. They can be treated as objects that are malleable and easily manipulated.

It is difficult to know where to draw the line when it comes to portrayals of dead women. Some may make the case for banning works of film or fiction that dwell on tragic women altogether. However, I don’t think this is the answer. Problems arise when female pain becomes fetishised and sensationalised, and denies women their authorship and authority over how their stories are told. It is wrong to assume that stories will cease to be written or produced that concern famous women, but we mustn’t let these stories be populated by pain. By all means, portray sadness, but don’t allow it to become the sole focus of media and art, or toy around with fact and fiction for the sake of salacious headlines. Women are whole beings, and their histories must be represented as such, including the beautiful and the ugly.

Image ‘marilyn-monroe-396863_640’ by Rajahsiwale is licensed under CC BY 2.0.