There is scarcely a scene in Blonde, Netflix’s new Marilyn biopic, in which Monroe is not topless, crying, being raped or having a forced abortion. Thinking gritty realism? Think again. The whole thing is shot in dreamy high-glamour soft focus, with arty choices and the occasional cameo from a squeaky-voiced foetus. As for realism, some of this stuff didn’t even happen – there is no evidence for the abortions, for example – and much is left out. Filmmaker Andrew Dominik told interviewers Monroe’s activism and success wresting control from a male-dominated industry – forming her own production company, for example – were “not so interesting to me”.
At present there’s something of a fetish for biopics about exploited female celebrities, which tout themselves as feminist while dwelling lasciviously on the suffering of their subjects. Take Pam & Tommy, about the famous sex tape, or Judy, which portrays Judy Garland in her last days, or the endless revisiting of the unravellings of Princess Diana, in ever tighter closeup.
You can see the incentives for filmmakers. Make a biopic “commenting” on a sexually exploited celebrity, like Monroe or Anderson, and you get to recreate the same sexualised images that drew crowds in the first place – only this time, it’s trendily feminist. (In Blonde the camera at one point ventures into Monroe’s cervix.) But there’s a larger market you are feeding, too, which has nothing to do with feminism – the market for female pain.
This market has always been amply served by the television and film industry. Crime dramas are replete with artfully displayed female corpses, history – even fake history, such as in the pseudo middle ages fantasy land of House of the Dragon – has a disturbing penchant for what I will call torture porn, with rape everywhere, for “realism”. (One in 10 rape victims, by the way, is male, yet male rape almost never makes an appearance in such dramas, however realistic it might be in context. Why ever not?)
Often, too, there is an old moral lesson wrapped up in the horror: it is promiscuous and powerful women to whom bad things most often happen. This is even the case in modern films (perhaps these lessons are so ingrained we can’t help retelling them). The story in Blonde, of course, repeats a classic horror film trope – the promiscuous blonde who deserves to die first.
This package – misogyny wrapped in a veneer of feminism – is familiar even outside the films. It is also how we now consume our female celebrities. Naked photoshoots on the covers of magazines are always feminist-washed in the accompanying article: the celebrity is “reclaiming” their body in defiance of a sexualising industry, making the “empowering choice” to be naked despite their stretchmarks, taking out their breasts “on their own terms” etcetera. But nudity is not enough either, female stars must now serve us up their pain as well – they have to “open up” to rubbernecking readers about their trauma, battle with anorexia, miscarriage, PTSD, trolling or sexual assault.
If this serves a feminist purpose, it is lost in the larger patriarchal one: to reduce even successful women to sexualised and traumatised bodies. Time to stop “examining” the exploitation of female celebrities by thrusting cameras up their skirts.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent
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