If Blonde is a feminist film, why is Marilyn Monroe still being exploited? | Martha Gill

The movie, and TV shows like it, merely add women’s mental and physical suffering to the misogynist mix

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

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


Martha Gill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blonde: first trailer for ‘disturbing’ Marilyn Monroe biopic released
Netflix film, which has been called ‘startling’ by source author Joyce Carol Oates, stars Ana de Armas as the tragic actor

Benjamin Lee

16, Jun, 2022 @2:26 PM

Article image
Some like it overheated: how Marilyn Monroe is betrayed by Blonde
Andrew Dominik’s explicit, button-pushing take on the life of the superstar uses shock tactics to replace insight and depth

Lauren Mechling

28, Sep, 2022 @7:01 AM

Article image
Blonde review – a hellish vision of Marilyn and her monsters
Andrew Dominik’s gothic portrait of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe – an extraordinary Ana de Armas – is a fever dream of childhood trauma haunting adult life

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

25, Sep, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Blonde: will a shocking new film shatter the myth of Marilyn Monroe?
From Cannes to the Met Gala, the screen icon’s lucrative legacy lives on. But how will a new film affect the way the world sees her?

Catherine Shoard

13, May, 2022 @1:48 PM

Article image
Blonde review – Some like it rotten: Monroe biopic is moving, explicit and intensely irritating
Venice film festival: Andrew Dominik’s controversial drama finds space for talking foetuses, presidential sex and a starry throuple – but denies its subject sufficient agency

Leslie Felperin

08, Sep, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
You can’t dress up what happened to poor Marilyn Monroe | Barbara Ellen
The tormented, vulnerable star was just weeks away from death when she sang to JFK in an outfit so tight she had to be sewn in

Barbara Ellen

20, Nov, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
‘I truly believe she was close’: star of new biopic sensed Marilyn Monroe on set
Director Andrew Dominik also says that scenes for the controversial Netflix release, filmed in the room where the iconic actor died were ‘like a seance’

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

08, Sep, 2022 @3:20 PM

Article image
Blonde review – Ana de Armas gives her all as Monroe in otherwise incurious film
Glossy horror perpetuates the tradition of portraying the brilliant actor as an infantile, sacrificial sex-lamb on the altar of celebrity

Peter Bradshaw

21, Sep, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The myth of Marilyn Monroe: how her ‘sex bomb’ image buries the truth
Six decades on, the spectacle of Marilyn Monroe’s tumultuous life and death continues to hold us in its grip. With a major new biopic on the way, her biographer sorts fact from fiction

Anthony Summers

29, Jul, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Guys, length isn’t everything when it comes to film-making | Wendy Ide
Martin Scorsese’s latest film will join a slew of three-hour slogs. These directors, mostly male, need to rein themselves in

Wendy Ide

26, Feb, 2023 @8:01 AM