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‘Blonde’ Is Little More Than Torture Porn


Author Joyce Carol Oates and film director Andrew Dominik have a sadistic way of portraying iconic actress Marilyn Monroe, reducing her rich life to a one-dimensional role: victim.



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In the early pages of Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’s best-selling fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe that was published in 2000, our iconic protagonist—still Norma Jeane, though already sporting the titular hair color—walks into the aviary of powerful film producer, Mr. Z. Clad in a white sharkskin suit that simultaneously amplifies her curves while giving her the ethereal pathos of a sacrificial virgin, she surveys a flight cage filled “not [with] living birds, as I had expected, but … dead stuffed birds.” While she takes in these beautiful dead creatures in their glass case, she hears “a voice like Mother’s All dead birds are female, there is something female about being dead.” Her observation that to be female is to be perpetually annihilated is borne out mere pages later, as Mr. Z pushes her down on a white fox fur rug and rapes her. 

This agonizing scene is followed by her Hollywood christening, when a studio representative and her agent give her the name that will usher her into stardom: “the start of my NEW LIFE … I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE.” One could argue that Oates is conveying the savage realities of Hollywood, with its iron maidens of casting couches. But Oates clearly correlates the naming of Marilyn Monroe—a moment that the pop-cultural zeitgeist often regards as a platinum Venus rising from the deep—with sexual torture and debasement. Her Marilyn doesn’t emerge from the thunderous sea; she drowns on arrival.  

In rendering Marilyn Monroe a passive bystander in her own creation—dazed over the assault, her humiliation compounded by the sudden arrival of her period—Oates not only misrepresents her subject’s actual life, she reduces the artist to a pretty, glass-eyed plaything. The author devotes some of her 700-plus pages to Marilyn Monroe’s internal monologue, but more often, those voluminous pages are given to a kaleidoscopic Greek choir of voices like classmates in acting workshops, her ex-lovers and husbands, cohorts of leering men, and inexplicably, a “Sharpshooter” who might be a shadowy, puritanical figure of American morality or an actual assassin sent to kill her by the U.S. government. And yet Oates traps Monroe in a glass case of her own, maneuvering her beautiful blonde corpse to be gawked at, sighed over, and projected upon. That’s the novel.

Director Andrew Dominik’s cinematic adaptation of Blonde for Netflix (there had been a miniseries based on Oates’s novel, in 2001, that starred Poppy Montgomery in the title role), which just dropped on September 28, is its own misogynist curiosity. Dominik’s movie follows Oates’s narrative ethos that there is inherent doom in the feminine, infusing an icy cynicism in almost every frame: In his work, the rape occurs not long after we’re treated to a rendition of Monroe’s song “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy” playing over montage of pinup photos of Norma Jeane (played by Ana de Armas). Though the movie has been rightfully criticized for its myopic brutality, reveling in graphic depictions of sexual assault and forced abortions, as well as its infamous “talking fetus” sequences, some critics seem to attribute its emphasis on Monroe-as-victim on filmmakers alone. Dominik, like Oates, seems interested only in Monroe as the patron saint of all beautiful, brutalized women, offering a breathtakingly vicious dismissal of her as “an Aphrodite of the 20th century … And she killed herself … Now to me, that’s the most important thing.”

Still, he is not alone in his morbid, preening contempt for “the American goddess of love.” His efforts bear cruel fruit because they sprang from a gnarled seed. In interviews, Oates describes writing about Monroe as her “white whale,” chasing after a mythic feminine and mythic masculine. The novel’s internal mythos is Jungian claptrap, with “the Blonde Actress” and “the Beggar Maid” driven mad by abandonment and enduring all manner of subjugation to win the favor of ever aloof “the Dark Prince” whose love will redeem her. Though certain chapters lead with quotes from influential acting teachers, and the heroine doth protest that she wants to be a serious actress, Oates is far more invested in Marilyn Monroe as the broken doll avatar for her very particular kind of white femininity, which is forever lurching toward its own destruction.

In Jonathan Clarke’s review of Oates’s latest novel, Babysitter—another tale of a beautiful blonde fluttering neurotically over the flame of her own death wish—the City Journal critic succinctly describes Oates’s singular take on gender and desire: “For Oates, the salient fact of male sexual desire is not that it is progenitive but that it is predatory (‘a man’s hunger: less personal and particular than it is in a woman’), just as the salient fact of being female is the need to strike a bargain with that desire.” Oates’s oeuvre is populated by women who are beaten and branded, coerced into abortions or abandoned while pregnant, sexually assaulted and abused; whose experiences of desiring and being desired by men are inevitably tinged with violence and passivity. Even in Oates’s most famous story, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,” the protagonist, pretty, giggly Connie, is punished not only for her physical beauty, but for her awareness of the power that beauty confers. 

When asked about the story, Oates mentioned calling an early draft “Death and the Maiden,” since it was about “an innocent young girl … seduced by way of her own vanity; she mistakes death for erotic romance of a particularly American/trashy sort.” Likewise, Blonde begins with a depiction of death, “flying as in a children’s cartoon on a heavy unadorned messenger’s bicycle” toward Monroe’s hacienda where he brings his gift to yet another fair maiden. The Sharpshooter who murders Monroe in her sleep echoes Oates in his casual disdain for his target, dismissing “what the world called in craven servitude Beauty. Even as the great birds of the air … were beautiful in flight & yet might be reduced to mere meat, carcasses to be strung up on posts.”

Yet even before Oates literally dispatches Marilyn Monroe, she effectively erases the woman from her own life story. The novelist instead devotes lengthy sections to the perspectives of male figures in Monroe’s orbit, e.g., the two men with whom she forms a threesome inexplicably called “the Gemini” (Oates has one of these men mockingly describe Monroe’s orgasm as “a stampede”); her ex-husbands, mythologized in these pages as as “the Ex-Athlete” and “the Playwright;” and myriad nameless men who will lust for, humiliate, and pity Marilyn. For Oates, the mythic feminine exists in a constant state of anxious receptivity, only coming alive (or, perhaps living undead) when she is the subject of a male gaze—however cutting it may be. In her seminal book about Marilyn Monroe’s public image, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Churchwell points at how “Oates’s technique is not archetype but stereotype, not only of ‘the Ex-Athlete’ and ‘the Playwright,’ but particularly of the breathless, confused, stammering, disintegrating ‘Marilyn.’” 

Despite Oates’s claim that she was compelled to write Blonde after seeing a photograph of 16-year-old Norma Jeane, her real subject is the predatory potency of male desire. She is not at all interested in Marilyn Monroe as an artist, outsourcing a moment of creative triumph at the Actor’s Studio to Arthur Miller’s internal narrative—a choice that Dominik repeats cinematically by literally silencing her, cutting instead to the tearful face of Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody). Nor is Oates interested in Marilyn Monroe as a thinker or a survivor. Instead, Oates is fixated on how the immaculate blonde meat trapped in the glass aviary of her story can coax out the fangs of masculine hunger. The “Ex-Athlete” section is especially drenched in the dank cologne of machismo, with the writer hamming up his “eye-talian” heritage as a form of vicarious entitlement to her own condescension: “In that instant her body seemed to him not a woman’s beautiful voluptuous body but a responsibility they jointly shared, like a giant baby … And Marilyn Monroe—a pinup, a photographer’s model, a starlet, and God knows what else. He’d wanted to belt her. Who did she think she was, looking at his family like that?”

Oates can not grant Marilyn Monroe interiority even in her most iconic, star-making moments, turning over the filming of that celebrated sequence from The Seven Year Itch, the American goddess of love cooling herself over the subway grating, to nameless gawkers representing a collective male Id: “Without the dress the girl would be female meat, raw and exposed … Now she’s hugging herself beneath her big bountiful breasts. Her eyelids fluttering. Between the legs, you can trust she’s clean … She’s an American slash in the flesh. That emptiness. Guaranteed.” Inside that collective, the husband with his brain and his cock “on fire” whose hands will “leap out” to send her “staggering against the silk-wallpapered wall, sweet as any home run.” 

The problem is not that Oates depicts Monroe’s suffering—nobody is asking for all women characters to become perfect Marvel heroines who will always be victorious. It’s that she finds her degradation titillating, down to eroticizing the hands that will beat her: “big hands, an athlete’s hands, practiced hands, hands with fine black hairs on the backs.” Just as Marilyn Monroe becomes a vessel for the onlookers’ violent, pulsing libido, the “Ex-Athlete’s” thwarted masculine pride, and later “the Playwright’s” creative rejuvenation, Marilyn Monroe or Norma Jeane or the Blonde Actress becomes the vessel for Oates’s gendered nihilism. 

Defenders of Oates’s novel and Dominik’s film may claim that their unceasing ugliness is merely reflecting life as it is, resisting the urge to “girl boss” Marilyn Monroe. But it is possible to show the dark chrysalis spinning its doom without forsaking the tender woman still at its center. Works like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, whose doomed homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, was famously based on Marilyn Monroe, achieves catharsis by foregrounding its heroine’s humanity: Palmer may be snuffed out by her own father, but the light she casts as a fierce friend and lover, a kind companion to the elderly, and an insightful diarist capable of articulating her own pain on the page are never extinguished. Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica is narrated by a former model who recounts her days of relying on a smile and a strut to survive with a seductively wry wit. One can imagine what Angela Carter, who gave fairytale naïfs the cunning to cradle the big bad wolf’s head in their laps, would have done with the Fair Princess of Marilyn Monroe. 

Writing on how so much of the pop culture myth-making around Monroe fails to appreciate her artistry, treating her as “a victim who tripped upon her own creative powers,” critic Angelica Jade Bastien cuts to the barbed heart of the book: “Oates can’t connect with Monroe as an artist because she doesn’t see her as one. She is seen as a plaything for the patriarchy, a victim, a muse, a series of mistakes. To see Monroe as an artist is to give her a sense of agency that those obsessed with breaking her apart to tell old stories refuse to believe she ever had in life.” 

In the wake of Dominik’s film, there has been yet another cultural reassessment of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy. One that demands a more holistic assessment of her life and craft, to find the moments of strength—not to repurpose her into a modern-day Strong Female Protagonist, but to give a more honest, balanced portrayal of her life. Though Oates might have labored under the belief that she wrote to lift the ineffable spirit of Norma Jeane from the overripe corpse of Marilyn Monroe, she only manages to create a vicious repetition of sexist tropes—that violence is innate to men, infertility will drive women mad, and that a woman who wants to know desire is courting her own doom (and she probably has it coming)—that become increasingly vacuous. She forgets that there is passion and wit and vibrancy in being feminine. Aphrodite wasn’t only the goddess of carnal desire. She was also the goddess of creativity.  

While Oates has said that Blonde will be one of the novels she’s remembered for, it’s probably not for the loftier reasons she suspects. The novel remains a brutish exemplar of her penchant for turning pretty women into so much meat and arranging them in their own perfect glass Hells.  

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