I'm Still Not Over "Blonde" and Its Exploitation of Marilyn Monroe

Content warning: this essay discusses sexual assault at length, including a visceral description of one incident in particular. Please proceed thoughtfully.

After I watched the movie "Blonde," I took a shower. I pressed the palms of my hands over my eyes and stood there until the water turned cold. Along the back of my eyelids, I replayed a scene from the movie — Marilyn Monroe's face pressed against the rough carpet of a studio executive's office as he pulls down her white underwear with one hand while placing the other on the back of her neck. The bile that rose in my throat was more than just a reaction to the trauma of the scene; I am repulsed by what it represents — a twisted metaphor.

Marilyn Monroe, the sex icon, was raped by Hollywood.

Naturally, I watched "Blonde," which is being billed as "a fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe," through the filter of my own experiences with abuse, sexual assault, and, simply, being a woman. After each rape scene or physical assault, I adjusted my eyes against a blank wall to stop feeling nauseous as I heard Monroe continue to sob on screen. The New York Times writes, "The character endures an overwhelming series of relentless torments that, far from arousing fear and pity, reflect a special kind of directorial sadism." But it's more than the pain we witness. It's the purpose of the pain — or, rather, the lack of purpose.

But what does it mean to be a sex icon? If it's a symbol of embracing pleasure and giving the finger to what a "good girl" is supposed to look like, that isn't what the movie shows us.

"Blonde," available on Netflix, is a horror movie. It's two hours and 45 minutes of torture porn. After countless scenes of sexual assault, rape, and physical and emotional abuse, it feels like director Andrew Dominik is punishing Monroe for what she represented then and now: a sex icon. But what does it mean to be a sex icon? If they're symbols of embracing pleasure and giving the finger to what a "good girl" is supposed to look like, that isn't what the movie shows us.

In fact, after nearly three hours of watching the biopic, I was clueless about who Monroe was as a person. There's no entry point to understand the mind of the protagonist better. There's no hero's journey in this tragedy. Instead, it feels closer to watching the Discovery Channel when the hyenas circle their prey — Marilyn Monroe's eyes wide like Bambi. I found myself questioning why it seemed as though the movie focuses more on portraying Monroe as a victim than it did on delving into her inner world.

After receiving criticism for the movie's portrayal of the protagonist, Dominik, in an interview with the British Film Institute (BFI), indicated that he believes Monroe is misrepresented by modern-day portrayals of her, saying: "There is a sense that we want to reinvent her according to today's political concerns." But I came away from "Blonde" feeling as though the directors and producers (who include Brad Pitt) had intentionally used Monroe's story to show how brutal the world of Hollywood — and, more generally, the world — is for women. For me, the depiction ended up feeling as though it's glorifying violence and sexual assault, emphasizing a depressing reality without doing much to move the conversation forward.

Women celebrities are still often unable to harness their sexual confidence for themselves. Just recently, Meghan Markle talked about this on her "Archetypes" podcast episode with Paris Hilton. Markle recalled her time as a briefcase model on "Deal or No Deal" where she was "reduced to a bimbo" and would line up to get her lashes, bra padding, and hair extensions retouched before filming tapings. She was also given weekly spray-tan vouchers and repeatedly told to "suck it in" by a woman who ran the show. "I didn't like being forced to be all looks and little substance, and that's how it felt for me at the time — being reduced to this specific archetype." The unfortunate truth is that sexuality is thrust upon women, as spoken about by Scarlett Johansson and Millie Bobby Brown. Or, if they try to claim it for themselves, they're punished for it.

"[Monroe] was a person who was extraordinarily self-destructive," Dominik added in the interview. Yet I almost wish we see her "self-destructive" behavior because it would've given us insight into her internal dialogue. I stared at the screen watching Ana de Armas's incredible performance fall flat because it feels like the equivalent of a one-way mirror. I knew she was staring out, eyes gleaming with emotions, but I had no idea what she truly wanted or thought. Despite being billed as a story of Monroe's "inner life," the only destruction on the screen is external, not internal.

Perhaps that was intentional; a way to reinforce the fact that Monroe has become someone the rest of us are free to project our own thoughts, desires, and beliefs onto. The public is free to cast her as an empowered sex symbol, or a vulnerable victim, or a cunning businesswoman. But Monroe's appeal lies in her complexities, and "Blonde" leaves her as one-dimensional as ever while reinforcing time and again that sexual expression leads to violence.

It can be argued that this movie is a product of the male gaze — particularly director Dominik's gaze. But, of course, so was the illusion that is Marilyn Monroe. Because what the movie got right was that Monroe was just a character created by Norma Jeane Mortenson, who de Armas played — women within women, taking up less and less space. In that way, "Blonde" represents to me the larger problem around how society treats women today and how they're "allowed" to exist. And while we can see the problem and talk about it, I'm left wondering what's really being done to solve it.

If you or a loved one are experiencing sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673.