The New Marilyn Monroe Film Forces Us to Examine Which Women Carry Timeless Intrigue — And Why
The trailer of Netflix’s Blonde is accompanied by a tagline that is meant to encompass Marilyn Monroe’s timeless intrigue: “watched by all, seen by none.” The film itself will be based on a novel of the same name by Joyce Carole Oates, which fictionalizes the life of Norma Jean — who later becomes the endlessly dissected Hollywood star. She’s an American tragedy, a blonde beauty with darkness lurking beneath, a cultural institution all by herself.
The film follows a nearly innumerable string of other films about Monroe’s life and times — all of them fixating on her interiority with voyeurism that continues to exhume her from death, performing a post-mortem of the Hollywood star. The new film, judging by its trailer, is unlikely to be any different.
We’ve seen — and continue to see — this play out with another woman who was devoured by her own image. Princes Diana of Wales, the “people’s princess,” is another tragic figure in pop culture history whose life continues to be endlessly dissected even 25 years after her death. At first glance, there’s little that she shares with Marilyn Monroe: where the latter’s mythos is defined by sex appeal and excess, the former is remembered for her winsomeness, with a waifish, angelic quality about her. And yet, both women in their lifetimes were consumed by a public eager to own a piece of them — tearing at their figurative flesh until there would be nothing left of their own persons.
Despite their dissimilarities, moreover, women were subject to insurmountable public scrutiny for a similar reason: they both embodied some kind of damage that broke the myth of blonde femininity — attractive, amiable, and importantly, submissive. Neither of the two women could be contained: notably, it was after Princess Diana’s public split from Prince Charles that public attention began to close in on her to a fatal degree. Similarly, it was Monroe’s defiance of this mold that made her the ultimate blonde bombshell.
This is a trope that arguably began with Jean Harlow — Marilyn Monroe’s predecessor and inspiration, who shocked conservative society during her time with her disregard for sexual mores that were deemed appropriate for women. Monroe, too, had a string of marriages and affairs exuding a titillating sensuality so brazen as to be challenging and provocative, while pushing public sensibilities to the very edge.
Princess Diana wasn’t a bombshell in quite the same way, but she was someone who broke with royal protocol in unprecedented ways — beginning a relationship with someone soon after her separation, wearing a “revenge dress” in public, defying what was expected of her as a member of the most famous royal family in the world.
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But the endless pop culture fixation on these women decades after their tragic deaths does two things. First, it reveals a fixation with the confluence of whiteness, tragedy, and womanhood, making these women more than just the sum of their parts — they’re of public interest, worth studying, and importantly, continuously mourned, memorialized, and kept alive. Second, the fixation with the tragedy of their lives juxtaposed with their outward beauty and appeal dehumanizes the women themselves — forcing them into cultural molds that fit a narrative most interesting to us as consumers of their stories. “… the stories we tell about sexually appealing women usually need to see them punished because of our society’s oddly puritanical ideas about sex,” as The Take notes.
The depictions of these women then force us to ask: are these really their stories, or are they the stories we want to tell about them? And then: why are damaged white women, in particular, the only ones deemed worth memorializing so much? Moreover, they’re templatized as icons, rather than people, who check three boxes: mental illness or substance abuse, challenging sexual mores, and some form of exploitation by families or partners.
Public hunger for the stories of beautiful, blonde, and “damaged” white women continues to thrive even today, with respect to people who are still alive. Many of them now have redemption arcs that allow them to subvert their own images from the past: Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Pamela Anderson, to name a few. Britney Spears, in particular, stands out as someone whose story exists in the archive as always told by others — and what makes it so remarkable are the same checkboxes that Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe ticked.
As Britney’s story continues to be told despite her newfound voice and agency, the narrative of tragedy and voyeurism continues to define who she is to us. While we reckon with the legacies of women, simply telling their stories isn’t a way to humanize them unless we turn our gaze back to ourselves and ask: are we really doing these women justice, and are we interested in the same kind of justice for all women?
Until these are questions we can answer honestly, it may be time to let the women themselves rest.