Blonde is unethical – but Marilyn Monroe biopics won’t stop

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in BlondeNetflix

With Blonde being the newest edition is a line of Marilyn Monroe biopics, it’s time to ask: Is this really necessary, or even good?

Blonde, which has now dropped on Netflix, has already gotten mixed reviews from critics for the way that it portrays Marilyn Monroe’s life.

And while the film is more so based on a book rather than the actual truth of Marilyn Monroe’s life, it has still brought a harsh light onto the genre of biopics themselves.

We seem to be in a biopic craze as of late, featuring the lives and stories of movie stars to presidents to tech start-ups every five minutes. But is this genre as necessary as it’s seeming to make itself? And are biopics even ethical?

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Blonde: Should we still be making Marilyn Monroe biopics?

When this film was first teased, people were somewhat excited. An idea that the film was going to deviate slightly from the biopic formula to make a story of its own is definitely an interesting idea, to say the least.

The film is actually based on the 2000 book of the same name by acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oats, which reimagines the life of the starlet by bringing in surreal elements. The book warps Monroe’s image in a similar way that the media once did, and still does. The author herself has claimed that the 700-page book is a work of fiction that aims to rearrange the actor’s life, portraying Monroe as a mirror to America and the Hollywood system itself.

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Now, while this sounds good in theory, using Monroe to criticise the very industry that destroyed her, the film’s execution says something else. The film makes a NC-17 spectacle of Monroe’s suffering, from sexual assault to pregnancy to addiction. The film feels mean spirited, revelling in her pain, ripping her away from any sort of personhood or agency.

So, to put it bluntly: no, this biopic is not ethical, nor are the endless outpouring of Marylin Monroe biopics which intend to do the same thing. Just let this poor woman be.

Yes, Marilyn can be symbolic of many things. But the issue is that ignoring her personhood, instead reducing her to symbols, is effectively doing the same damage that the Hollywood system did to her in her life, reducing her to her mere image and thus holding no remorse in her exploitation, which ultimately led to her death.

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We should have known to leave her image alone after Andy Warhol made that famous pop art in the wake of her death. His work is meant to highlight how the actor has become a figurehead, a consumable piece of iconography rather than an actual person. That said enough. And yet we keep trying to say the same thing again and again.

blonde Marilyn monroe andy WarholAndy Warhol

Biopics ultimately end up becoming the evil they are intending to criticize, warping and parading a real woman’s life and pain for our own voyeurism, destroying her in the afterlife in the same way we destroyed her during her life.

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Are biopics ethical in general?

While it’s a case-by-case issue, the main problem facing biopics is the prioritization of art over truth, the leaning towards spectacle over the wishes of real people. And if the product is, “Based on a true story,” viewers will likely take the story at face value, potentially ignoring the actual story of the actual person.

Biopics have existed since the earliest days of silent cinema, with films such as Georges Melies’ 1899 Jeanne D’Arc. Apparently, the real life figures that have been the most featured in films include Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Vladymir Ilich Lenin, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, and Queen Elizabeth I.

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Generally, people see little issue with fictionalizing these figures, as they’ve been dead for centuries. But the same cannot be said for more recent figures, like Monroe or Elvis Presley, with his biopic by Baz Luhrmann having recently hit cinemas. And what can be said for figures who are still alive?

Blonde: Do biopics empower, or re-traumatize victims?

Filmmakers don’t necessarily have to ask for consent to make films about people. Some have even continued with their projects after their subject has explicitly denied them consent. One recent example is the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, for which Pamela Anderson not only refused consent, but also spoke out about the trauma she endured in the process.

After the release of their sex tape, Tommy Lee gained more status, whereas Anderson’s career plummeted under an avalanche of slut-shaming and misogyny, which can be seen in their respective reactions; while Lee praised the actor portraying him, Anderson posted to Instagram about refusing to be victimized once again.

Biopics and sexism are often issues that go hand in hand. It says a lot that the initial public reaction to Blonde appeared very gendered, with women criticizing the film, while many men – namely white men – initially praising it, claiming that those who criticized it didn’t “get it.”

Now, are there any good aspects to biopics? Well, yes, there are some examples. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, while a musical, could still be classed as a biopic. It’s been more harshly criticized as of late – including for glossing over the faults of America’s founding fathers – but it was successful in reinvigorating interest in a man whose enemies had tried to sweep under the rug.

Biopics are able to tell a side to a story that history may have ignored, or bring light to people’s struggles that need to be shown. Schindler’s List and Judas and the Black Messiah – for which Fred Hampton’s family gave permission – come to mind, which places the focus on the plights of people that history has very much tried to forsake.

But when you’re making film after film of the same person, or making films about people who don’t consent to having their stories shown to millions, any notion of do-gooding goes out the window. Especially when the content follows stories of those who have been victimized; just this week, viewers have been asked not to romanticize Evan Peter’s portrayal of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer for the sake of his victims. And this wasn’t asked by the creators of said show, by the way.

Namely, until we truly take both filmmakers and ourselves to task for our obsession with the spectacle of real people, biopics, including exploitative biopics like Blonde, won’t be going away.

Blonde is available to stream on Netflix now.