By Luchia Ceriello
Trigger warning: This article discusses topics like rape, sexual assault, and self-harm.
With childish doe eyes, Ana de Armas portrays Marilyn Monroe in Netflix’s new film, Blonde. She is characterized as painfully thick-headed and helpless, speaking in soft, baby-like sighs. This infantile portrayal is then coupled with brutally graphic rape and sexual assault scenes. The film markets itself as a true story – despite being entirely fictionalized– that “exposes” old Hollywood misogyny and abuse, despite quite obviously reveling it.
Why does it feel like the audience has become privy to the male writer’s fantasies of women’s worst fears?
Because they’re easy to fetishize. Where do we draw the line when it comes to condemning or romanticizing the abuse of women?
In 1997, Princess Diana died as she was hunted down for exploitative photographs. Two and a half billion people watched her televised funeral. Last year, the film Spencer was released, a profoundly personal biopic on the late princess, spanning a grim few days at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Audiences watched Diana heave over toilets, self-harm, throw herself down stairs, suffer psychological abuse from her husband, and struggle through mental illness in the presence of her young sons and unempathetic in-laws.
Do these biopics raise awareness for mental illness and sexual assault, or are there masochistic motives that find pleasure in dehumanizing these brilliant women who should be known for so much more? These are not just stories: they were real people, not characters.
So what would these women want to be remembered by? The people who hurt them? The trauma they endured? The most gruesome moments of their lives? Pain and anguish are not inherently sexual, but there is an endless market for it in mainstream media. The masses have immortalized them as beautiful girls with big teary eyes, heavy hearts, and tortured psyches. Why? Because it is more fascinating than their empowering accomplishments. It is a sick powerplay by the male juggernaut that is the entertainment industry. Monroe started her own production company and advocated for Black entertainers – such as Ella Fitzgerald – to be able to perform as white women could. Diana completely changed the false stigmas around AIDS and became a humanitarian for issues such as cancer and homelessness for a considerable part of her life. But that doesn’t sell. Sex sells; the ever-prevelant undercurrent of capitalism – which also drives the industry just as much as sex – ensures this. By demeaning women to their most vulnerable and horrific moments, they stay helpless and oppressed.
Dr. Joji Madappattu, an assistant professor at St. Berchmans College in India, discusses the devastating effects of how women are portrayed in her essay Dehumanisation of Women in Media. Madappattu profoundly writes, “Consumer culture emphasises the physicality of a woman; her intellectual and creative facets have been disrespected… people accustomed with incessant stories of rape tend to consider rape an ordinary event, and therefore a grave, horrendous crime gets soft-pedalled… media celebrates rape and molestation as titillating stories.” She focuses on how the media subjugates women by desensitizing the masses to violence against them and insulting their accomplishments by omission. We teach the next generation how to commit these acts of violence because they are commonplace and explicitly depicted in all the media we consume. Essentially, issues important to women have no place in the industry; they do not consider women a “clever audience”.
Let’s begin by recognizing the many flaws in the media we have been consuming since we were born and have come to accept as the norm. We cannot let these subliminals that push the oppressive, dominant narrative – AKA the white patriarchy – commandeer our ideas. As the enlightened consumer, you drive the market through your dollars, votes, and voices; as the enlightened consumer, you have the power to negate the market.