In 2000, American author Joyce Carol Oates published The Blonde, a fictional account of the life and struggles of Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe. The book was well received in its time, seen not as a biography of Monroe’s life, but as a reflection of how people viewed her as both a person and an object.
Two decades later, he was not given the same opportunity to adapt.
Released by Netflix and directed by Andrew Dominik, “Blonde” (film) is in many ways the definitive showcase for the transformation of media discourse in the age of social media.
Controversial for seemingly every aspect of its production, from its rating to its director, story, and cast, the film has experienced a long period of debate over topics ranging from Monroe’s portrayal to the ethics of including sexual assault scenes.
Of course, “Blonde” is not the first film to be treated this way. But with the prominence of her speech, she’s bringing to the fore a conversation about how social media is changing the way people engage with media — especially when that media contains elements that are often considered taboo.
Visiting Assistant Professor Jacob Lassin, who teaches social media cultures (COM 325) in the University of Miami’s Department of Media, Journalism and Film, says there must be a spark for a topic to go viral.
“These things often snowball,” Lassin said. “The way algorithms work is when someone starts getting a little attention, they start getting a little more attention. And from there it can grow and grow and grow.”
With “Blonde,” that spark came in the form of its trailer and the announcement that the film would be rated NC-17.
In the 2010s, only eight films were given a rating, which is the highest the Motion Picture Association (MPA) can give. Movie studios usually tell filmmakers to avoid content that would earn NC-17, both because of the public stigma and because many major theatrical distributors refuse to show the rated films.
“Blonde” was rated NC-17 for “some sexual content,” which appeared in the finished film as several topless and several full-frontal scenes of Monroe (played by Ana de Armas) and three scenes involving abuse and rape is a vague description. .
Dominik defended the film in interviews leading up to its release, while also offering his own interpretation of the film’s rating.
“It’s just that the ratings board is political,” Dominic told Screen Daily. “If I watch an episode of Euphoria, it’s more graphic than anything that happened on ‘Blonde.’
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These statements didn’t help matters – in fact, they made things worse.
“If certain groups or individuals want the story to be told a certain way, they can kind of get that initial momentum,” Lassin said. “They can really control the way people view things because they don’t have the kind of control that you see from more traditional media outlets.”
Controversy continued to circulate regarding the film’s content, with speculation continuing that the film might have been given an NC-17 rating. Despite Dominique’s attempts to clarify, people on social media didn’t hesitate to call the film exploitative, disgusting and offensive to Monroe – all without seeing a single scene.
Lassin said this kind of sensationalism often happens on social media trending topics.
“It’s really a system based on the fact that you can create sensationalism and publicity in many cases,” Lassin said. “And so those are the things you can get people to argue about, really, about whatever you’re saying, even if there’s no real content there.”
The Venice Film Festival gave people a chance to actually see “Blonde” and it got mixed reactions.
Sitting at 42% on Rotten Tomatoes and earning a critic score of 50 on Metacritic, reviewers were generally positive about the film’s technical aspects, such as the score and de Armas’ performance, but found Monroe’s treatment of the film to be underwhelming.
Entertainment journalist Bill Goodykoontz, who reviewed the film for The Arizona Republic, summed up the critical consensus.
“It’s extremely well-crafted, bold and experimental, with Ana de Armas’ powerful performance at its heart. Everything, really — it dominates the film, and it should,” Goodykoontz said. “But the film is also too long, too self-indulgent, too extreme. It’s a marathon of misery.”
At the same time, a narrative began to take shape that it was morally wrong to like, or even look at, “Blonde.” To support the film was to support the continued abuse of Monroe’s legacy, thereby supporting the exploitation of all the women in the film.
People turned to user review sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Letterboxd to review the film—a phenomenon intended to show that they disagreed with something about an event that was given a disproportionate amount of low user scores to the media.
Although sites like this have some moderation features that can prevent this, it still colors people’s impressions and can deter them from watching a movie for themselves.
When “Blonde” premiered on Netflix on Wednesday, September 28, the controversy reached a fever pitch. But with nothing new to gain from the film’s release and discussion, the film quickly disappeared as users moved on to the next trending topic.
So… where does that leave “Blonde”?
Given the current cultural climate, the film is unlikely to appeal to everyone. Even if it was drawn with perfect subtlety—which it certainly wasn’t—it would still be found morally dubious at best and reprehensible at worst.
However, as an avid consumer of media, it’s disappointing to see people abandon the film so quickly and even refuse to watch it themselves.
“Blonde” and its discourse are a perfect representation of the current social media landscape: more interested in delivering “hot shots” and feeling morally superior than engaging in legitimate conversation.