Around the third or fourth time that Blonde cut to a shot of a CGI fetus floating in the womb, I began to think about pro-life activists. Specifically, the ones you find loitering outside of abortion clinics—back when more of those existed—shoving photos of babies under the noses of people with unwanted pregnancies. Shortly after, when Ana de Armas thanked her on-screen mother for not having an abortion—”I wouldn’t be here at all. There wouldn’t be any Marilyn.”—I was transported to the Twitter page of someone who tweets with things like, “What if your mother had aborted YOU?” Later still, when yet another image of a fetus is accompanied by a child’s voice begging its mother, “You won’t hurt me, right,” I simply laughed out loud. I was being punk’d, right? Ashton Kutcher, I know you’re there!
To be clear, I don’t believe Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe movie—which began streaming on Wednesday, and is based on the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel—is interested in taking sides in the abortion debate. Writer/director Andrew Dominik told me that himself when I asked him about it in a previous interview with Decider. “I wrote the thing in 2008. I’m not trying to comment on anything,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. This is about Norma’s feelings about it, and Norma’s feelings about it are valid. She’s not existing in 2022. It’s not about 2022. It’s about the ’50s.”
Dominik told me he understood the “temptation” to view Blonde “through that lens” following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which ended the constitutional right to an abortion in the United States in June. He feels it’s simply a case of rotten timing. In a separate interview for The Wrap, in which he responded to critics calling the film anti-abortion, he said, “No one would have given a shit about that if I’d made the movie in 2008, and probably no one’s going to care about it in four years’ time.”
But, of course, there were quite a few people who cared about the anti-abortion movement in 2008. The reversal of Roe vs. Wade, though devastating, wasn’t exactly a shock to anyone paying even the slightest attention to the state of abortion access in the U.S. over the past three decades. The so-called “pro-life” movement has been demonizing abortion since before Dominik was born. And, unwittingly or not, he has just handed that movement a crown jewel of a movie with his graphic depictions of Marilyn Monroe’s abortion, miscarriages, and various unborn babies.
After a visual walkthrough of Monroe’s first conception—we see the sperm, the egg, and the fetus in its embryonic stage—Dominik hits viewers with a devastating scene in which Monroe is forced to have an abortion against her will. She’s gearing up for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her breakout role, and she’s been in a three-way relationship with Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (played by Xavier Samuel) and Edward “Eddy” G. Robinson Jr. (played by Evan Williams). Though she initially wants to keep the baby, despite her lovers’ reluctance, she decides to have an abortion after a terrible visit to her mother in the psychiatric hospital. The studio is all too happy to make the arrangements.
On the drive over, Monroe changes her mind. She begs her driver to pull over. He ignores her. She cries on the operation table, pleading softly with the doctors to stop. They, too, ignore her. They force open her legs, and then her cervix. (A shot Dominik chooses to show us from inside her cervix.) “Please, don’t,” she sobs, as they inject her with a sedative. Then, in her drugged-out dream, she imagines throwing herself off the table and running for her life. It’s every bit as violating, if not more so, as the scene where she is raped by studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck.
Following this, Dominik returns to the image of Monroe’s unborn babies again. And again. And again. By the time we reach the moment where Monroe converses with her child in the womb, you’re starting to feel like it should be the second-billed character in the cast list. The infamous “talking fetus” comes after Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody). The actress is in a state of marital bliss, thrilled to be pregnant and married to a man who actually wants a child. But her fleeting happiness is marred by intense feelings of guilt re: her previous abortion. While she is clipping roses in the garden, the perfect image of a perfect wife, she hears the voice of a young child:
“You won’t hurt me this time, will you? Not do what you did the last time?”
Just in case you were confused as to who is meant to be speaking, Dominik cuts, once again, to that familiar fetus image.
“I didn’t mean to,” Monroe responds, clearly shaken.
“Yes, you meant to,” the fetus chastises, stern. “It was your decision.”
The issue here is not that Monroe wants to keep her child. Nor is it that she was traumatized by losing these babies. It’s that Blonde vilifies the concept of abortion, while simultaneously humanizing the concept of an unborn fetus. Here is a movie that asserts that not only does life (and conversation!) begin at conception, but that any woman who chooses to have an abortion will be plagued by regret, guilt, and trauma for the rest of her days. It’s like Dominik was taking notes from the Catholic Church itself.
When asked about the decision to depict the fetus on screen, Dominik told me, “The reason to show it was because that’s the way Joyce [Carol Oates] handled it. Baby was real. I wanted Baby to be real.”
It’s true that this moment is in Oates’s novel. But it’s handled with far more subtlety. Monroe does not have a full-fledged conversation with her unborn child, but rather a fleeting, anxious thought while she’s unable to sleep: “And baby in her womb, gripping her tight, ‘You won’t hurt me, will you? You won’t do what you did last time?’”
The movie, which cut so much else from Oates’s 900-page novel, chose to latch onto that moment, expand on it, and give it new legs (and voice. Sorry!). When combined with yet another horrific forced abortion scene that comes later—which may or may not have been a dream—Dominik has created a movie that, were it not for its NC-17 rating, would be shown in Sunday school by youth leaders eager to indoctrinate a new generation of pro-life activists.
Dominik may not have been thinking about Roe v. Wade when he made Blonde. But no matter his intention, Blonde is another entry into Hollywood’s collection of anti-abortion propaganda. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
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