This August marked the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Monroe is a woman who attained icon status early in her short career, and whose role in pop culture has since reached mythical proportions. Published in 2001, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde reimagines Monroe’s life, from her troubled childhood to her whirlwind rise to stardom, and ultimately, her tragic downfall. Referring to the main figures in Monroe’s life by their roles — The Ex-Athlete, The Dark Prince, The Playwright, The President — the sympathetic portrait Oates paints is one of a naive woman who wants to be loved and also wants to be taken seriously. She is a woman rising up in an era when women in her position were fundamentally powerless and constantly at the mercy of men’s whims.
Disclaimer: I’ve never studied Monroe’s real life in any way, so I have no idea how much of Blonde is real and how much is Oates taking creative liberties, so don’t take my references to events as biography. I do know, however, that most of the beginning of the book is based in fact: her mother was mentally ill, and Norma Jeane Baker came of age in foster homes desperately wanting to know who her father was. In the book, she dies not knowing his identity (questions surround his identity in real-life, too), and this is something that always eats at her. With her beauty and her well-developed figure, Norma Jeane attracted male attention early on; in Blonde, her foster mother marries Norma off at age fifteen to get the pretty girl out of the house and away from the eyes of the foster father. This is the first of many betrayals by people Norma Jeane assumed loved her.
That marriage doesn’t work out; she’s young and never truly feels loved, and yearns to be free. Difficult years are ahead; she tries modeling and acting, but the price is high and degrading. In a moment of extreme desperation stemming from her poverty, she poses for that infamous photo shoot that ends up in Playboy. Oates is blunt in her criticisms of those in power:
The nude photos of Norma Jeane Baker a.k.a. “Marilyn Monroe” he’d taken that day would become the most famous, or infamous calendar nudes in history. For which the model would earn fifty dollars, and millions of dollars would be earned by others. By men.
Oates remains critical throughout the novel, not just on behalf of Monroe but of actresses in general. There are several references to the sexual favors that women — Monroe included — had to “pay” to the heads of studios if they wanted a part. There’s even a chapter that consists solely of the FBI’s list of all the men Monroe allegedly slept with; unsurprisingly, many of the men on that list wielded some kind of power over Monroe’s career. She had no control whatsoever when it came to her name; she hated “Marilyn Monroe” and always prefered “Norma,” but the studio heads insisted that she needed name that sounded like “Mmmmm” name to match her sex appeal:
Alive. Norma Jeane knew how important it was, to remain alive.
So it happened that Norma Jean Baker was Norma Jeane’s legal name…and this would remain her name until such time as her name would be changed by a man, a man acquiring Norma Jeane as his “wife,” as eventually her full name would be changed by a decision of men. I did what was required. What was required of me was that I remain alive.
Blonde is also scathing when it comes to the how the studios paid Monroe. Considering the millions that she made for the studio, she was paid paltry sums throughout her career. She wanted to leave money in a trust for her mother, who remained institutionalized, but compared to other major stars of her time, she had little financial security at the time of her death. In fact, in the book, she initially turns down the chance to sing “Happy Birthday” to The President because she knew she’d never be able to afford the kind of dress she knew that performance required.
Oates paints Monroe’s private life as providing little respite; her marriage to The Playwright offered her a small window of happiness, but as much as she hated the demands to the studio, she was also drawn to the fame; her private life and her public life often clashed. Take her marriage to The Ex-Athlete, for instance. He was a serious, jealous man who wanted his sexy wife to also be taken seriously. On the day she filmed one of her most iconic scenes (The Seven Year Itch) he stood nearby stewing in a jealous rage at her lack of modesty; she showed up to work the next day covered in bruises. Every meaningful relationship she has ends in some kind of injury, physical or otherwise, and the ways she rationalizes it is sad because you know how much she has always yearned for security and stability:
To be the object of male desire is to know I exist! The expression of the eyes. Hardening of the cock. Though worthless, you’re wanted.
Though your mother didn’t want you, yet you are wanted.
Though your father didn’t want you, yet you are wanted.
The fundamental truth of my life whether in fact it was truth or a burlesque of truth: what a man wants you, you’re safe.
It’s a very fine line that Oates walks in Blonde because of how much (or how little) control Monroe has over her life. She portrays Monroe as a victim — though it’s often hard to argue otherwise — whose vulnerabilities were exploited to their fullest extent. The Monroe in Blonde has little agency and is instead pushed along by the powers that be.
Those who are familiar with Oates’s other works know how much she loves incorporating stream-of-consciousness writing into her work, and how much she enjoys exploring victim narratives. So it doesn’t surprise me that this is the angle she took when fictionalizing Monroe’s life. For what is the first thing people think of when they think of Marilyn Monroe The Icon? Her sex appeal? Her singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President?” Her tragic overdose? I’d wager that the last things people think of are all the traumas that went into making all of those infamous moments happen. In this case, the exploration of Monroe’s victimization just works.
Blonde was originally released in 2000 and was a finalist for the National Book Award (2000) and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2001).
Also, I have this: