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: