Film review: Netflix’s Blonde & the tired ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope

Still from Blonde by Andrew Dominik (2022). Source: IMDB.

How did you watch Blonde? As fact or fiction? As a biopic or as melodramatic trauma-porn?

Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe has been far removed from the confident, lustrous and energetic woman traditionally idolised and revered in modern media.The figure of Monroe, erected in interviews, American iconography, her film career, Lana Del Rey songs and even the documented history of her life, has been given a pain pill. 

A fetishisation of feminine suffering and tragedy, Blonde‘s Marilyn is belittled through the lens of a man who, with zero self-awareness or irony, critiques the malevolence of his own male predecessors – industry figures who used Monroe for their own advantage, as he himself plays with her memory. While we’re aware that this characterisation of Marilyn is fictional, inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, the very real tribulations she was put through are maimed and distorted by the writing, reducing her to a shadow of herself.

Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ refers to a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist. Notable manic pixie dream girls are Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Even though Blonde is set years before the term was coined, there’s no denying that Marilyn’s character fits the tired trope of a manic pixie dream girl. Although her own plot is mobilised, the internal character arc Dominik tries to portray falls flat, and seems to allude to some kind of Freudian daddy issues, while the frustration she feels at being objectified and meant to play a character in her own life pale in comparison.

Rabin has since apologised for coining the term, calling it a “patriarchal lie” that he wishes he could erase from cinematic discourse. This is precisely why it fits Blonde so well – the film is clearly about Marilyn and not the men in her life, whom she drifts between in a somnambulistic state. Yet, no real metamorphosis occurs and her relationships are a static reflection of her surface level unhappiness rather than a deep exploration of the impacts of abuse on her psyche.

Interspersed between sobs and screams are de Armas’ gasps of airy, maniacal laughter and whispers of “daddy” directed to each new husband. With all the attempts to humanise Marilyn and her pain, Blonde is unsuccessful in exploring her real inner life. Rather, Marilyn is handed from man to man, provoking thoughts of possession or adoration.

This is most prevalent in her marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller, played by Adrien Brody, who she pervertedly inspires with child-like imitations – heavy breathing, running, curiously marvelling at the world around her. A woman protagonist with stereotypically youthful characteristics is never an inherently wrong thing in cinema, but what does cross a line is the undeniable sexualisation of these qualities.

When Marilyn’s mental health plunges and she breaks down angrily, she often appears topless or partially nude, her pain not so subtly correlating with the libido of the heterosexual male gaze. You’re left to wonder, is male pleasure the byproduct, or even goal, of these scenes? Pornography has fetishised female pain and humiliation, and this has bled to the mainstream, to media and social media. It’s difficult not to forget that this movie was made by a man, and perhaps even mostly for men.

While some efforts are made to clarify the brightness of Marilyn’s mind and talent, the emotion is surface level and she is ultimately infantilised. There is no substantial mention of her brightness, her accomplishments or talent; she was an advocate for civil rights, had a bond with Ella Fitzgerald and took her craft seriously. Let’s also not forget that her miscarriage was a manufactured hypothetical implemented for drama, and blamed on her own clumsiness, cementing the film’s strange pro-life sentiments (who else thought the talking foetus was a fever dream).

Whenever Marilyn does exert a flicker of power, the unapologetic womanliness we recognise from films like Some Like it Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it is dissolved into a flurry of tears. Try comparing replications of original film and you’ll find that de Armas carries slivers of that girlish, insecure quality even when trying to play femme fatale. When she isn’t crying, she’s being ‘quirky’. Or as quirky as one could be in the 1950s.

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