Book 14, a book based on a true story, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates “ambitiously” takes on the saga of the American icon Marilyn Monroe and hits the mark with this take on the star’s tragic yet beautiful life. As the novel unfolds, we watch the transformation of Norma Jeane Baker into the iconic Marilyn Monroe. Just as Marilyn’s beloved makeup artist spends hours coaxing “Marilyn” to come out of the mirror, we spend hours watching Norma Jeane’s metamorphosis into the Marilyn persona. Oates uses a historical, biographical framework of Norma Jeane’s life peppered with fictional, intimate imaginings of conversations, thoughts, and events to flesh out a strikingly interesting, complicated, tangible version of Marilyn.
Beyond being a fascinating look into the life of old Hollywood and the making of a star in those days, this novel explores the commoditization of female flesh. It examines the dichotomy of the allure/repel of the female body, the myth of the perfect woman, and the process of becoming the perfect woman, which literally means banishing the woman of her very femaleness. In popular culture, we are surrounded by the mythos of the perfect woman. She stares at us through all mediums—advertisements, films, television—and she illustrates that the perfect woman does indeed exist. Inability to reach this status is failure on our own part, as she clearly exists in the heavily photo shopped and sterile world of popular culture. Men are taught to worship at the altar of the female body—but only as it exists in this impossible version. If there is a smell, or a hair, or a wrinkle or an imperfection, she is a failure. They revile the reality of the female body in its true musky, mysterious form. As a result, we are constantly reaching for this version of femaleness that simply doesn’t exist. When we fail, as inevitably we will, the self-loathing it creates within us lasts our entire lifetime and funds a billion dollar industry set on keeping women unhappy with their bodies. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but sadly, it’s one that has been perpetuated for generations of women.
In Blonde, Oates creates a character that exemplifies this allure/repel of the female body. As we see when Norma Jeane transforms into Marilyn, she is literally turned into another creature. No longer “woman” but WOMAN. The icon. The impossible myth. Her hair (both on her head on pubis) is constantly dyed an impossible shade of blonde that burns her skin and emits a sterile, peroxide fragrance. She spends hours having her skin “fixed” and lightened. She undergoes cosmetic changes—her nose, her hairline, her teeth—to make them more “beautiful.” She must undergo hours of makeup application, manicures, and body hair removal. She is sewn into dresses that magnify her breasts, hips, and buttocks. By men, she is often only viewed through their gaze (specifically, the way they gaze at these highly sexualized parts of her body). She becomes reduced to a “cuntlike mouth” and a “pair of great tits, a great ass.” Nobody is interested in her thoughts, feelings, or needs—just the antiseptic, over-sexualized way that she looks. Only when everything naturally female about her is removed, and she becomes this sterile version of herself, is she considered desirable. As Marilyn, she becomes an object. A beautiful object to be petted, owned, and controlled. In abandoning her femaleness—her bodily functions, smells, shedding her very skin—she ironically becomes the adored, the coveted, the mythological perfect woman. In the moments where she lets her womanhood show—when she sweats, menstruates, has downy armpit hairs, etc.—she fails in her role as the icon. She and those around her become disgusted by her failure to adhere to this impossible, unreal version of herself.
The title is aptly chosen—for she is not Norma Jeane, not even Marilyn, but just the Blonde. Her identity is reduced to the physical, the object. The men in her life “collect her” and become upset when she is more complex than the pretty object they wish to own. They fail her, repeatedly, and criticize her for having needs, thoughts, etc. The Studio is the same way. While Marilyn demonstrates uncanny acting abilities, they care only about using her as a hyper-sexualized prop. Nobody in Hollywood takes her seriously, and why would they? She is merely an object, a prop, eye candy. Female meat. The viewer feels both horrified and aroused to look at her. They love her for being gorgeous and sexual, and yet they revile her for being a whore.
As Marilyn struggles to maintain this perfect female form, it becomes increasingly difficult. The body betrays us all, and she is no exception. The energy it takes Norma Jeane to hold on to this impossible persona, this iconic woman, slowly drives her into madness. It is of little surprise when she begins to lose sight of Norma Jeane completely and starts to blur the lines between her true self, the persona of Marilyn, the rumors of Marilyn, and the various roles she played in her movies. For Marilyn’s true gift is also her downfall—she doesn’t merely act, she becomes the roles in her films. She houses them inside of herself like nesting dolls. As she descends into madness and an increasingly drugged state, she starts to forget what is real and what is fictional. She no longer trusts anyone, even herself. The novel comes to its tragic crashing halt, as we know it must, but the direction Oates takes is fascinating and the uncanny ability to write such vivid madness is truly breathtaking. This is a must read for everyone.