The Blonde Abortion Controversy Puts a Myth on Trial
[Madeleine Kearns is a staff writer at National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com), where the following article was published on October 22, 2022. © 2022 by National Review. Reprinted by permission.]
What the Marilyn Monroe movie gets right.
“A clump of cells” as a description of the unborn was rendered untenable by advances in ultrasound technology. The preferred strategy now is to change the subject, speculating a series of catastrophes and misfortunes associated with bringing a child to term: “If I don’t have this abortion, I won’t be able to finish college, go to law school, marry the man of my dreams,” etc. Or it can be retrospective, as when Michelle Williams, in accepting her Golden Globe, said she wouldn’t have been able to win the award “without employing a woman’s right to choose.” Whatever the specific circumstances, the justification is always the same: My abortion is (or was) necessary, and I know that for a fact.
Blonde, a biopic about Marilyn Monroe written and directed by Andrew Dominik and released last month on Netflix, has challenged this narrative. By engaging seriously with both the humanity of the unborn and the uncertainty involved in choosing abortion, it has, perhaps expectedly, proved unpopular with abortion advocates. Feminists went into an uproar upon the release. Planned Parenthood condemned it as having “contributed to abortion stigma.”
The movie, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is fictionalized but stays true to the general arc of Monroe’s life. Norma Jeane Mortenson (later Marilyn Monroe) grew up without a father in the home. Her mother was mentally unstable, and Monroe spent time in foster care. Monroe sought her fortune in Hollywood where she sold nude pictures and slept with producers to advance her career. As for abortions, in his biography, The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Jeffrey Meyers wrote that Monroe had as many as twelve backstreet abortions, which “may have caused infections and adhesions that either prevented pregnancy or led to miscarriages.” This is especially sad given that Monroe reportedly wanted children.
In Blonde, Monroe (played by Ana de Armas) experiences two abortions, as well as one miscarriage. The first, a result of her ménage à trois with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Eddy G. Robinson Jr., Monroe is forced to complete after changing her mind. The second, after an affair with President John F. Kennedy, is performed on her when she’s unconscious and unable to consent.
With each pregnancy, the film uses CGI at a high level of detail to show the unborn. Not only are the unborn given screentime—they are also given a voice. During her marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), Monroe, before her miscarriage, clutches her abdomen as the child says, “Don’t hurt me like you did last time.” When she replies that she didn’t mean to, the child’s voice says, “Yes you did, you chose this.” According to pro-choice dogma, Monroe’s abortions should be understood in the context of a confident career woman who knew what she needed. What we see instead is a highly successful yet broken woman with deep wounds from her childhood. Despite her deep desires to meet him, Blonde’s Monroe is forsaken by her father. She calls each of her lovers “Daddy.” Her mother tells Monroe that it’s her fault that her father abandoned them and tries to drown her in the bathtub. After her attempt on her daughter’s life, Monroe’s mother is sent to a mental institution and Monroe to an orphanage. As an adult, Monroe tries to have a relationship with her mother but is ignored. Her acting career begins by her undergoing painful, degrading sex in exchange for a role. This kind of attention follows her throughout her career, as she reaches the heights of fame and fortune. In one scene, as leering men crowd around her, their mouths are huge and distorted. It is as if she’s being consumed by them.
After multiple failed marriages and mental breaks, Monroe dies a drug-induced death of despair at age 36.
How different Monroe’s life might have been if, early in her career, she had gotten pregnant and withdrawn from the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood. De Armas’s Monroe is one of untapped maternal potential. But that potential is thwarted by fear. Fear from her childhood—the fear of being the kind of mother her own mother was. Moreover, there’s also the fear that, without “Marilyn Monroe,” her escapist identity, she would be lost. In the end, Marilyn Monroe kills Norma Jeane. At the premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she mutters, “I killed my baby for this?”
What Monroe seems to realize is that having a child might have been a balm for the abuse and rejection she endured in her own childhood. Not only could she have saved her baby, her baby could have saved her. Blonde never resolves this question decisively but leaves it open for the audience. Seemingly, though, that’s enough to elicit condemnation from Planned Parenthood: “We still have much work to do to ensure that everyone who has an abortion can see themselves onscreen. It’s a shame that the creators of Blonde chose to contribute to anti-abortion propaganda and stigmatize people’s health care decisions instead.”
What Planned Parenthood is really demanding is that women who have had abortions see only depictions of women who have had abortions without doubt, conflict, or regret. And that they are spared depictions of the child’s humanity and any hope associated with their future. What’s vexing to abortion advocates about Blonde is that the movie’s narrative does not imply that women need abortions, only that some women need to believe they needed them.