In the years since her untimely death in 1962, the much-photographed life of Marilyn Monroe has come into sharper focus. Behind the pin-up curls and doe-y bedroom eyes existed a real, breathing woman named Norma Jeane Baker. Such is the subject of Blonde, the movie based off of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 fictionalized biography of Monroe, both of which string together imagined and real events in Monroe’s life in an attempt to uncover her immense physical and psychological suffering. These days, we understand a woman can be both a babe and clinically depressed.
Yet, Blonde, a movie that wants to dismantle the over-sexualized perception of its starlet, looks like it’s being over-sexualized, itself. News broke in March that the film was given a rare NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America—the first NC-17 rating awarded to a Netflix original. Ironically, that explicit rating, deserved or not, seems to be piling onto the distorted public perception of Monroe before the movie even premieres next week.
In a new interview with French magazine L’Officiel, the film’s star Ana de Armas expressed confusion at the association’s rating:
I didn’t understand why that happened. I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than Blonde. But to tell this story it is important to show all these moments in Marilyn’s life that made her end up the way that she did. It needed to be explained. Everyone [in the cast] knew we had to go to uncomfortable places. I wasn’t the only one.
Blonde’s director Andrew Dominik admitted to Vulture in May that he, too, was “surprised” about the rating, but hypothesized: “It’s not like depictions of happy sexuality. It’s depictions of situations that are ambiguous. And Americans are really strange when it comes to sexual behavior, don’t you think?” Earlier this year, he also made a point to call the rating “horseshit” in an interview with Screen Daily, arguing that Euphoria is “far more graphic than anything going on in Blonde.” (Euphoria is rated TV-MA, meaning it’s not recommended for kids under 17, despite being a show about kids under 17, all but ensuring kids under 17 will watch it.)
The MPAA gave Blonde an NC-17 rating because of “some sexual content,” and we can assume “sexual content” at least in part refers to a rape scene Oates wrote into her book and Dominik confirmed is included in his adaptation. While never fun to watch, a rape scene doesn’t necessarily an NC-17 movie make, as plenty of films rated R have depictions of rape. Dominik has also shot down rumors of a bloody menstrual cunnilingus scene appearing in Blonde, calling them “hilarious.” But you can’t rein in speculation. Like the real-life Marilyn, the aggrandizement of carnal pleasure is taking up more room in people’s imaginations than what is actually in front of them: a Netflix trailer of de Armas’ Monroe looking absolutely miserable, set to a slow rendition of her famous song about how the only comfort a woman can rely upon is jewelry. The glamour!
In 2020, the New Yorker reviewed Oates’ novel (published in 2000), writing that it set up a tragic paradox: “Behind that glittering, glamorous image, Marilyn bears the shame and self-hatred of living in a female body in a misogynist culture.” de Armas, who herself knows the burden of being hot while dating a paparazzi magnet, likewise touched on the tension created by public scrutiny of a star’s (usually a woman’s) private life in her interview with L’Officiel: “Something from this interview is going to be taken [out of context] and become something else... It’s terrifying because there is nothing you can really do. That’s why having family and people who love you is so important. And [Marilyn] didn’t have that. When you think about that, it’s easy to understand how you can break.”
That “something” she referred to is seemingly Ben Affleck. If you can manage to remember a time before Affleck and J.Lo were on their thousand-year honeymoon, his and de Armas’ relationship was once the focus of much media buzz. That “horrible” attention, as she called it, is what eventually led to their breakup and her move out of Los Angeles. Of course she is skeptical about the magnified, sexualized attention Blonde is receiving.
The MPAA’s obscure rating rubric has been the target of criticism in the past. Director Joey Soloway, for example, called its initial NC-17 rating of their movie Afternoon Delight “infuriating” and said they were forced to cut a substantial number of sex scenes in order to get to an R rating. The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece in 2015 attempting to break down the association’s process for awarding an NC-17, reporting that “the ratings board looks more kindly on a sex scene when the characters are in a marriage or serious relationship.” It also noted that women receiving oral sex and same-sex sex scenes are often more closely scrutinized than their male and heterosexual equivalents.
The curse of Marilyn Monroe is that her status as a sex symbol will always
overshadow the human she was. Her likeness is so well-established in our iconography that it can be slipped on like a costume by anyone looking to up their sex appeal, much like Kim Kardashian did when she borrowed Monroe’s gold-sequined dress to elevate her own symbolic stature. Blonde’s NC-17 rating is intended as both a warning and restriction as to who can handle the film’s mature content. It also acts like a tease—just how scandalous was this sexpot’s life anyways?—in a way that may prevent the movie from shrinking Monroe the myth back down to Norma Jean.
For his part, Dominik seemed aware of the colossal task ahead of him. Punctuating his rant on the movie’s rating, he surrendered, “It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right?”