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Falling Stars: The Commodification of Mistreatment in Hollywood

By: Noelle Blake

Art by: Raegan Boettcher


I: A Fall from Grace: Captured on Camera

If a story can be told, it will be. It doesn’t have to be true; it just has to be entertaining.

This has been the reality of the film industry for ages. But as of late, cheap endeavors that promise high yield seem to be the only projects worth funding — in the minds of the biggest studios in the industry, at least.

There are filmmakers who attempt to keep the art alive by presenting original concepts, writing, and visuals. However, the vast majority of so-called ‘blockbusters’ are films that base their material off of something that has already been done before. In 2022, the top five grossing films at the box office were Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Minions: The Rise of Gru.[1] If all the colons didn’t give it away, these films share the fact that they all belong to established franchises, and use the name of their predecessors to attract audiences to the theaters.

These films are the least subtle of all the attempts by media giants to profit with minimal effort. Their intentions are as transparently greedy as their projects are lazy. Despite the fact that these formulaic franchises garner billions of dollars a year, there is a new trend that has begun to permeate Hollywood and intrigue producers looking for something to sensationalize. In recent years, the low-risk-high-reward film has manifested itself in the biopic.

The biopic is deceptive. A dramatic retelling of the true events of someone’s extraordinary life sounds like a tribute to the person and their legacy; a film that the subject or their family could watch and think fondly of. But in reality, biopics are opportunistic, and even exploitative at times. Depending on the film’s subject and the story that the filmmaker wants to tell to the audience, biopics can vary from vaguely accurate representations to wildly falsified accounts of a person’s character.

In and of itself, this could be brushed off with the same disclaimer we hear about most of the media we consume: take it with a grain of salt. Evidently, the only obligation the directors and producers have to the audience is that of a good story. But the increasingly prominent biopic speaks to a greater issue that has afflicted Hollywood for as long as it has existed: the degradation of women in media through backwards tropes and flat, inaccurate depictions. The biopic exacerbates this issue, if not embodies it completely.

Take 2022’s Blonde for example. Marilyn Monroe is the face of Old Hollywood: glamorous, beautiful, poised, and soft-spoken. But what else was she? According to director Andrew Dominik, Monroe was a victim — and apparently — nothing more. Throughout the film, Dominik struggles to separate the actress from her characters, which is evident in his portrayal of Monroe as the epitome of the “dumb blonde” trope she frequently adopted on camera. Audiences who watched Monroe rise to the heights of her stardom in the 40s and 50s also tended to view her two-dimensionally. Monroe was born Norma Jeane Baker. Throughout her life, her father was absent and her mother struggled with poor mental health. As a result, Monroe moved between foster homes and orphanages throughout her childhood. By the time Monroe signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1946, her relationship with her mother was strained, with the two communicating infrequently.

Rather than using this background to paint a picture of Monroe as a multifaceted woman who found success in unlikely circumstances, Dominik instead completely warps the relationship between Monroe and her mother, resulting in an image of a fragile girl who has suffered years of torment and abuse.

In his inaccurate characterization of both Monroe and her mother, Dominik succeeds in reforming both women in the minds of the audience. Gladys Baker — Monroe’s mother — becomes a crazed woman whose mental health struggles drive her to harm her loved ones. Simultaneously, he sets the stage for a version of Monroe that is constantly victimized and in need of a savior that never comes.

In defense of his depiction of Monroe as a tragic character who is constantly undergoing mistreatment from everyone in her life, Dominik stated “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images.”[2]

The problem is that the images Dominik chose were curated to create the Marilyn Monroe that became an object of affection and adulation for the better part of the twentieth century, largely without her consent. As a result, Dominik’s Monroe is a two-dimensional beauty that oscillates between childlike-naivete and tearful outbursts. By revisiting the image of Monroe and reducing her — yet again — to that superficial caricature of a tragic, beautiful mess, Dominik essentially removes all the depth that has been slowly recognized by the public in the sixty years since her death.

Death also prevents Monroe from speaking for herself. In this way, the biopic is especially sinister. Even if we acknowledge that this new depiction of her is fictionalized, we cannot dissociate what we see on screen with what we remember of Marilyn Monroe and her legacy. In Blonde, Dominik frequently portrays Monroe’s relationships with men through scenes filled with “tears and trauma and sex, lots and lots of sex,” in the words of film critic Manohla Dargis.[3] With a two hour and forty-seven minute run time, the excessive, graphic and sometimes non-consensual sexual acts shown on screen disrespect Monroe. It’s as if she is being violated a second time after death.

The goal of this imagery is not to spread awareness of the hardships Monroe went through. It is to create a hyper-sexualized image of the already hyper-sexualized star; to profit one last time off of her body, face, and name.

This treatment by Hollywood of one of its greatest figures is unsurprising, but still incredibly disappointing. Allowing famous women to be degraded and abused both on film and by film desensitizes the audience to the very real injustices that modern women in media still suffer from today. By allowing the persistence and popularization of the biopic, we are depriving women of their agency in yet another sphere of their lives. By controlling public perception of an actress, the filmmaker takes hold of their identity.

While Blonde is an extreme example of the biopic-gone-wrong, there are contemporary women who have undergone similar mistreatment on screen. Last year, Pam and Tommy was released on Hulu as a limited series. The show follows the rise of Pamela Anderson, and her relationship with her husband Tommy Lee. But of course, that concept isn’t interesting enough on its own. So, the story really centers around the married couple as their lives unravel amid the leakage of their stolen sex tape.

The kicker? Pamela Anderson had nothing to do with the making of the show, and has publicly expressed that she doesn’t even want to watch it. “I never watched the tape,” she said in a trailer for her own documentary, Pamela, A Love Story. “I’m never going to watch [the show].”[4]

The producers of Pam and Tommy claim that they attempted to reach out to Anderson, saying that they “cared a great deal about her and wanted her to know that the show loves her,” according to show creator D.V. DeVincentis.[5] Unfortunately, no matter how much the show creators love their subject, their portrayal of her was still done without her explicit consent. While this isn’t against the law, it’s still negligent behavior on the part of the show. If they tasked themselves with showing the “true” story of a person and a struggle they faced, shouldn’t they consult them first?

The portrayal of Anderson in the show is mostly respectful. The producers only allude to the tape rather than showing it, and it seems that the leads — Lily James and Sebastian Stan — did months of research to play Anderson and Lee as accurately as possible.[6] All that being said, Pam and Tommy is still a drama rather than a documentary, and it is marketed as such. The draw of the show is not to tell the truth about the mistreatment and spurn Anderson faced in her life and career — as it claims to do — but rather, to detail the turmoil immediately after her sex tape was released. The audience sees scenes of Anderson and Lee’s marriage becoming rocky, Anderson’s coworkers watching her tape on the backlot of Baywatch, and the countless opportunities she loses as a result of her sex tape being leaked.

All of these events happen in quick succession, and it is the intensity of it all that pulls viewers in. They watch intently as Anderson’s life crumbles around her, all to shake their heads in disapproval; as if she isn’t still living with the ramifications of the injustice she was dealt just decades ago. Pam and Tommy changes nothing about her circumstances, other than an added layer of retrospective pity. And meanwhile, the story that Anderson actually wanted to tell about her life was only released on January 31st of this year, almost a year after the dust settled around the drama that reclaimed her narrative without her consent.[7]

Here is yet another instance of a woman’s agency being taken from her in the telling of her own life. Pamela Anderson is a woman who suffered greatly for a sex tape that was stolen from her home; a keepsake that was meant to commemorate her and her husband’s honeymoon. After years of degradation and punchlines at her expense, she was finally granted an opportunity to reframe her image by the same industry that allowed it to be tarnished. But wait — Hulu beat her to the punch. And before it was re-sensationalized with the release of Pam and Tommy, nobody was listening. This sends a clear message to women in Hollywood: your story is only worth telling when it’s convenient and when it sells. In this sense, the truth is inherently exploitative: tell the story on our terms, the producers say; if you don’t approve, we’ll tell it anyway.

This pattern of inaccurate story telling against the will and wishes of the subject is not exclusive to actresses or members of Hollywood. Women are exploited and bled dry for any and all involvement in the public sphere. There are at least 17 films about the life of Princess Diana, which is more than enough to comprehensively document the life of a woman who only lived to be thirty-six, and was in the public eye for less than two decades.[8]

To dramatize the life of a young woman who was adjusting to a drastically different reality is to flatten her evolution to just a fleeting phase of her life. It’s nearly impossible to know what Princess Diana thought at age 18, or how those thoughts differed from the one’s she had at age 30. Many of the films made about her speculate about her struggle in the royal family. However, the image of her that they’ve created is only part of who she was. While she may have felt trapped or stretched thin by the expectations to be composed, graceful, and elegant at all times, we don’t know how this pressure might have impacted her mental health, or if she really was at odds with the entirety of the royal family. In the most recent interpretation of Diana’s life, Spencer, her circumstances are turned into an unnerving psycho-thriller, leaving audiences with a sense of dread that they can only guess Diana experienced at the end of her life.

Of course, we hear accounts of what she was thinking and feeling from her close friends and confidants; I’ve even seen clips of her diary entries being read aloud. But if accuracy comes at the cost of exposing the most intimate details of a person's life without their consent, is it worth it to tell the story at all? Rather than satiate the appetites of those invested in royal family drama, we should instead focus on the positive change Princess Diana made throughout her life. I doubt that anyone would want to be remembered for a gradual descent into devastation or the tragic circumstances under which they died.



***

II: Underrepresented Stars and Overrepresented Suffering

The dehumanization that results from biopics manifests itself in different forms.

Women of color similarly suffer from the commodification of lives and legacies in Hollywood. Only, their stories are treated with even less care than that of their white counterparts. While the quality of the film may be the same, the subject matter focuses almost entirely on Black struggle. Hidden Figures (2016), Harriet (2019), and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) are all recent films that tell the stories of Black women, but only with respect to the struggles they faced as a result of their race.

Hidden Figures is an award winning, critically acclaimed film about three African American women — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — and their significant role in helping send astronaut John Glenn to space. Despite the feat of their accomplishments, these three women are instead remembered for their struggles. The most memorable scene — shared countless times online — is of actress Taraji P. Henson as she laments over the blatant segregation that impairs her from doing her job effectively.[9]

Obviously, racial discrimination played a significant part in the circumstances under which these three women accomplished their achievements. However, their struggles take priority in their story over their greatness. This portrayal of Black women as tired, sorrowful, and resilient amid hardship is not as flattering or rewarding as Hollywood believes it to be. For Black audiences, seeing the struggle that we know intimately only reminds us of the many barriers we must overcome to be seen and heard, to have a movie made about our triumphs. Tubman sends a similar message of Black struggle as the sole means to Black triumph.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is slightly different. At the intersection of Black struggle and the selling of the lives of famous women, the exploitation of Houston’s story is doubly disappointing. Not only does the film use Houston’s most popular songs throughout the film like a patchwork musical, but it also documents her struggle with drug abuse, twinging her pop hits with a sense of sadness that dampens the viewing experience.

My introduction to Houston and her music was far more personal than the film that claims to remember her impact. My mom is adamant about listening to music throughout the house on weekends. The volume on whatever device she uses must be high enough to be heard from the basement, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the porch; those are the spaces that she breezes to and from as she works through her cleaning routine.

Before the days of holing myself in my room to do endless homework, I was typically beside her during these weekends, passing her supplies and humming along to whatever song was thrumming through the beige carpet. We found the Whitney Houston: Greatest Hits CD after one of our routine clean outs, and Mom was thrilled. The disc in our radio’s built-in player inspired an impromptu dance-party, and led me to explore Houston on my own. Her disc also frequently rotated in the Disney princess CD player I was gifted for my eighth birthday, and I remember the joy I felt hearing that CD on breezy Summer days when there was nothing to do but dance.

I also remember reading the headline about Houston’s death on the living room TV; her music flowed throughout our house for days as we felt her loss.

To remind audiences of Houston’s decline, just a decade after her death, is to remind them of the tragedy of her last moments rather than the glory of her career. Despite being young while learning about Houston and her life, I still felt the emptiness in the film’s attempt to say something new or original. To chronicle her life through the polished products she made for consumption — and nothing more — almost retracts from her legacy, and demonstrates the worst of the essence of the biopic: a sparkly, yet distasteful retelling of the life of a woman whose death is so recent that the audience knows the ending before the opening credits even begin.

This treatment of women in the media is nothing new. But to draw audiences in on the coattails of women’s legacies is a new form of exploitation that must be put to an end. The biopic contributes nothing but empty condolences and false apology for wrongdoings that the industry is wholly responsible for and audiences are bystanders to.

For white women, the biopic reinforces tropes of submission, helplessness, and suffering. In the eyes of the biopic, Monroe is a fragile prize to be won, Anderson is a woman whose sexuality is continually weaponized against her, and Diana is a woman whose entrapment in the royal hierarchy is served up on a platter for the morbid curiosity of the ever-distant viewer. This distance between the subject and the audience seems to increase through the biopic; we venture further away from viewing the subject as a whole human being, despite seeing what is meant to be the most intimate details of their lives.

For Black women, the biopic only draws attention to the lack of humanity we’ve been granted by the rest of the world. Hollywood loves to make movies about Black women as slaves, as burden-bearers, and as tragic figures. We rarely see movies about the success of Black people without at least a twinge of the despair that comes with centuries of colonization and systematic oppression. This could be chalked up to simply being representative of our tragic reality, but the struggle of Black women in the film industry is still disproportionately represented. If Hollywood wanted to see success without immense pain, sacrifice, and suffering, they’d have made it already. But a story of a Black woman’s success will never be chosen over that of a white man who did the same thing.

The problem is profit. No matter how much filmmakers and producers claim to be writing the stories of women to save them, to redeem them, or to honor them, there is always the incentive of millions of dollars behind their attempts. What is a profitable movie if not a sensation? What is a successful show without gripping — though unrealistic — characters?

Nothing. So they sacrifice realism and accuracy for the story. And we, the audience, absorb the characters as the people they’re meant to represent. By consuming the biopic, we become complicit in the fictionalization of women and their lives. As a result, they become flattened images of what they once were.

Our viewership is what these stories count on. By removing ourselves from seats in theaters and clicking away from the titles on the hompages of our streaming services, we are sending filmmakers a message of our own: tell the stories of women as they want them told, or don’t tell them at all. It may seem difficult to convince Hollywood, but women contribute to half of the billions they make from their films. Let’s see if money will talk in favor of justice for a change.



 

[1] IMDbPro, “Box Office Mojo,” accessed February 4, 2023, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/world/2022/.

[2] Christina Newland, “‘I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images’: Andrew Dominik on Blonde,” BFI, accessed February 4, 2023, https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/interviews/im-not-interested-reality-im-interested-images-andrew-dominik-blonde.

[3] Manohla Dargis, “‘Blonde’ Review: Exploiting Marilyn Monroe for Old Times’ Sake,” Movies, The New York Times, September 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/28/movies/blonde-review-marilyn-monroe.html.

[4] Eliza Thompson, “Everything Pamela Anderson Has Said About ‘Pam & Tommy’: ‘I Refuse to Watch It’,” Real Talk, Us Weekly, January 26, 2023, https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/pictures/everything-pamela-anderson-has-said-about-pam-tommy/.

[5] Eliza Thompson, “Everything Pamela Anderson Has Said About ‘Pam & Tommy’: ‘I Refuse to Watch It’.”

[6] Kase Wickman, Lily James on the Work She Did to Become Pamela Anderson: “It Needed That, and It Deserved That,” Character Building, Vanity Fair, June 27, 2022, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/06/lily-james-pam-and-tommy-transformation.

[7] Pamela Anderson, “Pamela, A Love Story,” Pamela Anderson & Ryan White, Netflix, January 31, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SBJB8r8fVQ.

[8] “Category:Films about Diana, Princess of Wales”, Wikipedia, last modified February 23, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Films_about_Diana,_Princess_of_Wales.

[9] Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures,” Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi, Margot Lee Shetterly, 20th Century Fox, January 7, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNK8FCFpmm4.

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