Ask any pastor about times when Americans tend to take stock of their religious commitments and it’s likely you will hear something like the following.
For most people, but especially for those who are married or/or have children, there are obvious gateways from one stage of life to another and, frequently, there are religious teachings and rites that go with them. Think birth, baptism, marriage, children, aging and, finally, death. In many lives, there are moments of conversion or doubt, as well as life-threatening illnesses and tragedies. Divorce? Broken relationships with children? Yes, more symbolic gates.
Clergy know they will have to help women and men deal with these gates. I have always argued, in discussions with editors, that these gateways are often linked to important trends and news events. Changing a prayerbook or hymnal, for example, may threaten doctrines and symbols that, for the devout, are linked to rites that frame these life events.
This brings us to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in), which focuses on some news and commentary about the life of one of Hollywood’s greatest superstars — Marilyn Monroe. The problem is that the controversial, lurid new movie “Blonde” includes events and images that clearly link abortion to other life-defining events, especially horrors such as rape and other forms of sexual and emotional abuse.
Abortion can lead to grief and may be viewed as a form of violence against women? That pushes several hot buttons at the same time, and not just for right-wing Christians in the Bible Belt. Consider the symbolism of mourners visiting the famous Garden of Unborn Children in Japan.
As always, let me stress that abortion is a topic that, for many, raises religious issues — as well as moral, legal and political questions. This raises challenges for journalists and artists alike.
First, let’s look at the obvious news hook — that Planned Parenthood officials needed to react to this brutal NC-17 movie, a flick that is creating Oscar buzz surrounding the work of actress Ana de Armas.
The headline at The Hollywood Reporter proclaims, “Planned Parenthood: ‘Blonde’ Is “Anti-Abortion Propaganda.” Here is the key material:
As far as abortion rights activists are concerned, Blonde is a step in the wrong direction. “As film and TV shapes many people’s understanding of sexual and reproductive health, it’s critical these depictions accurately portray women’s real decisions and experiences,” Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s national director of arts and entertainment engagement, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “While abortion is safe, essential health care, anti-abortion zealots have long contributed to abortion stigma by using medically inaccurate descriptions of fetuses and pregnancy. Andrew Dominik’s new film, Blonde, bolsters their message with a CGI-talking fetus, depicted to look like a fully formed baby.”
Spruch went on to say, “Planned Parenthood respects artistic license and freedom. However, false images only serve to reinforce misinformation and perpetuate stigma around sexual and reproductive health care. Every pregnancy outcome — especially abortion — should be portrayed sensitively, authentically and accurately in the media. We still have much work to do to ensure that everyone who has an abortion can see themselves onscreen. It is a shame that the creators of Blonde chose to contribute to anti-abortion propaganda and stigmatize people’s health care decisions instead.”
Was this the director’s intention? He argues that this controversy is (merely) linked to the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview with The Wrap, Dominik said he doesn’t see the movie as anti-choice and that the perception of it as such stems in part from the timing of its release so soon after the overturn of Roe. “People are obviously concerned with losses of freedoms,” he said. “But, I mean, no one would have given a s*** about that if I’d made the movie in 2008, and probably no one’s going to care about it in four years’ time. And the movie won’t have changed. It’s just what’s sort of going on.”
There is, of course, no need to discuss this conflict with film critics and activists on the other side of this issue. I would imagine, for example, that members of Feminists For Life would have many negative comments about the contents of “Blonde” as a whole, as well as thoughts about it’s depictions of grief after an abortion. But, you know.
In social-media forums, such as Twitter, the “Blonde” controversy truly took flight with a Critic’s Notebook piece by Amanda Hess at The New York Times: “The Empty Spectacle of Marilyn Monroe’s Fantasy Fetus.”
It’s hard to condense what is happening in this essay, so here is a large chunk to ponder, which does link several of the key themes in Monroe’s troubled life:
Marilyn Monroe’s chatty, regenerating fetus — she calls it “Baby” — has emerged as a scene-stealing sensation. Critics have called it “goofy,” “despicable” and “cruel.” Some have even pegged it as inadvertently propagandistic — this mode of fetal puppetry is a familiar anti-abortion gimmick. But Monroe’s dialogue with her pregnancy, which originated in the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel on which the film is based, is also a product of the star’s troubled self-conception, and in that context, the fetus’s corny, sanctimonious message makes a kind of sense. What is jarring is the contemporary look of the fetus: a schlocky, seemingly computer-generated figure that recalls pop-culture fantasy images invented long after Monroe’s death. It’s a rendering so lazy, it suggests a stubborn incuriosity about how Monroe would have actually experienced her pregnancies, even as the film presents them as character-defining events.
Pregnancy can inspire profound acts of projection. The fetus, an unseen body inside of a body, suspended between nonexistence and existence, is defined by parental expectation and cultural imagination. It is the personification of a mother’s desires and fears, her sublimated anxieties and internalized judgments. And the Monroe of “Blonde” has plenty of issues to cast onto a prospective baby. Abandoned by her father and abused by her mother in childhood, she has become world famous as an infantilized sex object who calls all of her lovers “Daddy.” Her ventriloquized fetus is voiced by the child actor (Lily Fisher) who plays Monroe as a little girl, when she was still Norma Jeane. When Monroe communicates with her fetus, she is talking, with pity and loathing, to herself.
Have other women had painful experiences, when coping with grief after abortions, especially when these procedures were — to one degree of another — forced on them? There are support networks for these women, of course, such as Project Rachel, and they are rather easy for journalists to find.
As always the digital-era journalism question here is whether there are two valid sides in this story and whether women on both sides of the debate deserve to be heard and treated with respect in accurate, balanced news reports. Note that Planned Parenthood stated that there is no need for media to offer “false images.”
This is not the first time that major Hollywood films have crossed into dangerous material linked to abortion — dangerous as in images and themes that in any way question to logic of abortion as the solution to crisis pregnancies.
This post includes clips from two other movies that caused, to one degree or another, similar debates — especially the excellent, edgy classic “Juno.”
Journalists rarely flinch when tiny, Christian-niche filmmakers offer films on these kinds of topics. What matters is when big-league filmmakers attempt to open this specific “life event” gate. That makes the story real, and important.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from the “talking fetus scene” — posted on YouTube — from the Netflix movie “Blonde.”
Join Our Telegram Group : Salvation & Prosperity