When I was in high school, I discovered an essay in an anthology of short stories entitled The Ambivalence of Abortion. The writer of the piece was a journalist who was describing her decision to have an abortion. She was married with children when she learned that she was again pregnant. She and her husband discussed the possibility of having another child but decided that at this juncture in their life that they didn’t have the emotional or financial ability to provide for another child and that an abortion was the best decision for their family. They returned to their normal lives, but she remained conflicted by her decision to end the pregnancy. She later found herself haunted by a ghost who waves at her as she cries out to the apparition, “Of course, we have room for you.”
I was reminded of this short essay as I watched the film BLONDE, currently playing on Netflix. In one similarly disturbing scene, the Monroe character is being tormented by the fetus she’s carrying who says to her in a baby voice, “you won’t hurt me this time, will you? Do what you did the last time?” The talking fetus is referring to her earlier abortion which is depicted as being physically forced upon her as she resists and screams out that she has changed her mind. When Monroe tells the fetus that she didn’t mean to do it, the fetus responds, “Yes, you did, you chose this.” Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s national director of arts and entertainment engagement, condemned this scene and in an interview with the THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER stated, “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. 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 formented baby. 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.”
After viewing the film, I agree with the concern expressed by Ms. Spruch that abortion should be depicted accurately. First, it should be noted that there’s no evidence that the real Marilyn Monroe was ever physically forced to have an abortion in the way that is depicted in the film. It has been documented by previous biographers that she did, in fact, have several abortions as well as suffer numerous miscarriages. By most accounts, she also longed to have children and a family of her own. But by virtue of being an actress in the film industry she undoubtedly felt pressure to work non-stop to stay on top of her profession and to maintain the image of herself as a sex goddess. The women of that era working in the Hollywood film industry were often made to feel disposable and their fame provided them little protection. Hollywood sex symbols (even hugely talented ones like Monroe) are marked with an expiration date. It’s also well-documented that Monroe led an unstable existence marred by drug problems, physical aliments, depression, and numerous failed marriages. So, these factors too, likely influenced her decision to seek an abortion. And it’s irresponsible of the filmmaker to show her being physically forced against her will to end a pregnancy when the record demonstrates that this wasn’t the case.
But where I take issue with the statement by Ms. Spruch is in her assertion that the depiction of the outcome of the abortion is somehow rendered inauthentic or inaccurate by the use of a CGI-talking fetus. It’s not anti-feminist to portray Monroe, or for that matter any woman, as being haunted by this decision. Pro-choice doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge the grief that some women may experience in exercising that choice and that the choice can be accompanied by lingering feelings of guilt. So, it’s not unfair for Andrew Dominick, the director of BLONDE, to portray the Monroe character communing with the fetus that she once bore. The ability to have children can be an unfair and even tragic burden that women bear. And that has real consequences for our emotional and physical well-being regardless of whether we chose to have children or not. Not all women experience abortion in the same manner so there is no correct way to depict the aftermath. Some women may be so relieved that they are never saddened by their decision and other women may feel guilt or shame and even experience a grieving process.
The scene in question isn’t meant to be an accurate depiction of a fetus. No, fetuses don’t speak, but this is one of the few scenes in BLONDE that capture the vulnerability of an iconic woman who had a pathological fear of abandonment and longed for love and acceptance that always eluded her. In this moment, she is revealed to be a complicated character possessing both tenderness and torment over her present and past decisions without exploiting or denying her humanity. She communicates with this apparition much the way the journalist does in the essay The Ambivalence of Abortion. It is, perhaps, an attempt to ease her sense of guilt and profound loneliness that often overwhelmed her. The concern that a talking fetus gives credence to the anti-choice movement is doubtful given that most viewers probably aren’t persuadable on this issue and also understand that fetuses don’t speak in the voice of a child. It’s no contradiction to be a pro-choice feminist but to recognize that such a decision may leave a woman in a vulnerable state and filled with a sense of loss over what may have been. Anything less is to deny us our full complexity as human beings.
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