A beautiful tragedy: the artistic presentation of women with mental illness in film is a classic character plot for women across time. Beautiful, hysterical and struggling in a man’s world – Netflix’s new release ‘Blonde’ makes no effort to diverge from this ancient ideology.
For those who haven’t seen the new release, it follows Marilyn Monroes’ life and achievements, in possibly the most disturbing, often inaccurate, way possible. The dark lighting, eerie music and constant switching from black and white to coloured scenes set up the perfect ‘beautiful and troubled’ narrative we have all seen a thousand times before.
Film student Emily Jones, 18, commented: “women aren’t necessarily allowed to be messy…because that devalues them,” continuing, “therefore if they have mental health issues … it has to be done in a way that is palatable and pretty”.
When trying to understand how and why this narrative around women has come about, you need to look back to the origin of film and how women have historically been presented in them. Emily argued that most classic plot lines actually stem from the ancient Greeks, referencing the ‘Odyssey’, a Greek epic poem, as the “foundation for a hero plot line, which is the foundation for modern superhero movies.” So how did the Greeks treat women in their art?
Unsurprisingly, the narrative of Greek women still heavily aligns with current film. Any women presented to be crossing any social norm or boundary were deemed to be a danger to society. Take Medusa, one of the most famous and iconic characters to come from Greek literature. Her story is a sad one, being turned into a Gorgon by a jealous Athena after being raped by Poseidon, only to be presented as a hideous and evil beast. As social ideas of mental health issues grew in asylums plagued with men conducting awful experiments on ‘hysterical’ women, this idea continued to grow within society.
This negative view of women has likely continued into the modern consciousness at least in part due to the lack of female voices within film production. In 2021, only 12.7% of film directors were women – leading to a lack of exploration, depth and understanding of female characters while their male counterparts have overwhelming power, and all the screen time.
This has become an infamous part of modern cinema, even leading to the creation of the Bechdel test that can only be passed if the film features a scene in which at least two women discuss something other than a man. And it is not a new observation. In 1929, literary icon Virginia Woolf expressed similar concerns in her extended essay A Room of One’s Own, arguing that women “almost without exception are shown in their relation to men”.
While watching and researching Blonde, it became clear that these narratives of women are continuing today. When discussing the release with TikTok film critic Kai (@kailikesmovies), 22, he says of actress Ana de Arias: “He [Andrew Dominik] saw her naked in a movie and was interested in her playing Marilyn Monroe.” Which ironically mirrors the over-sexualisation and abuse Monroe faced within the movie.
@kailikesmovies absolutely vile #fyp #filmtok #blonde ♬ original sound – kailikesmovies
Perhaps women, especially those with mental health issues, can never be accurately presented on screen. Jones says: “Film is an inherently visual medium, there is no way of escaping some curation.” With this element of film and male directors controlling the film industry, it’s difficult to picture a world where movies like Blonde are not released.
However, Jones points out some hopeful representations of women in film. She discusses an alternative narrative to women’s mental health using Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s, Fleabag: “We see Fleabag do really horrible things and experience really horrible things, but also experience really good things. And I think what’s really good about it, as we see her heal.” Fleabag is a show exploring the life of a woman (who goes by Fleabag) dealing with a tragedy whilst living her life in London. She continues, “Healing might be the way to go.”
WandaVision was another show she recommended as a positive reflection of a woman’s struggles with mental health. Pointing out the stark turn in the female leads role once male writers and directors take over for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Going from what Jones calls a “story of healing” to one where “she’s a villain because of her mental health issues”.
So hopefully, Blonde can aid the change needed in the film industry by highlighting how truly important the female narrative is in telling authentic stories within the industry.
Kai pointed out the innate misogyny men, within film seem to have, saying: “It’s quite clear that maybe he [Andrew Dominik] wasn’t even fully aware of it.” So it’s massively clear a shift in the industry is vital, where more female perspectives and voices are allowed to finally be heard.
@emrataSo done with the fetishization of female pain and suffering. Bitch Era 2022♬ original sound – Emrata
With model, actress, and woman’s health advocate, Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata), being among many speaking out in concern about Blonde, hopefully, the conversation about women on screen continues. We would like to see more media like Fleabag, rather than Blonde.