Ana de Armas presents Blonde at the 70th San Sebastian international film festival. (Photo by Javi Julio / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A camera flash goes off. A spotlight shines. A slow-motion pan of a smiling Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white halter dress fills the screen in black and white. It’s the opening to Netflix’s long-awaited film, Blonde, starring Ana de Armas—a movie that depicts Monroe’s life as a nearly-unbroken series of devastations, including multiple sexual assaults, and rather surprisingly ends up being almost as much about abortion as it is about the American icon. Less surprisingly, the movie gets almost everything wrong about abortion.
Stop reading now if you don’t want any spoilers. Blonde’s opening week was immediately met with strong takes against its exploitative and infantilizing depiction of Monroe and her traumas, including two fictional abortion scenes.Now, experts are ringing alarm bells: Planned Parenthood and a researcher with University of California, San Francisco told VICE News the movie perpetuates anti-abortion myths about the procedure and the people who provide it—a particularly concerning pattern in a post-Roe era.(It also features a talking CGI fetus that is not only misleading but also looks like it was made by Windows 98.)“While abortion is safe, essential healthcare, anti-abortion zealots have long contributed to abortion stigma by using medically inaccurate descriptions of fetuses and pregnancy,” Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s national director of arts and entertainment engagement, said in a statement. “Andrew Dominik’s new film, Blonde, bolsters their message.”The abortion scenes are clearly designed to be shocking, like much of the rest of the film. The first abortion scene shows an anxious Monroe sitting in the backseat of a vehicle while her driver takes her to a clinic. “Please, I want to go back,” Monroe says. She continues to beg the driver to turn around because she’s changed her mind.
Monroe still ends up on a hospital bed, where she begs the male doctor and his team of healthcare providers to let her go. They don’t.In reality, if a patient revokes their consent for an abortion, a healthcare provider will listen, said Steph Herold, a researcher with the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health research program.“No one will strap you down and force you have an abortion. They want you to consent,” Herold said, adding that by portraying abortion providers negatively, Blonde “reinforced this horrible trope that abortion providers are unlike other providers and that they’re cruel and don’t listen to their patients.”There’s also a stunning moment when the audience sees the doctors through the vantage point of Monroe’s cervix; we peer through her vagina at the man who is terminating her pregnancy, shortly before she ends up hallucinating. In the dream, she breaks free from the bed and runs through the hospital into her childhood home, which is engulfed in flames, and finds a crying baby in a drawer. Throughout, the CGI fetus appears on screen. (This fetus is often depicted as a nearly fully formed baby, although during her pregnancies, Monroe either has a flat stomach or is only slightly visibly pregnant. That suggests that the fetus would likely not be developed enough to look like that.) During her second depicted pregnancy—which ends in a miscarriage—the fetus returns and in a child’s voice asks, “You won’t hurt me this time, will you? Not do what you did last time?”
Monroe has a full conversation with the fetus. In a breathy, sexy-baby whisper, she says, “I didn’t mean to.”“Yes, you meant to,” the fetus replies. “It was your decision.”For Herold, several parts of the movie “sound like copy-and-paste dialogue” from films that are explicitly anti-abortion.“I was like, ‘This is right out of those cliché, real kitschy, anti-abortion movies that are only shown on the Christian version of Netflix,” Herold said. “I was shocked to see this in a movie that's allegedly a high-caliber artsy film.”After being coerced into the abortion, Monroe repeatedly experiences pangs of regret and shame. At one point, as the audience leaps to a standing ovation for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a classic Monroe film, Monroe whispers to herself, “For this, you killed your baby.” Abortion regret is a common narrative within anti-abortion circles. Prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer, several states required abortion providers to offer patients counseling that emphasized possible negative feelings after an abortion. But the Turnaway Study, the largest U.S. study to track women’s experiences with unwanted pregnancies and abortions, has found that most people feel relief after getting an abortion—and they feel that way for at least five years after the procedure. Although people can have a nuanced and complicated range of feelings about having an abortion, data from the Turnaway Study has found that, five years afterward, 84 percent of women either had mostly positive emotions or no emotions at all about having had one. Just 6 percent had primarily negative feelings.
It’s worth noting there is no recorded evidence that Monroe ever terminated a pregnancy: The film is not a biopic but instead based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Blonde, which is in turn only loosely based on Monroe’s life. That’s a problem, according to Herold, in part because it’s not clear that the film is largely fictional. People may watch it and think the abortion scenes are based on real experiences. That could in turn influence how they understand abortions and abortion providers’ roles in general, Herold said.Toward the end of the film, Monroe gets a second abortion, where a crowd of men, including a doctor and policeman, stare at her. Once again, there’s another shot inside her vagina. Ominous music plays as the procedure begins. Other scenes evoke a decidedly anti-abortion tone too. Shortly before Monroe terminates her first pregnancy, she visits her mother, a patient at an asylum. While giving her mother a bath, Monroe looks at her mom and says, “You did the right thing. You had your baby. You had me.” According to Spruch, such false images “only serve to reinforce misinformation and perpetuate stigma around sexual and reproductive healthcare.”“Every pregnancy outcome—especially abortion—should be portrayed sensitively, authentically, and accurately in the media,” Spruch said. “We still have much work to do ensure that everyone who has an abortion can see themselves on screen. It is a shame that the creators of Blonde chose to contribute to anti-abortion propaganda and stigmatize people’s healthcare decisions instead.”