Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates | Review
Publication: New York : Ecco Press, 2009
Genre: Biographical Fiction
Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Paperback
When this book first came out, it received a fair amount of criticism for its fictionalization of the life of one of America’s most iconic women. This I can understand, since we each balance our individual icons precariously on very personal pedestals, and we instinctively shy away from interpretations outside our own.
Despite any of Oates’s embellishments to the truth of the story she tells in this book, I found I wasn’t deterred. I have a particular soft spot for any recognition that can be given to the inner lives of the Marilyns of our society. The icon is often an example of the reality it represents. Oates simultaneously tells the tale of Marilyn the “blonde bombshell” while forcing her readers to see the reality of Norma Jeane the woman and the individual behind the veil of iconography.
I’m turning 36 this year, and the sudden realization that I was reading about Norma Jeane Baker’s own 36-year journey through this world seemed serendipitous, as cliched as that might sound. I recognized, and at times all too acutely so, the ridiculousness (please see the reviewer’s explanation below regarding the use of this word here) of the multiple abusive relationships she endured, from her mother’s mental-health-induced ravings to the disappointments of her subtly crushed and less-than-self-aware husbands and lovers. Through all the raping and pillaging of Norma Jeane’s person, Oates’s book argues that our leading lady strove with seemingly tireless persistence to showcase herself as possessing an intelligence, kindness, and devotion to her craft that might allow her to qualify beyond the limits of her objectified physical beauty.
However, did the objectification of the character the world made into Marilyn Monroe also give the true Norma Jeane some kind of ultimate power? Perhaps this is a power that beautiful women are still trying to develop. And when I say “beautiful women” I mean all women, because every woman is more objectively gorgeous than society is ever willing to admit. But how do women develop this inherent power with a coordination necessary to yield true respect from ourselves and our male counterparts.
Through the reading of this book, I marveled at how Oates’s narrative seems to suggest that her main character was repeatedly trying to escape various levels of blame for the power of her beauty. Far too often women are despised for being too beautiful. And there seems to be a spectrum to this odd hatred. Either women are envied by the female counterparts in their proximity, being subtly scorned for the uncontrollable voluptuousness of their bodies, or they are resented for the perceived competition they pose in relation to the the more aggressive heterosexual males that accidentally (or not so accidentally) brush up against the shining orb of women’s beauty.
As Ani Difranco explains oh so artistically:
“God help you if you are an ugly girl, but of course too pretty is also your doom, because everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room. And god help you if you are a Phoenix and you dare to rise up from the ash. A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy while you are just flying past.”
As a result of all this vying for position, a kind of culturally-induced guilt over being a “beautiful woman” rears its ugly head.
By way of offering what to me is a very embarrassing example, whenever a man on the street calls attention to my “really nice ass” I feel a twinge of that old, damning beauty-guilt, as if I’d just been called out for showing off the curves no amount of exercising has ever been able to minimize. I can’t even talk about this example without giving the above-noted disclaimer to call attention to the embarrassment aspect. And yet, I also have a strange, knee-jerk, rejection-like reaction my own internalized guilt about such encounters because, to me, this guilt and embarrassment comes straight from the bonds of my conservative, religious upbringing. The church my mother handed down to my sister and me taught women and young girls that it’s the woman’s responsibility to not tempt our male counterparts toward sinful, lust-filled thoughts.
This mentality comes up constantly in Oates’s rendition of Norma Jeane’s reactions to all the attention paid to her body, as well as in Oates’s explanation of Norma Jeane’s embracement of conservative Christian values during the early stages of her life as she tries to become immune to society’s more base expectations of the value of her body. On the one hand, she seemed to fear society would look down on her if she was’t constantly trying to be some version of traditionally beautiful. On the other hand, however, she seemed terrified that society would demonize her for being too beautiful, as she feared this would be the only redeeming quality the public would ever be able to see.
Both of these reactions from society toward women can cause undue guilt in the person of being objectified. And this isn’t fair, by any means, because all these weighty reactions are really just a blind kind of seeing until Norma Jeane the individual is lost in all the shadow that is Marilyn the “bombshell.”
Above, I described the abuse that Norma Jeane endured as ridiculous. By this I do NOT mean that abuse is laughable, heaven forbid and shame to the depths of hell such a despicable perspective. Instead I mean that abuse is so absolutely absurd in its very boldness to even exist that its monstrousness should be immediately and violently seen as an unacceptable reality within civilized society. And it seems our species is maybe just waking up to this concept (sweeping judgement there, I know). American culture, at the very least, has spent so much time trying to ignore the reality of abuse in order to preserve the niceties we think we need to hold so dear, that we’re now being forced to find the courage to bring to true light the consequences we’ve allowed for far too long to quietly dominate the objectified and therefore abused persons of our society.
Ultimately, I believe Oates’s book has a wealth of introspection to offer our society’s perceptions of beauty, women, and the power we all too often forget we might be able to use toward a more just world that sees beyond the icon to the true and self-defined individual.