Recently Elena over at BooksAndReviews invited me to participate in her new project Feminist Sundays. The idea immediately excited me as a lot of the fiction I read is by women. Dare I say it? Women write better than most men. Oh controversial! It's a silly sweeping generalization, but in my experience it is mostly true and a point worth pushing forward to provoke and change people's ideas as the established cannon of “classic” literature is dominated heavily by male authors.
So for this project I’d like to discuss Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Blonde”. This is a 960 page “re-imagining” of the life of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe. The novel follows Norma Jeane from her early life in an orphanage all the way to her tragic death. The narrative is so closely aligned with Norma Jeane’s consciousness that we feel her impressionistic picture of the world and learn about it through her inner voice - thoughts streaming along like ticker tape. As the fictional personality of Marilyn takes over Norma Jeane's essential understanding of herself is confused and the book becomes more fragmented and hallucinatory. In creating this fictional portrait Oates points to the nobility of Norma Jeane who was really a hard working intelligent actress trying to find acceptance and recognition from a studio and celebrity culture that only wanted to exploit her. She was someone who had no support network to protect and advise her and fell into the trap of performing to receive public affection (especially male affection) rather than maintaining her authenticity as an artist and professional. Marilyn was a product created by Norma Jeane to please the male gaze and she became lost in it. This isn't surprising since it was such a successful one - an icon whose images and estate earned $15 million between Oct 2012-13 alone. It's sadly ironic and disgusting that the legacy of Marilyn has continued to make so many people rich when Norma Jeane earned only fifty dollars for her first nude photo shoot and died relatively poor. Although this novel uses the historical example of Norma Jeane Baker, Oates is really only invoking her example as an extreme case of how personality can become distorted through artifice (hair dyed blonde as a way of selling oneself as a product) and the fatal compromises a woman can make in trying to achieve the American dream.
I wanted to highlight this novel specifically because I had a strange conversation with a colleague once. Somehow we started talking about Marilyn Monroe and he instantly said “Oh, that slut.” I flinched in shock that he’d be so disdainful and answered him angrily. He tried to justify himself by saying that she basically slept with everyone and that’s the only reason she had a career. I have no doubt his opinion is shared by many people. It’s this sort of casual dismissal and thinking about women in only simplistic misogynistic terms which is the reason why feminism and the promotion of women’s writing is especially important.
“Blonde” is a monumental achievement and one of my favourite novels. It’s well worth reading.
Generally I try to stay out of discussions about feminism - not that I don't find it interesting but it seems to me women have had to listen to what men think about them for centuries so when it comes to feminism it ought to be a conversation between women only. However, since I was invited to participate in this meme I thought I'd add my own thoughts about a book in this context and it's a novel I truly love.
Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.