Ciara Whelan delves into the film industry’s decades-long predatory gaze on real women’s pain and suggests that maybe we’ve all seen enough.
With International Women’s day less than a month away, a variety of media outlets have begun ranking and recommending the best films to watch during the coming Women’s History Month. A quick Google search of what to watch this March will recommend popular titles such as On the Basis of Sex (2018), Hidden Figures (2016), and Erin Brockovich (2000) among other biopics that depict the experiences of impressive and accomplished real-life women. These types of films have become the Hollywood staple of late. The celebrity biopic in particular has proved popular among both critics and audiences, with biopics of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and Whitney Houston all released within the last eighteen months alone. The market’s oversaturation, with women’s biopics specifically, calls into question the ethics of the genre and its standardization of pain and trauma as it is suffered by women onscreen. With such a broad spectrum of film forms and genres available to filmmakers, this ethical dilemma suggests the insufficiency of the biopic in the twenty-first-century social and political climate.
The women’s biopic is finding increased critical success in recent years, with Renee Zellweger winning big for her lead performance in Judy (2019) for example. Zellwegger’s string of nominations are matched this year by that of Ana de Armas for her performance as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde (2022) directed by Andrew Dominik. Despite significant critical acclaim, the film was criticized by audiences as a dishonest depiction of Monroe’s character and life. In a recent viral TikTok video, actress and model Emily Ratajkowski discusses the film and its depiction of female subjectivity through the character of Monroe; “It’s yet another movie fetishising female pain. We love to fetishize female pain.” Though the film adopts a critical approach to the men in Monroe’s life and the concomitant abuse it is said that she endured, it nonetheless deploys falsehood and fantasy to portray her pain and suffering, and further exploits this depiction to promote a less-than-subtle pro-life agenda.
The market’s oversaturation, with women’s biopics specifically, calls into question the ethics of the genre and its standardization of pain and trauma as it is suffered by women onscreen.
Hollywood’s refusal to let the dead rest is epitomized in the multiple portrayals of Princess Diana across popular film and television fiction in the last decade. Since her tragic death in 1997, Spencer has been portrayed in film by Naomi Watts in Diana (2013) and Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021), and in television by both Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki in Netflix’s The Crown (2016-). Each performance garnered a significant degree of public interest and engagement given that these texts were often critical of the British royal family in their treatment of the princess. The respective performances by Stewart and Debicki especially engaged with Spencer’s experience of mental illness as a result of this treatment and explore her experience of anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. By repeatedly reproducing images of Spencer in her suffering and mental anguish, any criticism made by the biopics of her life is undermined in their exploitation and fetishisation of her painful experiences.
Within the context of this Black History Month, it is essential that questions are raised around the ethics of biopics dedicated to celebrated Black women. Films centered around real-life Black women like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) and Harriet (2019) have produced landmark representations of black women and their history beyond the conventions of white saviorism that are typical in Hollywood. Unfortunately, fetishistic portrayals of the Black female body in pain are still not uncommon in Hollywood filmography of late. Following biopics like Bessie (2015) and Respect (2021), the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody (2022) directed by Kasi Lemmons is the latest depiction of a black woman’s rise to musical superstardom. From the beginning of her success to the decline of her career, the film is explicit in its depiction of Houston and her experience of mental illness, addiction and drug abuse throughout her life, and finally her tragic sudden death.
Despite the number of these films currently in production, the future of the biopic as a viable Hollywood product may be in trouble should public opinion decline even further
Images of real women in pain and suffering are reproduced over and over again by the biopic to the extent of fetishistic representation. This martyrdom, as it is produced without consent, and even in death, is exploitative and unnecessary when contextualized within the broad scope of cinematic representation. This critical discourse around biopics has expanded significantly through social media in recent weeks, prompted especially by images released from the set of the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, which is currently in production. Despite the number of these films, the future of the biopic as a viable Hollywood product may be in trouble should public opinion further sour.