Please welcome 10YA’s newest contributor, Maggie McMuffin. For her inaugural re-view she’s chosen a doozy, Patty Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Monster, “a movie that shatters violence-against-women tropes.”
Ten Years Ago
My parents kept very few movies from me growing up. They felt I was mature for my age and aside from the Scary Movie series I was pretty much given free reign to watch things. Also, my parents divorced when I was young. This meant there was a large space of time where I was bounced back and forth between small living spaces. If my parents wanted to watch an R-rated movie, it was pretty hard to keep me from at least hearing it.
So it was that I watched a lot of films that most people would not watch with their parents. Given the Oscar buzz surrounding Monster, my mother really wanted to watch it. I didn’t know much about the movie other than Charlize Theron had gotten ugly for it (looking back I can see how ridiculous it was that this was credited to her ‘bravery’ as an actress and not to makeup and costume. Everyone got shafted by that) and that it was about a lesbian prostitute.
Ten years ago, if a movie had lesbians or prostitutes in it, I wanted to watch it. I had a fascination with both groups that I couldn’t really explain. Mostly because I didn’t want to look too deeply at it. But the truth was at 14 I had already begun thinking I might not be straight and that this was not okay. At the same time my precocious self was becoming even more interested in sex. But as I was a gawky, awkward girl who was way too into werewolves, sex didn’t seem like something I was going to get anytime soon. I had images in my head of all sex workers being glamorous. Even after I saw this movie I thought, “I want to do that. I want to be sexual all the time. I want to live and breathe sex. I want to use it.”
And I focused on that more than I focused on the chance that I might want to do those things with other girls.
I don’t remember much about Monster. I’m writing this portion before re-watching the film, so that I can look at everything in hindsight first. And really only three scenes stuck with me.
1) The shot of Theron and Christina Ricci (who I have always adored and who was also a big part of me wanting to see Monster) pressed against a wall after meeting each other. Kissing furiously. Did they care if they got caught? In my memories, they don’t and I’m afraid I’m misremembering that.
2) Theron sitting in the cop car. I remember feeling a sense of dread and whenever I picture that scene in my head I still feel terrified.
3) Theron and Ricci looking at each other in the courtroom as Theron is led out. Being heartbroken.
I hate to say it, but this film was probably the first real lesbian love story I ever saw. My mother worked with a very religious woman. The kind who asked her pastor for permission to buy a new house. My mom discussed the movie with her because my mom does not know how to not be tolerant of and social with everyone around her and came home one night saying that her coworker had liked the movie but:
“Did they have to focus so much on the lesbians? Did they have to be lesbians?”
And my instant response was, “YES. They were lesbians! It would be lying to say they weren’t. It happened in real life. Lesbians happen in real life. You can’t just change that for a movie.”
For the first time in my life, I had voiced my need for representation even if, at the time, I didn’t realize that the need was deeply personal.
Two big changes in my life made me volunteer to review this film. I am now an out queer woman who, while bisexual, prefers relationships with women. I am also a sex worker. I am not a full service sex worker (the preferred term for prostitute, btw) like Aileen Wuornos. I am a stripper. I have considered full service but the idea of meeting a cop terrifies me. I am afraid of ending up in the back seat of a car in an empty parking garage.
I have also learned much more about critiquing pop culture since this movie first came out. I have written letters to creators asking them to reconsider jokes. I have told authors to their face how much good representation means to me. I gave up on Buffy the Vampire Slayeronce I learned about Tara. I have angrily told two (now ex-) girlfriends why Moulin Rouge is a movie I will never be able to love again and held back tears as I asked them why they felt that my feelings on the matter were less important than production values.
So it seemed that watching this film now, ten years later, would be a wholly different experience for me in a way that rewatching films often is not. Sure, we all notice that movies we watched as kids don’t always hold up. Or that they are way more fucked up than we remember. Or that Littlefoot’s mom dying is always going to be sad but in a much different way. Because as you get older, you understand things. And if not better than when you were a kid, then differently.
This time I’m going in with worries rather than hope.
So let’s get to it.
The movie opens with a “based on a true story” banner. (Based on my limited knowledge of Aileen Wuornos I know that the “based” part is important. A lot of details got changed for the film, most of them regarding Wuornos’ early life and nearly everything about her girlfriend.) It also immediately introduces us to “Lee” on the night she meets Selby. When they first meet, it’s cute. Selby is a semi-closeted lesbian, living with friends of the family while her parents try to find her a job and deny she was a lesbian. She has a broken arm and a great need to have a good time. Lee walks in not knowing that the bar is “a gay place” and immediately draws the ire of the bartender for not having much money. Selby covers the tab and though Lee insists she isn’t gay, they end up having a great time together. They have a conversation that it is filled with some phrasing that includes double meanings. Selby says she doesn’t want to go back to “the closet at my parent’s house” and Lee says “I’m just trying to be straight with you.”
Lee spends the night with Selby, but there’s no sex. There is, however, a connection, and they have a date at the roller rink the next night. They do a couple’s skate, have their first kiss to “Don’t Stop Believing” and get spotted by the son of the people Selby is staying with. Selby is worried but Lee reassures her and they make out outside and set up a second date.
Around this time, things go downhill. The first twenty or so minutes of this movie is actually incredibly sweet and tender and hopeful, and it just makes the next part worse. In order to get money for her and Selby’s date, Lee goes to work and gets picked up by a guy who takes her to the woods and demands more than he and Lee agreed on. He knocks her out, ties her up and rapes her. This scene does not feature the gratuitous violence a lot of movies do and instead goes to black between Lee being knocked out and coming to post-assault. We see repercussions and we see her get free and shoot her assailant, screaming while she does it.
She winds up going through his truck and finding a hacksaw. There’s a moment where Lee shudders and throws it away, and the joint implication is that Lee cannot stand the thought of disposing of someone in this manner, and also that this guy fully planned on using that hacksaw on her/had done this before.
This movie came out after Gary Ridgeway, who killed sex workers because “no one would miss them.” It’s hard not to think of that during this scene. Lee’s first victim in the movie is someone who clearly had a pattern. He had a familiarity with services that first-time clients wouldn’t and he intentionally requested to be deeper in the woods than Lee was comfortable with under the guise of “not wanting to get busted.” In most movies this would have resulted in us seeing Lee get killed. Probably gruesomely as Hollywood tends to not shy away from violence against women. Instead, we forgo violence against the sex worker to see her acting in self-defense and getting away from the attacker. It’s a nice reversal from tropes and tired storylines and sets this movie apart from most media featuring sex workers. Unfortunately, it is only the beginning of Lee’s troubles.
The rest of the movie chronicles Lee’s attempts to leave sex work as well as her crumbling relationship with Selby. After running away together, against the wishes of those close to Selby, the two run into money woes as Lee cannot find a job. She has no resume, no admittable work experience, and winds up being run out of several offices. Eventually, after complaints are filed, a cop who once busted her picks her up and forces her to perform oral sex. Again, this scene shows the before and after. It also alludes to their last meeting when he let her off “easy,” which Lee explains meant “You almost broke my fucking jaw.”
This entire montage is hard to watch, as it’s coupled with voice overs from Lee talking about a drummer who came to her school when she was a teenager. He talked about achieving dreams and going for what you wanted, and Lee really wants to hold onto that. But it gets progressively harder for her. I mean, she was about to kill herself at the start of the movie but Selby kept her going and that is very quickly falling apart. Selby starts asking why Lee quit.
“Because I needed to.”
And then she starts complaining that she’s starving. But she won’t call her dad and ask for help. And even though her broken arm is now healed, Selby will not go out and find a job. Even after Lee confesses that she quit because she killed a man who assaulted her, Selby only half-heartedly offers to seek employment and immediately goes back to whining once she’s off the hook for that. Even when Lee does go back to sex work, because it’s the only job she can do and she feels it’s all she can be, Selby keeps spending all of their money and complaining about not having any. Meanwhile, Lee has started killing guys again. It starts out as more self-defense but then grows into something done out of outright anger.
But as this happens, an interesting thing occurs. Lee starts out never really looking comfortable with men. She’s anxious in every car, talking too much and glancing around. She speaks in maybes and why nots. And every car scene is filmed in such a way that you feel how trapped she is. The shots are tight, closed in, and you feel like you’re stuck in the front seat of a car. But after the second or third time she murders a man, she’s taking control of situations and speaking more bravely. It culminates in a scene where she berates a guy and he stutters out that he’s never seen a sex worker before and is shy. Lee gives him a really sad hand job but she does let him live. He is in fact the only man who picks her up who gets to live because Lee does not feel threatened by him. He’s deferring to her, afraid of her almost, and she is in complete control of their meeting. There is no danger in that meeting, no violence, and nothing lost.
But this doesn’t stay and soon Lee kills a cop and, later, an innocent man who picked her up out of genuine good will. This last man is the only person we see Lee struggle to kill. She can’t let him go because he knows she’s a sex worker and that she had a gun. He knows something’s up with her. So she feel she can’t let him live even though she doesn’t really want to kill him. But she does, screaming into the night.
As all this happens, Selby grows stronger. She’s socializing, meeting up with all the cool queer kids she was eyeing when we first saw her, passing off Lee’s stories of boldness as her own. Selby and Lee meet up with a few of them at an amusement park and Selby blows Lee off until all her new friends blow her off. As Selby and Lee ride the Ferris wheel together, it’s the last sweet moment of the film.
Soon after, Lee and Selby abandon their house due to that whole killing a cop thing. A woman who saw them crash one of the stolen cars IDs them (I’m actually really confused by that part and how the police knew to find an elderly couple in the middle of nowhere), and they wind up on the run. After Lee puts Selby on a bus, she gets thrown in jail and calls her. Selby, working with the cops, gets a confession out of Lee that states she did everything and we immediately cut to Lee in a courtroom listening to the tape. Selby is brought in and dramatically points at Lee, who breaks down crying. I nearly break down crying because I completely forgot how shitty Selby is and how this all went down.
The movie, filmed right before and released soon after Wuornos was executed, ends with Lee being taken to prison. There’s one last voiceover about hope and dreams and then words on the screen about how Selby and Lee never saw each other and the date of the execution.
And then “Don’t Stop Believing” plays over the credits because running themes!
That is the running theme of this film. It’s a biopic, sure. It’s also a movie that shatters violence-against-women tropes. But the overarching message of this film is one of people grasping at hope and ending up with nothing. That the very process of going for your dreams is what will kill your ability to believe in them. The movie uses voiceovers a fair amount, and they are typically about Lee explaining that she has dreams, that she used to have dreams. Or it’s about Selby and how she desperately wants to give Selby a good life. And Selby, meanwhile, is able to hold onto hopes that her life will be good. Because she’s not killing people for them. She’s not working a job that makes her unhappy. Selby doesn’t really do anything at all for herself. While Lee is out giving blow jobs and shooting guys, Selby is spending money on things she doesn’t need (in one scene where Lee is upset over this, Selby pulls a teddy bear out of a shopping bag). Selby spends the movie getting bounced from her parents to family friends to Lee, never doing anything for herself. She makes her needs known by telling Lee she needs to eat or that she wants to drive or have friends or have sex but she never really does anything beyond that. And Lee doesn’t want her to. Lee desperately wants Selby to hold onto her innocence and naivety to the point where Lee is not shown to be blaming her for testifying against her or anything else.
Lee, on the other hand, tries to go for her dreams and gets in bigger trouble. By trying to get a new job she winds up receiving further harassment. By continuing sex work and trying to get enough money to buy her and Selby a bigger and better life, Lee’s murders end up more and more sloppy and forced. They also become easier. Despite her attempts to shield Selby from the truth, it comes out and she solemnly states that “There’s a lot of things I can’t do anymore but killing’s not one of them.” Lee has been pushed so far that she’s even past the point of seeing herself as a hero (at the start she believes that by killing terrible men she is saving other women from being hurt) and just sees everything as a necessity that is out of her control.
But she never really becomes a monster. In the eyes of society, yes. But the film itself treats Lee with a blunt sort of respect. Everything in the film is presented at face value, and though Lee is in a queer relationship and is a sex worker, the film never exploits that. As I stated before, the violence against Lee is never shown. And the sex that is on film is done sweetly. Lee and Selby’s sex scene (which I genuinely wish was set to Joan Jett’s cover of “Crimson and Clover” because why would you use any other version) is slow, touching, and shows no nudity. The shot of a topless Lee (mentioned in Seth McFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” at this year’s Oscars) is more about her reclamation of her safety and her transformation into killer than it is about her breasts. It’s the one shot of any graphic nudity in the film and it’s a split-second shot of Lee covered in the blood of a man she killed. It’s pretty much as un-male gazey as you can get.
More so, the film maintains a visceral feel and is honest about the violence Lee faces due to her profession. Not just the threat of violence from customers, but from police, society, and her partner. Safety issues that are true to real life. Lee is forced to kill men in self-defense and it’s unsurprising that she winds up in jail for that because it happens all the time to women. Lee has to be afraid of the police because they will never help her. Going to them about an assault is out of the question, as it is for countless sex workers working today. And when Lee tries to change her life she is met with no help from society, a cycle that is inescapable for many.
But what gets me the most is that the person Lee is doing sex work for and trying to help is Selby. And Selby is perhaps the worst offender of all in this film. There’s a joke a DJ I used to work with told.
“What’s the difference between aspirin and a stripper’s boyfriend? The aspirin works.”
And it was impossible not to think of that as the film progressed and Selby got worse at supporting Lee. She’s never really good at supporting her actually. At the start, she’s smitten with Lee’s job, asking flat out if she’s a prostitute (never do that) and talking about how it must mean men are lining up to be with Lee and that means she’s cool (gonna be honest, I refrain from telling people about my job because I get that reaction a lot and it is annoying). But how she is at the beginning is nothing compared to what she becomes. By the end of the film, Selby is fully aware that Lee is not happy with her job, is killing men, stealing their cars. But she stays with her because Lee buys them a house and gives Selby money. When Lee sends her away and the danger spreads to her that is when Selby finally does something for herself and throws Lee under the bus in court.
Despite all of this misfortune, the film is still honest about Lee being, by all definitions, a pretty terrible person. She’s quick to start fights, aggressive, and apparently scares away all of Selby’s potential friends. These are the reasons why Lee could be seen as a monster, and the film presents Lee both as someone who is a major league jerk and a human being who was forced into bad circumstances. The writing, coupled with a performance by Charlize Theron that is truly amazing, gives us a three-dimensional woman on screen that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Moreover, it is a humanized woman, queer character, and sex worker who happens to be violent. While male characters get to be the stars of transgressional fiction and have their badness sympathized with or made cool (look at the following Loki has, or the fact that Dexter ran for seven seasons, or just Walter White in general), female characters can hardly step out of line before being slapped with the label of “bitch” (see: The Skyler White Effect). It’s refreshing to see a woman on screen who isn’t amazingly privileged, having her plight taken seriously while still being honest about her as a person. Lee is both a victim and a villain and the film focuses so much on presenting all sides of her without judgment that it leaves it up to the audience to form their own opinions of her.
And that’s…kind of sad.
It’s incredibly sad that, in the ten years since this movie came out, I can’t really think of many mainstream movies that have managed to do this. The closest thing that comes to mind isOrange is the New Black and a really great point that people made about that show is how depressing it is that, in order to tell women’s stories (specifically the stories of trans women, women of color, immigrants, etc.), we had to have a show set in a prison. As if it’s too much of a hassle for anyone to write multi-dimensional women in any other context. And while Wuornos’ story is true, why did her story get told? Why, ten years later, are we still telling the same stories where sex workers are abused (or, alternately, totally privileged and earning thousands of dollars as if there is no middle ground) or where relationships between two women end in lots of drama? Monster may subvert many of those tropes and play with them, but I feel like we should have come further since this movie was made. Especially since Wuornos was apparently not very happy with her story getting told by a ton of people while she was stuck in prison, maintaining that every single one of the men she killed had attacked her first.
Women deserve to have their stories told. We deserve to see ourselves on screen. And we deserve to be shown as flawed. Perfection is not representation after all. But we need to have fully realized female characters all the time, not just in based on true story films that are incredibly hard to watch. Sure, I got to see this movie when I was younger, but if I ever have a daughter it would be nice to have a movie depicting a woman with depth that I could actually show her. Monster is a hard movie, an important movie, but it’s not an easy watch and it is not something you can show a five-year-old girl in order for them to see that they matter.
— There’s a scene where Lee tries ordering a bottle of Chablis for her and Selby but she pronounces it “Shib-liss” and it’s up there with “It’s a Ver-Sayce” in terms of awkward hilarity.
— The soundtrack for this film, sparse as it is, is pretty wonderful. Also, I’ve danced to nearly all of those songs at work and that makes me laugh.
— It’s been a while since I went from “THEY ARE SO CUTE” to “Please dump her, she is awful” so quickly. I’ve always had a crush on Christina Ricci, and that wasn’t enough to make me like Selby at all by the end of this film.
— I wish I was better at incorporating quotes into this re-view, because Lee has a couple of really harsh one-liners that just hit me right in the heart. The dialogue for this film is wonderful. From Lee’s swearing to her and Selby’s difficult conversations, everything feels really organic and wonderful.
— This film never has two men speaking to one another and I fucking love that. It also only has one man that shows up for more than one scene. That would be Lee’s storage unit landlord Tom who is the only man in the movie who is genuinely kind to her. He gives her a sandwich for free and has no sexual interest in her. It’s nice.
— Seriously, Theron earned that Oscar. Not because of the physical transformation (she shaved her eyebrows. Neat?) But because she actually does transform. Her mannerisms and physicality as Lee are great. She’s got all these twitches and this really awkward smile and I can’t really see anyone else playing Lee.
— At the skating rink there’s this thing called “rexing couples” and it is wonderful and I wish that we as a society still performed skating rink courtship rituals.
— Last Tuesday, December 17th, was International End Violence Against Sex Workers Day. If you would like to help on days like that or be an ally to sex workers or are a sex worker who would like to experience community and solidarity, please check out http://www.swopusa.org/