What’s So Risqué About Ana de Armas’ NC-17 Marilyn Pic, ‘Blonde’?

Ana de Armas points out that far more graphic pics than “Blonde” get an R, but what Hollywood finds objectionable is depressingly predictable

The Ana de Armas-starring Marilyn biopic Blonde will be stamped with Netflix’s first NC-17 rating, and no one has yet been able to explain exactly why. Including its star.

“I didn’t understand why that happened. I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than ‘Blonde,'” de Armas tells Variety.

It’s not like the rating is new—director Andrew Dominik addressed it in May in Vulture: “I was surprised. Yeah. I thought we’d colored inside the lines. But I think if you’ve got a bunch of men and women in a boardroom talking about sexual behavior, maybe the men are going to be worried about what the women think. It’s just a weird time. It’s not like depictions of happy sexuality. It’s depictions of situations that are ambiguous. And Americans are really strange when it comes to sexual behavior, don’t you think? I don’t know why. They make more porn than anyone else in the world.”

There have been no forthcoming explanations about what, exactly, nudged the film over the R line. Nor have there been any reviews (it premieres shortly at the Venice Film Festival) to elucidate. Rumors have focused on a rape scene, and on “a bloody scene depicting menstrual cunnilingus.” Dominik has apparently called the latter “hilarious” and wrong, though it would line up with previous NC-17s for oral sex—performed on a woman, that is: In 2010’s Blue Valentine and 1992’s Basic Instinct and 1997’s Two Girls and a Guy, just for example.

A rape scene in Blonde would make sense, as there’s one in the film’s source material, Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, per the The New Yorker: “She has also been invited to Mr. Z’s famous aviary, which she believes is a collection of beautiful tropical birds; but, when she goes into the room, she sees instead a collection of dead stuffed birds in a glass case. ‘All dead birds are female,’ she thinks; ‘there is something female about being dead.’ Mr. Z quickly takes her into the private apartment behind his office, where he orders her to get down on a white fur rug and brutally rapes her. Norma Jeane tries to justify what has happened: ‘He was not a cruel man I believe but one accustomed to getting his way of course & surrounded by “little people” there must be the temptation to be cruel when you are surrounded by such & they cringe . . . before you in terror of your whim.’ Humiliated and in pain, she gets up to go to her audition. But the rape was the audition, and she gets the part.”

Considering the number of rape scenes considered fine for an R rating (seriously, where does one even start), it is confusing, to echo de Armas. Why would a rape scene depicting notorious, pervasive and well-documented Hollywood behavior (see today’s story on the latest, Eric Weinberg) be the scenario film industry censors consider too perverse for the mainstream viewer?

The NC-17 rating has long been a subject of bitter debate. Frequently, its targets have been movies with explicit sexual content rather than over-the-top violence. This was exemplified with 2000’s absurdly gory American Psycho, which was given an initial NC-17 not for Patrick Bateman’s many bloody murders, but for his three-way with two prostitutes.

As NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out more than a decade ago, “The attitudes toward sex in films are both miscalibrated as compared to the attitudes towards violence and miscalibrated generally, as they seem to assume that teenagers are not capable of responsibly handling and understanding any film that depicts sex explicitly, no matter what the story context of that content may be.”

And Time argued in 2015 for scrapping the NC-17, with a telling nod at the media landscape to come: “The default setting for an NC-17 film, without a serious campaign to prove it’s something other than pornography, is still irrelevance. But the Internet’s power to spread entertainment beyond the controlling aegis of theater and rental chains, and chains’ willingness to break their own rules once in a while, signal that the future of adults-only entertainment may come from breaking the rules, not making new ones.”

Indeed, after all this hand-wringing, you have to wonder: How, exactly, is a streaming service going to enforce an NC-17? Ask users to type in their birthdays, in the winky style of an adult-oriented website? Blonde looks likely to be the first example of just how irrelevant extreme ratings may be in the streaming age.

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