MONSTER: Eileen Wuornos Biographical Film is a Feminist Portrayal of the Oppression of Women, Queer Folks, and Sex Workers
March 18th, 2021
Article by Nicole Araujo
Artwork by Maddy Meredith
Patty Jenkin’s film Monster, which portrays the true story of sex worker turned serial killer Eileen Wuornos, is an accurate and humane portrayal of a sex worker who has faced abuse and victimization her whole life. Monster depicts the challenges that sex workers, queer women, and victims of poverty and childhood abuse face in modern-day United States. While many other films depict binary portrayals of sex workers as being dumb and influenceable with no agency, or glamorous and shallow, Monster instead shows Wuornos as a very complex character with a difficult life who was attempting to reclaim power and control over the men who had victimized her since childhood, albeit in a harmful and violent way. Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Wuornos left the viewer with a fuller understanding of this woman’s rocky path, and perhaps mixed feelings of her morality.
In the beginning of the film, Wuronos meets and begins dating her girlfriend Selby, and they run away from the prejudiced community where Selby had been living to go stay in a motel together, while Wuornos attempts to support them through sex work. After experiencing violence at the hands of her clients, Wuornos tries to find a traditional job but she isn’t able to find any work, and is berated by her interviewers. They perceive her to be struggling and speak to her condescendingly, one even suggesting she shouldn’t even attempt to find a job anywhere. Society demands that sex workers find work that is legal, yet there are not enough opportunities for women to find employment, especially poor and queer women. Add to the fact that she has a criminal record, and her efforts are entirely futile. Thus she must resort to sex work in order to survive, yet faces violence from her clients and harassment from the law since sex work is illegal. Raleigh Basdell, in her dissertation entitled, “Reel or Reality? The Portrayal of Prostitution in Major Motion Pictures” analyzes various major popular films that depict prostitution and compares them to real life field work notes, “Films greatly underestimated the experience of childhood victimization and abuse among prostitutes, as well as the combination of the poverty these women experience and the lack of opportunities to earn a conventional income.” (Basdell, 174) While most films fail to depict the history of prostitutes as human beings and to prompt the viewer to consider their lives before sex work, Monster expertly breaks this mold by offering a glimpse into Wuornos’ attempts to fit in with society.
Again, true to a realistic narrative, on Wuronos’ way home from her interview, a cop demands she get in his cruiser without providing a reason why. He takes her to a parking garage and reveals that he recognizes her because he detained her for prostitution a few months back. He indicates that he did her a favor by letting her off, and Wuornos replies, “Yeah you nearly broke my jaw.” The cop then forces Wuornos to give him a blow job. (Monster, 0:30).
This hopelessness at maintaining success and safety in society is expertly depicted in Monster and allows the viewer to have a better understanding of how Wuornos’ was led to the crimes she committed. Nicole Rafter, in her film critique, “Crime, Film and Criminology” explains, “While Jenkins’s script stays close to the facts of Wuornos’s life, it shapes those facts in a way designed to forestall easy moral condemnation.” (Rafter, 8). It is extremely common for the police to discriminate against sex workers by pulling them over, detaining them, or arresting them without providing a specific reason. They feel (and know) that no matter what, their word will always be above a prostitute’s. They abuse their power with impunity by committing acts of violence and rape. They face no consequences because of general disregard for sex workers, and by extension, women, queer folks, and people of color, groups which largely dominate the makeup of sex workers. This is a reflection of the patriarchal society that we live in, and the harm that minorities and groups of oppressed folks endure because of it. This grim and unfair reality is almost never portrayed in films in the way that it is in Monster.
A particularly poignant scene in Monster is when Wuornos and her girlfriend Selby are on the Ferris wheel at a carnival, and Wuornos tells Selby about her background and upbringing, where the viewer learns that Wuornos has experienced serious trauma since childhood, and is very much a victim of her environment. Wuornos mentions being raped continuously in her youth by a friend of her father’s, and when she confessed this to her father, he beat her. She explains that her mother was not around. When her father later killed himself, she had to prostitute to support her siblings. She says, “I was havin’ to hook anyway, so…” (Monster, 0:45-0:53). Wuornos goes on to explain how someone outed her as a prostitute, and then her family “threw me out in the snow,” leaving her homeless and to fend entirely for herself, no longer with familial support. The shame, isolation, and expulsion from the family is common for sex workers. Basdell notes, “Viewers are not exposed to the reality that most prostitutes have been juvenile runaways and begin selling sex as adolescents either by force or out of necessity for survival.” (Basdell, 99). If more adequate social services had been available for Wuornos, she would have been removed from the environment in which she was being raped as a child. She also would not have had to resort to sex work in her youth to support herself and her siblings. If sex work were not so stigmatized as morally wrong, Aileen Wuornos’ family perhaps would not have ostracized her for sacrificing herself for her family. This is not an uncommon reality for many sex workers, yet sex work portrayal in the movies almost always falls short of painting a sympathetic and in-depth portrayal of a sex worker’s history.
The scene in Monster which most adeptly portrays a critique of today’s society and elicits a sympathetic understanding of Aileen Wuornos’ life is when she is arguing with her girlfriend Selby her justifications for killing her clients. Wuornos opines,
I’m good with the Lord. I’m fine with him. And I know how you were raised and I know how people fucking think out there. They gotta tell you, thou shall not kill shit and all that…. But that’s not the way the world works Shelby, cause I’m out here everyday living it. Who the fuck knows what God wants? People kill each other every day, and for what? Hmm? For politics, for religion, and they’re heroes! No. No, there’s a lot of shit I can’t do anymore, but killing’s not one of them. And letting those fucking bastards out there go and rape somebody else, isn’t either. (Monster, 1:18 – 1:21)
Patty Jenkins expertly displays in this scene the argument of those sympathetic to Wuornos’ case. Wuornos was forced to prostitution from a child, expelled from her family, lived life on the fringes of society and was rarely respected as a human being. She was raped and beat up by the authority figures who are touted as heroes. Wuornos was, to quote her character from the film, “everyday living it.” While Wuornos’ innocence is arguable, this scene depicts the tragic existence of not just sex workers, but all oppressed demographics, including women, queer folks, and people of color. How does one find the commitment to obey the law when the law works systemically to oppress and endanger them? Monster does not condone Wuornos’ behavior, yet it does give the viewer a sympathetic portrait of how someone ends up in the compromised position that Aileen Wuornos found herself in. The viewer has a fuller understanding of this person as a human being.
While most movies today depict sex workers as shallow characters whom we should despise and disdain, who are often manipulated and acting without agency, Patty Jenkin’s Monster breaks this mold entirely. She offers a more in-depth portrait of Wuornos by including her traumatic childhood, her futile attempts at exiting sex work, violence and sexual assault inflicted upon her by police, and her attempt at reclamation of power and control over the patriarchal society which has so failed her. The viewer gains a more genuine impression of sex workers, and a more sympathetic look at a victim who had been labelled a monster.
Monster. Written and directed by Patty Jenkins, Performance by Charlize Theron. 2003
Rafter, Nicole. 2007. Crime, film and criminology. Theoretical Criminology. Vol. 11(3): 403–420; 1362–4806. Pp 8-9.
Basdell, Raleigh. 2015. Reel or reality? The portrayal of prostitution in major motion pictures. University of South Florida, ProQuest Dissertations. 3734763. Pp 1-245.