Why is Hollywood so obsessed with commodifying female pain?

hollywood and the commodification of female pain
Why is Hollywood commodifying female pain?STX/Studio Canal/Netflix

She's screaming at the photographers, tears rolling down her face as her black eyeliner continues to smudge. Her tiny frame battling against the police as she cries uncontrollably, a dishevelled beehive leaning to one side as she loses a shoe mid-mayhem. No, this isn't a devastating paparazzi photo, leftover from a condemned tabloid-fuelled period of the 2000s, but rather a freshly-filmed scene in the Amy Winehouse biopic, Back to Black, which landed in cinemas today.

The controversial film, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, has been at the centre of controversy since its inception, with fans and viewers alike criticising its portrayal of the late singer, questioning the need to splash her devastating story all over the headlines again. But, sadly, it's not the only story being retold. With a growing trend of female biopics, why is Hollywood so obsessed with commodifying female pain and suffering?

a man and woman sitting in the rain

Since the announcement of Back To Black, fans have raised questions about the intentions behind delving into Amy's story on the big screen. Her talent is unquestionable – but so too are her struggles, with the singer battling bulimia, substance and alcohol abuse and self harm. Yes, we see Amy’s journey as a musician in the film, but we also watch her fateful relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil and struggles play out in depth

Back To Black is just one of many recent biopics which tell the painful and tragic stories of famous women. From Priscilla (2023) and Blonde (2022) to Spencer (2021), which respectively portrayed the lives of Priscilla Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, to Pam and Tommy (2022), the TV drama which chronicled Pamela Anderson's leaked sex tape. Yes, the one which threatened to ruin her career. The actress spoke out against the project at the time, admitting finding out about it incited a “painful aftershock of trauma."

While these films and shows garner millions of views, they also raise questions about the exploitative, often unnecessary nature of such retellings, with fictitious elements often misconstruing the true stories of their subjects. In Priscilla, viewers watch rock and roll singer Elvis Presley's wife endure a painfully unbalanced relationship, while Pam & Tommy glamourised the aftermath of Pamela’s leaked tape, which catapulted the model into a status of female villainy, despite it (and the series itself) being released without her consent.

pam and tommy star lily james defends sex scenes

Then, in Blonde and Spencer, we see the now-deceased subjects portrayed as damaged, paranoid and mentally unwell, with little nuance or space for interpretation. In particular, Blonde faced heavy backlash for its source material not being based on Marilyn’s own life, but a work of biographical fiction. As journalist, Tasha Stewart pointed out, “In death, women are silent, just as Hollywood likes them. They can be treated as objects that are malleable and easily manipulated.”

Model and activist Emily Ratajowski also summarised this point well at the time of Blonde’s release, saying, “We love to fetishise female pain. Look at Amy Winehouse, look at Britney Spears, look at the way we obsess over [Princess] Diana’s death, the way we obsess over dead girls and serial killers. Watch any CSI episode, and it’s like this crazy fetishisation of female pain and death.”

a person with curly hair

With the amount of inspiring stories of women’s success in the face of adversity, why can’t we focus on those stories instead over re-telling the struggles of troubled or dead people? Take Hidden Figures and Harriet, both of which honour the stories of Black women in the USA through themes on racism, slavery and the struggle for freedom against oppression. Then, On The Basis Of Sex follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was the second woman to serve as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Plus, upcoming projects like Joy on Netflix, which follows three British pioneers, including the often-ignored Jean Purdy, who invented IVF and changed the lives of millions. Why can’t we focus on female joy and success, rather than pain and suffering?

The intrigue into the lives of such famous women is understandable, especially considering what figures like Amy and Diana meant to so many of their fans. For Back To Black director Sam Taylor-Johnson, the film was about honouring Amy and her audience when creating the film. “I felt that the greatest thing I could do with the movie was to celebrate her and her music, and to not victimise her again. I definitely felt I carried the weight of that,” she told GQ, adding that critics were often “picking apart a still without any sense of what the movie's going to be like.”

It's also important to note that many of the subjects of such biopics did suffer, in life and in death, which is why their stories are being told in such a light. So, while we shouldn’t attempt to rewrite history, Amy, Marilyn, Pamela, Diana and many more of these women deserve to be given voices and stories that celebrate them, rather than commodify them and their pain.

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