Monster, a movie about the tragic life of Aileen Wuornos, is a classic lesbian film. This iconic story – starring Charlize Theron as Wuornos – was released back in 2003. Although sixteen years isn’t such a great time span in the history of the big screen, mainstream films about lesbian characters are still a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only in recent years that lesbians have been able to take for granted seeing our lives reflected on screen. And Monster was part of the cultural shift towards lesbian visibility.
Clothes, color schemes, and cars all bring back the not-so-distant past. It’s set in a time before cell phones and social media, when so much relied on happenstance. Yet Monster is not a film to inspire nostalgia. It tells the story of two women living without the safety nets woven from money, class privilege, and heterosexuality.
Aileen Wuornos – Lee, as she is called in the film – is trapped in prostitution by desperate poverty. Broke and alone, she hits up a bar for one last beer – after which Lee plans to end her life. But there she meets Selby Wall, an awkward young lesbian looking for one last good night in a gay bar before she must return to her conservative Christian parents.
The two get off to a rocky start. Lee is wary of Selby, who is painfully earnest. But they click. Lee’s swagger and Selby’s gentleness fit perfectly. And when Lee goes home with Selby, there is a glimmer of possibility that life will treat her gently.
Theron’s performance is stunning. It’s easy to see why this role earner her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Her portrayal of Aileen Wurnos is most definitely a precursor to feminist icon Imperator Furiosa and sleek assassin Lorraine Broughton.
But whereas Furiosa and Lorraine inhabited fast-paced fictional worlds, Aileen was a real person coping with very real problems. Theron creates a perfect balance between toughness and fragility. Hope shines from her face as she begs Selby to run away with her. Lee is completely believable, and always sympathetic.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, the creative force behind Wonder Woman, Monster is shot with a distinctly female gaze. Watching in 2019, it’s a rare thing to see a film where female leads aren’t caked in make-up and groomed within an inch of their lives. In fact, the only time Lee is shown applying make-up is to cover the bruises and cuts bestowed by men.
With stark shots of sexual violence and its aftermath, Wournos’ story gives life to the happy hooker myth. In almost casual asides, Lee reveals the trauma and poverty that paved her road to prostitution. Childhood sexual abuse. Homelessness. A pregnancy at thirteen, and giving the baby up for adoption.
Selby – a fictionalized version of Tyria Moore, Wuornos’ real-life girlfriend – has had a tough life too. Disowned by her parents and pushed out of her church community, she is isolated by homophobia. Her access to everything from healthcare right down to the love of a family rests on her passing as straight. Selby embodies the vulnerability of too many young lesbians. And Cristina Ricci brings a wide-eyed sweetness to the role that is irresistible.
Lee and Selby see a worth in each other that is often overlooked by the rest of society. The hotel room they share is a haven. For Lee, who had no roof over her head, it represents shelter. For Selby, who was under near constant surveillance from guardians trying to shepherd her back into the heterosexual fold, it offers privacy.
And, for once, Lee has the opportunity to explore her sexuality on her own terms – without coercion, force, or exploitation. Their relationship is poignant, if not free from problems.
Monster is a far cry from the glamorous world of Pretty Woman. Washing in gas station bathrooms and living out of a storage locker, reliant on often violent men for money, Lee’s life is achingly precarious. Her interactions with men are transactional rather than romantic or sexy.
Every scene when Lee gets into a man’s car carries an unbearable tension. For all her bravado and negotiation skills, there is a look of sheer panic in her eyes in the moments before a john touches her. Hard-earned street smarts do nothing to alter the fact that she is powerless. Men can and do drive Lee to any location, do anything to her body, regardless of what Lee has agreed to.
The first death is a clear cut act of self-defense. Lee shoots a man who has beaten and raped her, killing this john before he can kill her. Another john who asks Lee to call him ‘daddy’ triggers memories of CSA. The tables turn. Lee goes from prey to predator. Hers is a bloody journey of retribution. A curious mixture of Robin Hood and avenging angel, Lee kills the men who want to use her body, steals their cars, and empties their wallets.
In real life, Aileen Wuornos shot and killed seven men attempting to buy sex. After she was apprehended, psychiatrists diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Many of the traits that led to Wuornos and other survivors being diagnosed with personality disorders were, as Dr. Jessica Eaton points out, natural responses in someone who has “experience[d] distress, trauma and shock when they are abused and violated by another human being.”
On October 9th 2002, Wuornos was given the lethal injection as punishment for her crimes. But, as Monster illustrates, there is no clear cut binary of victim and perpetrator.
The men who buy sex again and again, despite firm evidence that it traumatizes the women selling sex, are not registered as serial offenders. Yet Wuornos is remembered foremost as a serial killer. Her notoriety eclipses the compassion that nowadays, in the era of #MeToo, society is getting better at offering the victims of men’s sexual violence. The state, the criminal justice system, and the medical system all failed Aileen Wuornos miserably.
Sixteen years on, Monster still packs a powerful punch. It’s a film about gender and violence – two themes that are more intertwined and relevant than ever. It’s also a film about finding hope in the unlikeliest of places – and the power of lesbian love.