Monster: Poverty, Sex Work, and Mental Health

Intro by Maria

Monster is a 2003 film that tells the story of Aileen Wuornos, or Lee Wuornos, a real-life serial killer who was active in Florida in 1989 and 1990. The film doesn’t get into the nitty gritty details of Lee’s capture, trial, and eventual execution, like some dramas that focus on serial killers do; instead, the film gives us a brief snapshot of Lee’s humanity, particularly in the form of a woman named Selby. Lee and Selby fall in love—pretty quickly it seems, but we talk more about that in the episode.

We learn Lee has spent most of her life experiencing trauma, poverty, and prostitution, so her newfound love for Selby briefly appears like a positive development, but that ends when one of Lee’s johns knocks her unconscious, ties her up, and then rapes, beats, and tries to kill her. She fights back, and shoots him in despair and self defense. Not being able to go to the police, Lee covers up the murder, and continues her relationship with Selby, vowing to quit tricking and get a real job. But her efforts to “clean up” and become legit backfire, and she has to start tricking again in order to support herself and Selby, who has, at the time, abandoned her religiously fanatic family and a job for Lee.

All of Lee’s trauma comes to a head when she starts tricking again, and this triggers a post-traumatic stress response. She kills again. And again. And again. She becomes the serial killer, the monster that people thought she was from the very beginning of her life, since she was a young girl—when she first left home and started tricking. 

This is the humanity that many other stories about serial killers lack, and it sends a strong message about the nature of monsters and victims and who those people actually are. The movie, punctuated by Lee’s voice overs, gives voice to trauma and abuse survivors but at the same time condemns Lee’s actions and shows her as a truly flawed person. 

Brandon and I also have plenty to say about mental health and how it’s portrayed in this movie. I talk about sex work, prostitution, and the much-needed de-stigmatization and legalization of it. Brandon connects the dots between poverty, mental health, and general illness, and we come to the conclusion that the movie seems to do a good job of showing that connection.

That’s not to say that the movie is perfect. The movie seems to speed up in places that should be slowed down, and there’s some cheesy ass music at the end, trust me on that.

And this movie is set in Florida, filmed in Florida, and pretty-Florida specific, so you know I’m going to have fun with that, so how about you wrangle yourself an alligator, put on some jean shorts, and get ready for action at sea level on this next episode of Peculiar Picture Show.

Show Summary

General: A true Florida setting, and surprisingly emotional

B: First time seeing this; different than I thought it would be; Selby is a fictional character, loosely based on the actual woman in Aileen’s life; best actress Charlize Theron

M: Patty Jenkins’s first film; filming locations I’ve been to:

  • Southern Nights: Gay bar on corner of Bumby in Colonialtown South, near 408
  • Semoran Skateway, in Casselberry—where we would always skate
  • Fun Spot, on I-Drive
  • I-4 Daytona Beach sign
  • Last Resort Bar (never been there—HA)

Idea Exchange

B: Confucius Say Anything: Film about a young Confucius in high school trying to win the heart of the most popular girl in school 

M: Rant on getting parents vaccinated in Florida

Like: Excellent performances, complex characters, no inherent fairness

B: Theron and Ricci slay in these performances; they didn’t try to make Lee more likable; message of life being unfair and there not being justice for those without power

M: Finally something actually filmed in Florida and gets it right; idea of victims vs. monsters—people typically aren’t just one or the other

Dislike: A bit rushed in places

B: Lee seemed to fall in love with Selby too quickly—beginning was rushed

M: Ending was abrupt; some cheesy ass fucking music at the end; the voice over

Mental Health: The mental health impact of poverty, and the legalization of sex work

B: The impact of poverty on health, particularly mental health; mental illness can also be a major contributing factor in homelessness; economic inequality is a mental health issue

M: Sex work, including the legalization of it and de-stigmatization


B: From watching movies, we have this sense that there’s this inherent justice in life where the good guys win in the end and the bad guys are punished, but we know that’s not how life works at all.

B: Poverty is actually one of the most significant contributing factors in mental health and general health just because it intersects with every other factor: education and opportunity; home and community living conditions; family dynamics, and access to healthcare. 

B: It’s a vicious cycle: Mental health issues that poverty creates can also prevent people from escaping poverty.

Next Movie

The King’s Speech (2010)

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