On November 15, 1917, Alice Paul, the thirty-two year old founder of the National Woman’s Party, had begun serving a seven month prison sentence, purportedly for blocking traffic but in reality because of the series of provocative protests targeting President Wilson. NWP called Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” targeted a meeting between Wilson and the new Russian government, and staged the first ongoing picket of the White House and burned copies of his speeches, a particularly bold action during a time of war and repression of dissent.
Word came this week that Kate Winslet will star in a movie about Lee Miller. It’s certainly a life that begs for cinematic treatment: Miller was a young model, a muse and collaborator to Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau who became one of the most important photographers and war photographers of the century. Her work ranged from abstract treatments of the Egyptian landscape to the war photographs she is most known for. A while ago, I published a poem inspired by a photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub at his house in Munich, where Miller and collaborator David Scherman arrived a few days ahead of the American troops. She and Sherman came to the home from Dachau, where they were among the first photographers to arrive. There’s so much about that picture I love: the boots and dirty bathmat seem more beautifully irreverent and darkly hopeful than Mel Brooks’ dancing Nazis could ever hope to be. Given Winslet’s somewhat well-known penchant for movies that ask for tasteful or meaningful artistic dis-robing, I can’t help but wonder if this photograph will play a role in the movie.
I got interested in Miller after reading a chapter about her in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. It’s a collection of short biographical essays, probably my favorite genre, and not only because I usually get overwhelmed by shopping-list level of detail in full-length biographies. It’s also the perfect genre for the women Prose writes about, all of whom struggled in one way or another with their own creative ambitions, the politics of the artistic circles in which they travelled, and the not insignificant calculations behind whether, how, and for how long, to sleep with the artist in question. (Prose goes on a bit defensively in her introduction about defending her subject from the charge that the muse is anti- or at least non-feminist, but the stories themselves are universally fascinating looks at sexual politics, although I did wish she’d mixed it up a bit with chapters on Neal Cassidy, Alice Toklas or Natalie Barney, to name a few.)
In the bathtub picture, Miller plays both roles: she didn’t take the picture, obviously, but she had the idea for it, and you don’t have to have read Laura Mulvey to realize there are worlds going on in her look.
The war divided Miller’s life. Her life after the war was marked by heavy drinking and depression, likely related to her war experiences. She was also a legendary hostess whose farm was a legendary salon for artists and others. Her only child was born in 1947, when she was 40. Throughout the 40s and 50s, MI-5 spied on her for communist tendencies. There being no evidence of espinoge, her communism is described as “more of a mental outlook.” Her boss at Vogue told the spooks: “She is eccentric and indulges in queer food and queer clothes.”
The film is based on a book by Miller’s son, who was born after her artistic working life had ended and knew little of it until after she passed away. Given the well-known dangers of the bio-pic, I dread watching Winslet play drunk in bad aging makeup, or some movie of the week tripe about the conflict between work and family. If I were making it, (call me!) I would be tempted to have two unconnected scenes: one around the making of the one film she was in: Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood of Poet,” in which she played a statue, and one on the day in that apartment: show them coming to the idea, show her and Sherman talking: what more “tensions” do we need than that distance?
So Playboy is apparently bowing to the reality of the internet age and giving up on naked pictures. In elegizing the magazine’s relevance, the Times makes an interesting aside about its relationship to the feminist movement, stating “Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention — Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist, went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Mr. Hefner’s spinoff clubs to write an exposé for Show Magazine in 1963.” This isn’t quite wrong but it’s a little misleading: in 1963 Steinem wasn’t a well-known feminist but a young freelance writer just starting to find serious work; the Playboy piece ending up standing in the way of that.
As the Times points out, the original Playboy’s version of the good life – (“cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, . . a little mood music . . .a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”) now feels if anything a bit quaint. What’s interesting is how, in its early decades, it cast itself as rebelling against two cultural forces that were themselves deeply opposed: first, the traditional domesticity of the fifties, and second, the feminist movement.
As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her great and under-read The Hearts of Men, the first feature article in the 1953 first issue of Playboy was an attack on alimony. The enemy in the early years were gold-diggers, wives, and all varieties of domesticity. Remarkably, some of the “personal” descriptions of miserable marriages actually sound a bit like what would be published in the radical feminist journals I’m studying 20 years later – except of course that it’s only the men who are miserable, and the wives are laughing at their good fortune to be kept in a life of card-playing and TV-watching.
Not that Hefner and feminists saw any common ground. In 1970, a secretary at Playboy discovered and leaked to women’s lib. groups a memo Hefner had written about an upcoming story on the movement. As Bonnie Dow outlines in Watching Women’s Liberation, some female editors thought the story lacked balance. Hef doubled down: “‘these chicks are our natural enemy'” and it is time to do battle with them . . .What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart.”
Many, many trees have died in all that has been written about how much the anti-porn turn of the feminist movement hurt and divided the movement. But if you look at what Miss America was in 1968, when it was the target of a famous protest, or what Playboy was, you understand why they thought they were on to something, and it’s difficult to imagine the Hef of 1970 would have been any more positively disposed towards a movement with a more nuanced reading of what constituted sexual expression or exploitation. But now Playboy is trying to make itself relevant with a female, sex-positive advice columnist. More has changed than the technology by which 12 year olds get their fix.
On August 26th, 1920, the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage went into effect. It was the result of years of ceaseless toil:
“To get the word “male” out of the constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign. During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include women suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” (Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, Women Suffrage and Politics, quoted in Shulamith Firestone, “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A.: New View, Notes from the First Year) Read more
Forty-five years ago today, Shirley Chisholm speaks on behalf of the Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment:
“This is what it comes down to: artificial distinctions between persons must be wiped out of the law. Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set further generations free of them.” Read more
For my research reading Bonnie Dow’s excellent “Watching Women’s Liberation 1970.” One point she convincingly makes is that coverage of the movement was not as uniformly hostile as we might expect. Part of this was due to women like Marlene Sanders, who died this week, and, among other things, produced a substantive piece on the Ladies Home Journal strike of 1970. As Dow explains, activist Susan Brownmiller cultivated this sympathetic coverage by leaking word of the sit-in to Sanders in advance, assuring she would be the one on the scene. There are a lot of great stories of these little collaborations at the time – my favorite being another one Dow describes, when a secretary at Playboy leaked to feminist activists a memo Hugh Hefner had written asking for “a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart.” Dow devotes a chapter to the documentary she produced for ABC about the movement and how she navigated her sympathy for the movement with her position at the network and her views about the role of journalists. Those of us on the left are rightly suspicious of the idea that getting more people of X group on the inside is a solution to social injustice, but in this case it did really make a difference.
“In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct of morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathetic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommy Dearest memoir – where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster – the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.”
Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
When I read something and am trying to figure out why and how it works, or does not work, Gornick is the writer I go back to more than anyone else, and to this passage above all. Gornick talks about this need for imaginative sympathy when discussing a passage from D.H. Lawrence that troubles her – it is not that his view of women is “incorrect” but that there is no attempt to imagine a woman as she might imagine herself – no exploration, only reaction. In a sense I go this passage when I am looking for “permission” to be troubled by an author, especially a renowned one, especially a man when it comes to women.
The passage came to mind for a different reason while reading Hilton Als’ The Women. I’ve loved Als’ writing for the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for a long time, and I’ve always been struck at what I can only inadequately term empathy – his deep love for artists and their work, for the imaginative intricacies of the craft and those attempt it, even when they fall short.
The Women is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres – a collection of biographical essays, reflections on the meanings of lives, extensively knowledgable but unabashedly subjective in its interest and these lives and their meanings. The subjects of the essays are first, Als’ own mother, second, Dorothy Dean, the third Owen Dodson. Because Dean and Dodson are not household names, the convention would be to briefly attach a label to each by means of introduction. The difficulty of accurately doing so is, in some sense, the subject of these essays. Dean’s wikipedia entry leads with “an African American socialite connected to Andy Warhol’s the factory . . . and Max’s Kansas City, where she worked as a door person.” The back of Als’ book describes her as “brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men.” And so Als’ empathy and identification with her reflects and refracts her own. Dodson can perhaps be more easily classified as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Yet Als’ focus is more on the disappointments of his later years, when Als knew him as a mentor and lover, and on his identification with women, as suggested in his inclusion in a book by this name.
What unites these figures is the ways they responded to and crafted themselves out of their disappointments. We tend to think of those who don’t find suitable outlets for their talents burning out in a blaze, as Virginia Woolf imagined the fate of Shakespeare’s sister, or retreating into silence. But we all know from our experience what is more often the case: frustrated talents (frustrated by a tangle of external and internal circumstances which, Als demonstrates, are impossible to pull apart) drink too much, pester their more successful friends, host parties, read and edit manuscripts, take refuge in snobbism, sleep with people whose work they admire, and so forth. In the case of his mother, who lacked Dean and Dodson’s the artistic and social outlets, love and disease become the vehicles. When tragedy comes, it comes slowly and excruciatingly: “In the end I think my mother’s long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people.” And a doctor who examined Dean after she had lost her home declared that she “must be delusional: ‘She keeps saying she went to Radcliffe.'” Which, of course, she had.
And yet very often, Als suggests, they are more effective mentors than those with smoother paths could ever be – and richer subjects.
The feminist complaint against stereotypical female characters is by now well known. But less recognized, as Als’ own criticism has shown, is how male writers, especially queer ones, have been actively attacked for imagining women more fully. In this fascinating piece about A Streetcar Named Desire, Als recalls Mary McCarthy’s attack on the play: noticing Williams’ identification with Blanche DuBois, she accuses him of deceit, just as Blanche is accused of in the play. Seeing only the grating aspects of Blanche’s femininity, she misses Blanche’s discomfort with convention, her inability to play the role:
Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”
The other other artist I immediately associate with these two traits – empathy for, and identification with, the feminine and female characters, Pedro Almodovar, famously dedicated my favorite of his films, All About My Mother, “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. . . To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” Gender and its associated identities are here both performative and not: a woman or a mother is something a man might become, but it is not an empty category.
Another wonderful Almodovar film, Talk to Her, tells the story of a male nurse who talks to a woman in a coma, a dancer who has been struck by a car. He says he has learned his care taking skills from caring for his mother. In one sequence, we are presented an invented old surrealist film the nurse remembers: a man drinks a potion that renders him tiny. In his new state, he crawls across his lover’s body and blissfully disappears into her vagina. In his New Yorker review, David Denby says that one way of looking at the film, “I suppose, is as a story shaped by a homosexual’s longing for women, a longing that can only be expressed as irony or as a nightmare.” I suppose. But only if one supposes that longing for women is the only stance a male director can take towards women – as opposed to curiosity, empathy or identification. (The extent to which heterosexual longing for women is so often expressed as irony or nightmare comes through in Denby’s swift takedown of Brian DePalma’s Femme Fatale, with which his review of Talk to Her is paired.)
Back when New York magazine asked a number of writers about Philip Roth’s legacy, Keith Gessen took a lot of flack for saying “Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?” As I wrote then, critics were right to note that taking male heterosexual desire as a central theme doesn’t mean one isn’t a misogynist – but it doesn’t mean one is, either. Or, to reframe the question aesthetically, away from the moralism that gets people so upset, it doesn’t mean one can credibly create real female characters – and it doesn’t mean one can’t. It is of course too simple to say that Als, or Almodovar, or Williams, or Allen Ginsberg, who beautifully gave his mother the last lines of his elegy to her – are successful in imagining women characters with empathy and nuance because they don’t, by and large, want to fuck women. It is probably far too simple as well to say that their experience of sexual other-ness or outsider-ness, allows them this success. All I can say for sure is that their work confirms for me how essential and undervalued these qualities are in writers and artists and how much our categories of gender, sexuality and desire – completely real and completely imagined at the same time – can both get in our way and get us there.
So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren’t out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations. A lot them came from having to sustain a long-running show that’s worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that’s been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. (“It’s a hierarchy!” Ken cried desperately in last night’s premier. Well, it was – and largely still is – but more on that later.) Peggy’s first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top – whom we’d more or less been asked to identify with – had their positions challenged. But the show’s strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order. Many of the best episodes, like “The Gold Violin” from season 2, or “Signal 30” from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in “The End of the Novel of Love”:
In the fifties John Cheever’s stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker – the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible – they did go on like this.
This describes the lives of many of Mad Men‘s characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts “within a generation . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . ” Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost. Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions – this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others – they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it’s left us impatient with Don. The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he’s still game and mildly amused. Don’s still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show’s attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there’s no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating – but where can we go from there?
The problem gets more complicated – but it still feels like a problem – when we think about the show’s broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don’s psychodrama. (Or, Betty’s, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing. When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women’s rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it’s easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn’t bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.
So says Netflix.
“A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought of mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church and State, who travelled on poor to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O’Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little Women who have come down to us. . . But most people today have never even heard of Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Clafin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin. And this ignorance is nothing compared to ignorance of the lives of women of the stature of Margaret Fuller, Fanny Wright, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Paul.”
So said Shulamith Firestone. (Dialectic of Sex, 1970)