#MeToo, Disclosure & the Confessional Mode

If you’ve been a woman for a while, and attempted whilst afflicted by visible womanhood to participate in the doings of human society, it is probably no momentous revelation to you that men can be creepy, coercive, threatening, tyrannizing, and gross. Not gross in the sense of unwashed hands and very terrible smells breezing into one’s life from other people’s lunches, but gross in that “I will corner you at the office party and make you regret ever leaving your house today, ever leaving your house at all, ever living” sort of way. Is there a woman alive today who has not been harassed by a man, at work, at school, while riding a train or bus or while walking down the street, sitting in a park, shopping for produce at the grocery store, breathing the air in a place outside her own home? I would love to meet this woman if she’s out there, to talk with her about what it’s like: to feel you can move through the world freely because you are not its prey and you do not fear it will devour you. Since I’ve not yet known a woman who hasn’t been harassed or made to feel uncomfortable or far worse by a man while she was trying to do something rather basic like maybe her job or maybe just existing in public, however, I have trouble believing that any woman could be genuinely alarmed to learn that Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Artforum’s Knight Landesman (evidence that Male Scum Syndrome is not a blight exclusive to the middlebrow) etc., etc., etc., did the creepy, coercive, threatening, tyrannizing and gross things that they did to women.

We have no cause for alarm. Men harassing women sexually – and to be specific: high-powered men harassing their young, hungry-to-succeed female subordinates – is as unsurprising as a white supremacist state’s police force routinely murdering black citizens. It is as unsurprising as endemic poverty in a capitalist paradigm. These are the symptoms of the structural realities of our society and they should not be news to anyone has not been in a coma since birth. They are devastating. They are not surprising.

The surprise is that suddenly there are consequences for the men. All those little “indiscretions” buried to fester under the oversized rug patriarchy supplies its loyal henchmen have made like revenants and clawed their way risen to the surface to haunt the guilty. Powerful men are being ousted from their positions of power. They are being reviled and banished. Recovery seems improbable. The major shocker is that women are bringing men down for a change; women are being believed instead of dismissed as desperate for attention, denounced as psychotic schemers, or blamed for enticing abuse; the harm done to women by sexual harassment has neither been shrugged off as trivial nor laughed away with the usual lewd sneering. It is as if what men do to women, and how men’s actions reverberate through women’s lives, is of some actual significance. As if it is not women’s ineludible doom to be reduced to sexual chattel whenever we dare venture out in public.

And this is surprising, and this is good. Even if it is only a symbolic purge submitted by the Nice Good Liberal (male-dominated) Left as a safeguard against looking severely hypocritical subsequent to its politically pragmatic show of appalled horror over Donald Trump’s I’m-the-Boss-Man handsiness, it is nonetheless good. Let’s call it progress.

The #MeToo campaign is a product of this freakish and pathetically unprecedented moment in which it would almost seem that a woman can expect to be listened to when she speaks about what men have done to her. Women have come forward online in droves to share their stories of sexual intimidation and coercion by men, the publicization of our collective victimization cascading out to overflow the Internet, as the dams give way under the wash of horror stories: each woman who speaks out grants another woman license to speak, and what woman doesn’t have a story she could tell? #MeToo has the potential for infinite growth. If every woman ever harassed or assaulted by a man with power over her announced to the world how she was abused, the thread could mushroom on and on forever. Maybe it should. There is an urgency to sharing these stories, their public airing a corrective to the silence that women have been paid off for or terrorized into. Our own shame has forced us into silence, too. It is disgusting to have to put words to what men do to us, the vileness of their offenses such a stain inside accusing our own bodies our own selves of badness that we long to forget them immediately, even as they are happening, and to never mention them again afterwards—they are unspeakable. And we have stayed silent because we have been afraid. Afraid of the repercussions of speaking. Afraid of not being believed. For the many women for whom #MeToo has been a release from silence, and for every woman unwilling to accept silence in the future, having seen a million sisters before her raise their voices, the value of its impact cannot be overstated.

Yet I was reluctant to join the #MeToo chorus. I watched other women broadcast their experiences, cheered, at first, that women were catalyzing a long overdue reckoning with the scourge of sexual harassment, but as the atmosphere grew increasingly #MeToo-saturated, an old wariness edged in to replace my optimism. I still appreciated the women who added their accounts to the deluge and I remained encouraged that women felt newly supported in outrage over the everyday sexual violence and exploitation that gives form to Existing While Female in a patriarchy, but, as the Internet filled to capacity with the grim details of harassment, assaults, abuse, rapes, I began to sense with creepy-crawly acuteness something unsavory latent in the media’s receptiveness to all of these stories, all of these women telling them. I wondered: what is the social function of women’s admission of sexual trauma? There’s a market demand for this stuff. Women’s personal revelations of painful, and especially painful sexual experiences have a long history as a tantalizing cultural commodity, to be dished up lurid, with a garnish of theatrical shock and solicitude on the side. If women start talking, these are the tales we’re supposed to be telling. They sell. It’s true that women have been silenced but our silence is not the whole story. Women do not in fact go around all the time with ball gags lodged between our lips. Muzzling women is the bluntest way of ensuring that female subjectivity does not contaminate precious masculinist cultural real estate; it is the most obvious strategy but not the only, or necessarily the most effective option at patriarchy’s disposal. Circumscribing the range and manner of women’s speech is a subtler tactic, a nicer, less glaring suppression, useful for its preservation of the exigent illusion that women are free to do as we please and just happen to end up an underclass because – ain’t it the weirdest thing? – such is our nature. Many women stay mute, but there are plenty of us who speak. And that is all well and good, on the condition that what’s coming out of our mouths are nuggets of “realness” razored from the deepest recesses of our private lives, the darker the better, warm still and glistening with gut-blood.

Art characterized by deep dark revelations of the inner self is branded “confessional” and, although men like Robert Lowell have contributed to the genre and are no doubt credited as its originators, it has congealed into a decidedly “feminine” zone of creative production. Memoir, too, and self-portraiture and the inescapable first-person essay that has emerged as an Internet staple (i.e., “Coming Out as Bisexual Made Dogs Like Me More But Now I Have Endometriosis,” “A Mouth into the Void Opens at the Back of My Head But That’s Not Why My Abortion Was So Awkward,” “Surviving a Complete Dissolution of Self Gave Me the Confidence to Look Cuter in Lipstick”), because the woman artist’s proper subject is herself. Rita Felski defines the confessional as autobiographical work that “signals its intention to foreground the most personal and intimate details of the author’s life.” 1. To Felski’s “personal” and “intimate” I would add “painful” as a third defining factor. Suffering and anguish are the confessional mode’s sum and substance. As it is women who are expected to slake an alienated culture’s thirst for the personal, the intimate, and the painful, the confessional mode is women’s work: the woman artist bares her soul. Standing naked before the expectant crowd, she spills her guts. She is a woman and so it is her charge to open herself, flayed by her own hand, cooperative as she lays herself out artfully unveiled for the vivisection. If she really must speak while doing so, she’d best be prepared to put everything out there, including her full life history, her fears and insecurities, each tiniest vicissitude of the emotional drama that unfolds within her murky, mystifying female consciousness. She may be the Other, but this time she’ll let you in. She won’t hold anything back from you. You and the woman, you’re going to get intimate. She’ll give herself over to you wholly; there will be no secrets between you. She keeps nothing to, or of, herself. Everything she is is set before you, for you to consume.

To engage with the work of the woman artist is to come into a profound knowledge of her, the work itself of secondary interest to the woman who created it. She is the ultimate object. What she creates is compelling primarily for the conduit it offers into her innermost regions—it is a means to penetrate her.

The audience craves to know: a tally of the woman’s lovers, how she was in in bed, how miserable she was everywhere else, the nature of her wounds, how much she drank, if she was a loving or a negligent mother, the parts of herself she despised, the event that finally drove her mad, her last words before she hurled herself into the abyss.

Should the artist’s work seem on the surface to broach a subject other than her person, the audience will endeavor to excavate the woman from her work by interpreting the art she has made as if it were some arcane code she devised solely for the purpose of chatting about herself. Richard Ingrams summed up this assumption ­– that a woman’s art is always at base confessional – when he wrote of Dorothy Parker, “All her best stories are autobiography.” 2 In some cases it just takes a little extra effort to unearth the buried treasure that is the woman’s essential truth, but, unfailingly, her truth will be there. Like it’s unthinkable that a woman could care about anything outside of her own organism. In every one of Sylvia Plath’s poems, the reader must ferret out a suicide note to feel sated. The discovery of the personal disclosure becomes the artwork’s climax.

If the woman artist insists on opacity in her presentation of self, her appreciators might bypass her work altogether and dive directly into biography, with the relational, romantic and/or excruciating prioritized as the choicest tidbits. People unfamiliar with her art will know the details of her love affairs and her husband’s name and her lifelong struggles with whatever and how she lost them in the end. Wasn’t Anais Nin Henry Miller’s muse? And didn’t Leonora Carrington crack up when Max Ernst was sent away to that French prison camp? We know Audre Lorde died of cancer, so did Susan Sontag, and Anne Sexton killed herself, so did Virginia Woolf. The image Unica Zurn’s name recalls is a photograph of the woman’s belly puckered by Hans Bellmer’s fishing line; it is not one of Zurn’s drawings. Zurn killed herself too and we know that.

The women artists rewarded with a legacy are the ones whose biographies were sensational enough to justify their having passed themselves off as legitimate creators.

The male arbiters and authorities of Culture tolerate women’s creative undertakings when they can be translated into another route by which to enter us. The boys want in, they believe they are entitled access; access is the promise of the confessional and so women are steered into it. The Confessional is also “safe” for women to take up because it is the most consummately “feminine” artistic mode, tied as it is to the private sphere to which women have been confined like mental shut-ins by patriarchal ideology’s division of reality into the public and private as separate universes, its classification of the public as male and the private as female. A woman’s place is in the home and subjectivity’s “home” is personal experience. The concerns of this home include intimate relationships, sexuality, and emotion. Domestic, delicate, internal feminine matters. The sexualized body and the “heart,” symbolizing emotional sensitivity, belong to the private-female sphere, in contrast to the public-male sphere’s working body and disembodied, cleanly rational and objective mind. Nominated the “heart” of society, it is women’s burden to carry the weight of emotion so that men don’t have to bother themselves with such trivialities and can instead trudge onward denying their feelings, permanently stoic, so as to concentrate freed from distraction on the important business of the mind, like starting wars and acquiring wealth and generally making others miserable. Women are expected to serve as emotional surrogates for men who have renounced their own emotional faculties but still cling to the romance of feeling. In the actual physical home, the wife or the girlfriend acts as this surrogate. In the public, conceptual “home” of culture-making, it is up to the female confessional artist.

Women are the moody sex; we tear up easily and often, we grieve, we yearn, we love, and men watch and wonder at the spectacle. Though mystified by how we do go on they are fond of us; it’s sweet how soft, how sensitive we are. In the home they nest in us; we envelop them cozily in our pacific tenderness. Our proclivity for feeling is a comfort to them. It also terrifies and repulses them, and they count the emotionality they’ve assigned to our class as a strike against us, a weakness, proof we are unstable, hence unreliable, and unfit to be trusted with serious matters. The emotional nature ascribed to women is exploited as a justification for our exclusion from the domain of public action, which only men are clear-thinking enough to control. Women are held in contempt for being emotional, pronounced sentimental, dizzy, maudlin, mawkish, since, at the same time that it is demanded of us, emotion is devalued.

Per standard procedure Daddy has arranged a double bind for women: if we’re not emotive and immersed in feeling, we are doing a shitty job of being women and are loathed, but if we are as emotional as we ought to be, we’re silly soppy girls, and we are loathed. When our art fails to meet the blood-and-guts personal unveilment standard set forth by the confessional imperative, we’re doing it wrong, and when we splay ourselves raw-boned and quivering, we’re self-obsessed narcissists. There is no avoiding scorn, which may go towards explaining why women have such a lot to say about feeling wretched.

The confessional mode hinges on sexual candor as much as it does emotional intensity and this further feminizes it. Women are sex incarnate in patriarchal culture, everything we do and make inevitably filmed over by a sticky sexual sparkle. There is scarce interest in us that is not prurient. Representing the sexual is Woman’s vocation. We confess: we are sexy. By these revelations, Woman can be possessed. The patriarchal art establishment’s relationship with the confessional female subject is that of the voyeur to his peeped-at quarry. When a woman bares her soul in her work, her nakedness will be received with salacious appreciation, just as physical nakedness would be. She can say she amputated her own leg and that admission will be eroticized. The quenchless appetite for women’s tell-all narratives of sexual victimization//violation//trauma therefore should not be mistaken as stemming from concern for women, or even innocent curiosity. Women’s sexual suffering is read as titillating (not only because it is sexual, but because it is pain: when sadomasochism is the dominant erotic ethos, agony is aphrodisiac); the sexual allure of female pain does much to account for the piles of throat-slashed cheerleaders amassed in horror films and the “vanished girl” plotline of every paperback thriller. Stories of women caged in basement dungeons and raped and impregnated by their abductors are big news because they are sexy. JonBenet Ramsey was sexy. It is sexy when a woman gets screwed and when she dies from it; Marilyn Monroe’s blonde corpse disheveled in bed made a sexy tableau. A woman’s testimony of sexual abuse is sexy, too—it titillates. Man-made masculinist culture eats her pain as an erotic commodity regardless of the woman’s intent in sharing the painful experience. The drooling starts when we say we’ve been hurt.

I want to pause here to note that I recognize that the “female confessional artist” as I have delineated her is a white woman. The demands I’ve described may made more of white women than of women of color. In a white supremacist society, women marked Other by race as well as sex are not credited with the same potential for interiority as are white women, whose whiteness earns us at least a modicum of human status, if only in order to represent humanity’s gravest flaws and weaknesses.  Black and brown women have not been looked to as confessors because it’s been presumed there was little there to confess. Instead, the role of women of color has been to embody the tropes of the loving (servile but feisty) mammy, the exotic//“spicy”//animalistic sex pot, and the Bad Bitch, serving as surrogates more for the primal, the folksy, and the sassy than for refined emotion and wounded sexiness. Black women in particular are stylized as “stronger” than white women, angrier, tougher, and more self-sufficient, and are therefore not looked to for the sort of meditative melancholic sensitivity that characterizes female confessional work. The oppressive device in the case of women of color has been more a denial of self-determined subjectivity than the exploitation of a severely constrained one. Even so, the success of writers like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker within white supremacist American society is a sign that a market exists for black women’s confessions as well, though they fulfill a quite different social purpose. These women are expected to reveal the emotional reality of all black women, which has not to do with the individual woman artist’s personal history, but with the history of racism and slavery in the United States. The black woman artist is not well-received if she speaks of herself and her experiences outside of this larger historical context, while the white woman artist is most welcome if she speaks of herself as if there were nothing else in the world.

Confession is a patriarchy-approved occupation for women creators because it keeps women focused on at least two essential functions of the female: striptease and emotional labor (breeding and caretaking are the other big ones). Sequestering women within the private, emotional, sexual self that is the confessional mode’s crux recapitulates gender dualism, re-anchoring women to the heart and home, set apart from the mind and public life. The problem with this is not that the heart//hearth is inferior to the mind//world and it is therefore innately degrading for women to be associated with, as if relationships and emotions were so much garbage. Emotion is as valid as reason, private life as meaningful as public life. The problem is that a hierarchy has been constructed, and women get what’s placed on the bottom and men what’s on top; because global human society is patriarchal, it was men who erected the hierarchy, and men who decided who’d get what within it. Men did not cast women as heart//home//emotion//sex to put us at an advantage, and even if they’d meant well with the identity they conceived for our kind, the fact that they got to do the conceiving means it is men who have the power to define women—meaning we’re beneath men, no matter what else Daddy lets us be. Women who claim a place in public life by speaking//writing//creating are guided back to the playpen portion of their institution of interest modified to be suitable for members of the feminized underclass. The confessional is our mode because its demands parallel the demands of femininity itself, adoption of which is never optional. The explicit and implicit pressures on women to confess – the women artists who become “stars” are those who invite a voyeuristic invasion of their private selves, while women who do not offer similar access are deemed chilly and ignored – confirm that there is an oppressive purpose behind the fettering of women to this mode, independent of the confessional’s inherent potentials and merits as an art form. There is nothing wrong with the confessional itself, but foisting it upon women is a strategy to facilitate the suppression of women’s subjectivity, not by stamping it out completely, but rather by molding it to a particular, patriarchy-assisting form: the feminine.

When a woman speaks, what she says is worth hearing only if she’s speaking from personal experience—her analytical as well as her imaginative capacity is discounted. She learns to frame what she wants to express in personal terms. She talks about herself as a mother, as a lover. If a woman stands up before a crowd, they’ll only stick around to pay attention if she’s naked and bleeding. She learns to turn herself inside out, to flaunt herself skinless as a living wound if that’s what it takes to keep the public eye on her.

Bottom line: she’s got to be the Woman.

#MeToo is a confessional spectacle on pop culture’s infotainment stage and so far it seems an expedient one. The genius of the campaign is that it garners visibility for sexual harassment as a matter of public concern by giving the people what they want: women’s revelations of sex-tinted suffering. To the extent that it has generated and can sustain focus on men’s harassment of women as an intolerable epidemic, it is invaluable. But I worry about the subtext—that women must be willing to relate the details of our most unpleasant or traumatic experiences if we want our protests to register. As if this were an exchange: I tell you a secret, you make for me a livable world. Anti-oppression movements cannot take a transactional approach. If we’re making a trade, then there has been no real redistribution of power; what has happened is that the powerful have agreed to a slight mitigation of their barbarism in return for our continued compliance. Women do not owe the world our horror stories. We should not have to ration out our guts as offerings to the hungry gods or defer to the guidelines of feminine expression in order to have the crimes against us taken seriously. Every woman could publish a full report outlining every rotten horrible thing a man has done to her and the horror would not end. We could confess our pain until we have nothing left unspoken and the laceration would not cease. Disclosure can be crucial in exposing violence, it can be cathartic for the silenced, but it is neither diagnosis nor a cure to the crisis. An oppressive system cannot be unmade without rigorous analysis of that system’s structure, yet women who put forward a feminist analysis of sexual harassment instead of presenting personal narratives of mistreatment are markedly left out of the public conversation enkindled by #MeToo. Feminist analysis is excluded from the discussion because for a woman to analyze the situation without making the audience privy to her interior displaces her from the heart//hearth, her appointed realm; women’s analysis is not feminine; it fails to titillate. It also poses a realer threat. And though we can tell and tell and tell our secrets, feminist analysis continues to be silenced. We are not to talk about what needs to change to make an end to sexual harassment truly possible. How men need to change. How society needs to be re-envisioned and reconstructed. Daddy wants to hear only so much from us, in a certain tone of voice. If we’re following the rules, how much of a say can we really have?

  1. Felski, R. “On Confession.” Beyond Feminist Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1989. 87-121.
  2. cited in Ditum, S. “Razors pain you: what Dorothy Parker teaches us about our addiction to female suffering.” New Statesman, 2015.