#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. Continue reading “#MeToo, Disclosure & the Confessional Mode”

Shilling lingerie with the poetess (a profitable desecration)

The anguish of the world is on my tongue.
My bowl is filled to the brim with it; there is more than I can eat.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Anguish”)
It well may be that in a difficult hour, 
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, 
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power, 
I might be driven to sell your love for peace, 
Or trade the memory of this night for food. 
It well may be. I do not think I would.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sonnet XXX)

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a poet and playwright; in 1923, at 31, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, she was terrifically famous, and today hers is one of the few women’s names anyone can summon when asked to identify a female writer. When I think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, I think of delicate poems of longing, bucolic melancholia, the pains and pleasures of female desire in a phallocentric universe, the inescapable hours and years altering the green of spring’s bowers to ash on your palm, whose skin is fated to shrivel and dry to the bone, your bones washed bare on the shore of the endless sea and the small soft music of your life hung a coil of light from the crescent moon, as dusk settles, violet-streaked. I think perhaps of candles weeping their last tallow at 3am and fruit held in my mouth until it is liquid and I swallow it. I do not think of black lace lingerie. The memory of Millay does not rouse in me a ravenous appetite for new “undies” or satin robes. (“Undies”? I have not wanted “undies” since I was nine, but we’ll have to ignore the infantilizing language for now and move on.)

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So, when I noticed large photographs of Millay’s head floating around in the display window of the local lingerie boutique, her head taped to the neck-stumps of limbless mannequins dressed in lace maillots and peignoirs as if the boudoir-ready limbless mannequin were Millay herself, I was at first puzzled. For a fleeting moment I was a prey to my naivety and the connection between a bra sale and the poet eluded me. Although I have by no means read everything that Millay wrote, I’ve read enough to know that underthings were not a major motif in her work. She referenced ribbons in her hair and spoke archly of “pleasing lads” with such decor, but if she had ever penned an ode to the bralette, I missed it.

What I’d forgotten, for a moment, was that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a woman, and that womanhood alone is enough to convert the female artist into a lingerie boutique’s spokesmodel. In a patriarchal world, women are sex (Simone de Beauvoir said it and I’ll carry on saying it until it’s no longer true). The female artist is therefore an object of predominantly sexual interest; her flavor, as sex object, is “artistic.” If sexuality is a subject of her art, as it was for Millay, and which it will be for many women artists, because sexuality is inevitably central in the life of someone raised to incarnate sex, her course to the Sex Symbol pedestal will proceed all the more smoothly. In a capitalist world, sex is reduced to commodity, and sold to women, who are sex, as lingerie. Thus the tether that connects Woman Artist and Lingerie Model is a constant specter. A woman is a Woman no matter what else she may be and we all know what the world wants from her. It is charming enough if she makes art, if she has a talent, but that is not the core of her; at her core, she is sex. Our culture strips her, to delve to the core: we are to wonder what color panties the painter preferred, to gossip about under what conditions the poet lost her virginity, and did she wear silk stockings, and how many black rosettes crowned the curve of her breast.

I can only assume that it was women who decorated the window of a lingerie shop with a bevy of Edna St. Vincent Millay black lace sex mannequins. Women sell women lingerie: our conditioning is more effective if it is promoted as “women’s culture,” the influence of men rendered invisible. Much of the bullshit that degrades us we learn to do and to cherish from other women, who learned from other women, who learned from other women the terms of our lives within a male-ruled society. It is women who write romance novels and diet guides; it is our mothers who teach us to mind our manners. Where female genital mutilation is practiced, it is women who perform the cutting. Such is “cultural tradition”—but one is compelled to inquire: whose culture is it, at base? A woman may hold the blade, but who instructed her in the art of cutting? I assume that the women involved in the lingerie shop’s Millay display imagined they were paying tribute to the poet by offering discounts on their wares in her honor and proudly taping her head up in their window. And I assume, too, that they figured it would be a clever and unconventional way to sell women expensive sexual accessories, lending their store a certain artistic, pro-woman if not feminist mystique, for they were appreciating a brilliant and accomplished – not merely a beautiful – woman. This is a good marketing strategy; we fall for it again and again, because we want to be brilliant, certainly, but that alone does not fulfill us, for we know our true worth to be in beauty, desirability; we desire our brilliance to be what makes us beautiful: the poetry I write becomes an intellectual negligee I flaunt when I long for someone to love me. Just as I have sold myself short, as we sell ourselves short, as capitalist patriarchy has trained us to sell ourselves, the lingerie boutique sold Edna St. Vincent Millay: the Woman Artist as sexualized commodity, her image exploited to peddle sexualized commodities (bras and chemisettes) to women, so that we might venture bravely out into the world as sexualized commodities. It seems terribly cynical, yet it was not, or not consciously: I do not question that the lingerie-mongers were sincere in seeking to celebrate Millay, and their exploitation of her is all the more disturbing for their good intentions: it reflects a self-exploitation so engrained in us as women that we scarcely notice when we do it to other women. We have come to call this carving ourselves distorted into consumable objects on display “loving” ourselves. Yet I do not believe Millay would have been pleased by the “honor” of seeing herself so reduced. I believe she knew herself to be something more. I hope like hell she did, in any case, and I hope that someday we all may recapture that knowledge.

Tell Me What I’m Looking At: “Seconds in Ecstasy”

This June my mother and I went to Sweden and while we were there we visited several art museums, as is standard whenever we go anywhere together. Ostensibly, we both enjoy seeing art. Moreover, my mother loves gift shops. Among the art museums on our itinerary was the Gothenburg Museum of Art, a gorgeous museum, maze-like and old, with baroque gilt frames, high ceilings, rooms of melancholy Swedish landscapes – grey snow, “the long grey dusk” – and then there was this:


A 20′-tall floor-to-ceiling stripper pole ornamented with one inverted nymphic giantess in panties and camisole, thigh-high stockings, and platform heels, slowly, permanently rotating. Medium: styrofoam, plaster, fiberglass, the object status of female humans. Pink light. I thought I was looking at yet another example of the sexualized female body exhibited for display to an androcentric masculinist target audience for whom the only laudable thing for a woman to make or to be is a sexualized object, on display, for the male viewer. Yet again, the point was that I was looking at a woman. She was skinny, white, fashionably lacking in clothing, so I’m recognizing her as “ATTRACTIVE.” Here I am, looking at an attractive woman, and she is art; the pleasure is in looking at her. I am supposed to derive some satisfaction from looking at a giant white stripper eternally circling her pole. Certainly the men in the sculpture gallery with me were satisfied with the object they were viewing. They saw a woman the way they wanted and expected to see a woman: as a sexualized object. And they were smiling and chuckling to themselves. I hated them. And I hated the piece, entitled “Seconds in Ecstasy,” the product of the Swedish sculptor Casja von Zeipel.  All she makes are these skinny white foam women and more rarely men, sometimes a stiletto boot off on its own. My mother and I saw another sculpture of hers outside a department store: white woman, high heels, leather jacket, underwear, holding up the store like Atlas holding up the globe, sort of the embodiment of the seas of young women destined to enter the store to buy high heels and underwear seeking to become beautiful to the eye of whoever until the death of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Continue reading “Tell Me What I’m Looking At: “Seconds in Ecstasy””