Women have always been depicted as deceptively innocent fair maidens masking nefarious agendas or evil shrews disguised as kindly old ladies. The song of the siren was a warning about dangerous female power and Snow White and Rapunzel featured bitter aging women who would do anything to be young again (because what else is her life worth without youth and innocence?) Rosemary’s baby was about an ugliness inside, growing lurking, waiting to get out.
I googled the term “glistening malice” which I saw used in a review of a book of poetry and discovered a movie trailer of a critically-acclaimed movie by Ken Russell based on a book by D.H. Lawrence. In it, women were shrieking in hysteria with a male voiceover describing reasonable fulfilled men and passion starved unhinged women. At the end of the trailer ran quotes of glowing critical praise of this ‘magnificent piece of art’. The clip was so lurid and preposterous it seemed like a bad SNL skit as one commenter mentioned.
Then I saw the Brittany documentary and I realize how complicit I’d been in the narrative of crazy Brittany. Seeing Ed McMahon asking to be her boyfriend on live television was not just icky. It was televised pedophiliac abuse of a little girl who was there to sing a song.
We’re all to blame for sneering at Paris, Kim, Lindsey, and so on but we also accepted the world adults handed to us and internalize as little girls. As young women, it eased the pain to point to another woman and remove the gaze from ourselves.
When I don’t have a man in my life, there’s a palpable relief that I feel in my every day existence. It’s nice to be free from that heavy male gaze. I get nervous driving with men. I get nervous making decisions with men. I get nervous parenting with men. I ask myself, Am I too strong? Too confident? Too hesitant? Too dreamy?
For years Britney had to navigate that. And us. And me. And you. Thinking oh crazy dumb Brittany. Calm, reasonable shit-together Justin.
Meanwhile, Ed MacMahon, with his crinkly eyes and a face, described in his NYTimes obituary as having the ‘genial, regular-guy features’ of an ‘affable’ man, and countless others, were never under any such scrutiny. He was a beloved host. End of story. Like the documentary pointed out, there’s a whole structure ready to support the abuse of women.
When I was 21, my father’s friend had a loud nightlife restaurant on the Upper East Side. I knew it would be lucrative for me to get a job there at 21 because the patrons were all wealthy but I was told no because ‘I’d never let the men grab my ass’ and that was part of the job. I saw it happen so I knew he was right. OJ was a regular there. Models draped over hedge fund managers and media execs. It depressed me but I knew he had a point; I would definitely not deal well with that, and I guess I’d have to live with being ‘feisty’ and never get those glamorous hostess jobs.
We were taught that the fair maiden mask should never fall and if it did, you’d have a pile of tinder waiting to ignite your reputation. As recently as 2009. Jeez.
We’ve come a long way, but what the Brittney documentary illuminated for me was the ways in which we’ve been our own worst enemy. We still question women’s accomplishments more than men. Men still get to just make shit up and be considered serious and knowledgeable. Women still don’t truly embrace wrinkles, ‘mom bod’ (what’s that??), and our deep hard-won skills and intellectual prowess, but that’s definitely changing. We took a big forkful of shit off the table when we indicted Weinstein and Cosby (though Russell Simmons and many others slipped through our fingers), but it’s not just the out-and-out rapists we have to watch out for. There are several gradations down to the way we discredit women, including ourselves.
Through all that’s happened in the past few years, I think we are actually turning a corner , beyond lip service and ‘girl power’. I think we are lifting up other women and reframing the value narrative bit by bit.
Imagine what it will be like when we never scrutinize the body of a female celebrity or attack her choices or question her success? I think it will transform trust and confidence, not just for us as women in ourselves and others, but for the men in our lives who will benefit from a higher standard of understanding, acceptance, and appreciation where the male gaze evolves to something a lot less punitive and one-dimensional and one less fearful of a so-called demon witch lurking underneath our mysterious cloaks.