We Shouldn't Ask Art to Be Emblematic of the #MeToo Movement

We Shouldn't Ask Art to Be Emblematic of the #MeToo Movement
Illustration:Elena Scotti

In reviews of its second season, Jessica Jones was declared the “superhero TV show” for the #MeToo movement. Blockers, a raunchy sex comedy about teenage girls losing their virginities on prom night, was christened the perfect comedy for the #MeToo era. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, despite being produced, written, and directed entirely by men, is supposedly the rape vigilante “film we need right now,” in the Times Up and #MeToo era. The Post resonates in the #MeToo movement, but so does Fifty Shades Freed, and a movie like 9 to 5—which was already about women fighting office sexism—will be remade “for the #MeToo era.” Consensus suddenly says a movie is either post-#MeToo, or it’s pre-#MeToo.

Since 2006, when Tarana Burke created #MeToo, the hashtag has turned into an activist-driven movement, under which women, men, and other marginalized genders share their experiences of sexual abuse, and wider media outlets uncover assault and harassment. Lawyers set up legal funds for women seeking justice, and actors dedicate their platforms to victims across industries. It’s also become typical to see works of art received as more significant in this so-called #MeToo era.

But to cast a film or a piece of art as specifically pertinent to #MeToo speaks to a long sexist tradition: the idea that women’s art is valuable insomuch as it’s about tidy realizations of women’s trauma. To suggest that art that involves rape or sexual abuse is relevant, all of a sudden, seems to fundamentally misunderstand the weight and power of a movement like #MeToo, which is largely concerned with excavating and revealing hidden abuses of the past that were rarely talked about or valued out loud. The tendency toward classifying art as newly pertinent—whether in promotions of the movies or in reviews that fall for the marketing bait—makes clear that people haven’t been paying attention to the reality of women’s lives.

The tendency toward classifying art as newly pertinent…makes clear that people haven’t been paying attention to the reality of women’s lives.

To slap movies with a #MeToo seal of approval, if there can even be one, is to also say that Fifty Shades Freed is predominantly about ethical consent, or that Three Billboards is profound simply because its main storyline is about rape (never mind the fact that its lead dead girl gets barely any screen time.) The label, wielded by women and men critics, imbues movies with a sense of political resonance they don’t necessarily warrant, especially considering that older movies and shows that dealt with these topics have existed long before #MeToo started taking form.

The question isn’t whether or not art about women’s experiences can be about rape and assault, but rather why those narratives are so often fetishized, particularly now, when the public conversation can be used as a backdrop. And why do artistic institutions search constantly for ways to validate women’s stories through violence and trauma? Women filmmakers, showrunners, artists, and writers, deserve more than a world that only sees their creative contributions as noteworthy if they’re centered around suffering.

There’s also the issue of defining what it even means for a piece of entertainment to be emblematic of something as far-reaching as #MeToo. As my colleague Clover Hope wrote in her review of The Tale, a movie saddled with the descriptor of being “perfect” for #MeToo by several critics: “Defining The Tale in our ‘#MeToo’ terms seems limiting, and turns the human character and her story into a convenient representation. That the movie was made before this moment underscores how deep and present the problem of sexual abuse has always been, in and around our vision.”

#MeToo’s on-screen history is far older than the past few months.

#MeToo is a moment only to some. Stories about women’s sexual trauma have not just long existed in movies—they’ve been oddly celebrated and held up as the prestige stories to aspire to. In a 2018 survey of the roles for which women win Oscars, compared to those won by men, the Tampa Bay Times found an unsurprising pattern: men often get to be heroes who overcome adversity, while women are often sexual objects or victims who suffer emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from men.

This leaves the award-winning, canonical roles of women outside of current #MeToo discussions—think Jodie Foster in The Accused, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight—in an awkward cultural space. Should any of these performances have appeared in theaters this year, they would no doubt have been defined as speaking directly to the ongoing conversation of #MeToo. That they came out when they did (1988, 2013, and 1944, respectively) and were each a reflection on the various levels of abuse women have suffered for centuries, makes the argument that movies about abuse are coming directly out of #MeToo a much less persuasive one. Though critics may be more aware of the prevalence and importance of sexual assault in film in the midst of #MeToo, we can’t convincingly pretend we’re seeing movies now that are the first of their kind.

A pattern is clear in the ways onscreen narratives for women are constructed. How often are canonically strong, ass-kicking “heroic” women in film, from Beatrix Kiddo to Lisbeth Salander to Daenerys Targaryen, defined by a past of violence or rape? “Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old,” Leslie Jamison wrote of our cultural obsession with “wounded women,” in her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” “We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.”

The lens through which many people, critics and historians, have seen women’s art—which could also be styled as art by women—as important reflects how it mines women’s sexual trauma and pain for drama and insight. It’s a lens that hearkens back to the ways in which art historians have reframed the work of women for a contemporary time period. In the 1970s, when Linda Nochlin asked the art world where all the “great” women artists were, feminist art history was born. Artists and historians turned to the overlooked women of the past and pulled them out of the shadows, analyzing their work in the context of a new feminist present which sought to define and celebrate quintessential “female” experiences (which were so often grounded in the body.)

That so much criticism of women’s art has focused on the trauma which may or may not have informed it is to subtly imply that meaningful art is something which happens to women, rather than something they create.

This is why, for decades, the actual work of Artemisia Gentileschi, a dark, Baroque painter of the 17th Century, following in the footsteps of Caravaggio, was overshadowed by her highly publicized rape. Suddenly, a painting like Judith Slaying Holofernes took on a more biographical meaning—or so art feminist historians argued. Her violent paintings were no longer just depictions of Biblical stories and parables, but art of revenge. Though, the same could not be said for her male counterparts who painted similarly gruesome scenes. Even women artists like Eva Hesse, the post-minimalist sculptor of the 1960s who said little of the meaning behind her latex and rubber sculptures, had to resist classifications of her work as feminist during her short lifetime, as well as any connection to her personal historical trauma related to fleeing Nazi Germany as a child.

Frida Kahlo’s life story, which included intense physical trauma as the result of a bus accident, as well as a lifelong struggle with infertility, can often be overemphasized in critical revisitations of her work which began in that same ’70s feminist moment. Kahlo’s self-portraits came to be seen as literally diaristic in ways which flattened the political intensity of her paintings, which were more than just reflections on her personal suffering but also her existence as a Mexican woman and a Communist. “The psychological reductionism that equates the bloody, brutal imagery in Kahlo’s work with a desire to ‘paint away’ her accident, suffering, and pain does little justice to her work,” historian Janice Helland once argued in her essay on Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo.

That so much criticism of women’s art has focused on the trauma which may or may not have informed it is to subtly imply that meaningful art is something which happens to women, rather than something they create. It’s convenient, as well, to connect one woman’s story to a larger movement—one Gentileschi painting somehow becomes a symbol for collective female rage, and one film character’s performance becomes a poster woman for assault victims simply because it came out in 2018—and that as well paints women’s art as passive.

It’s a double-edged sword: you want stories about sexual trauma and the interiority of women’s lives to be celebrated in film, in art—and for life experiences to be rightfully reflected—but you don’t want it to necessarily be the subject matter that defines women’s art and erases the totality of our being. Just as suggesting that one work of art is representative of women’s experiences is ridiculous, so is the suggestion that one work of art can be representative of the #MeToo movement. A movie can be powerful, a character can be powerful, without carrying the entire weight of #MeToo.

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