Jane Greenway Carr: In 1929, Virginia Woolf imagined Judith Shakespeare to show readers the power of asking "what if"
As more and more of us join in this reckoning with gender, sex, power and violence, we must ask "what if" again, she writes
What if the growing list of men accused of sexual harassment and abuse were not also an unholy brotherhood of power brokers and masters of artistic genius? The cavalcade that began with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. and seems as yet unstoppable in its inclusion of Al Franken and critics and curators and culture journalists such as Leon Wieseltier, Hamilton Fish, Knight Landesman, Benjamin Genocchio and now Charlie Rose has, among many other things, delivered America a sucker punch to the gut of its cultural taste.
As executives who pulled “I Love You, Daddy” and drafted Christopher Plummer as a stand-in for Kevin Spacey, and weigh the fates of “House of Cards” and “Transparent” know, it’s one thing to know in your mind that anyone could turn out to be a sexual predator or a survivor – it’s quite another to sit in the dark of a theater or on your sofa alone and imagine it (while paying for the privilege).
Leading editors, journalists, literary names and scholars, in their own right and in their own worlds, hold the same kind of power as Harvey Weinstein and other implicated celebrities did – to manipulate, to gaslight, to torment and ultimately to blacklist striving freelance writers, artists and graduate students.
Asking “what if” in situations like this can be powerful. Just ask Virginia Woolf.
“Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.”
So wrote Woolf in her landmark 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” Assigned to countless students, the work has become shorthand for literary feminism, a cultural bedrock of the determination that there would and could be, and perhaps have been already, great women artists.
In Woolf’s rendering, Judith Shakespeare was rewarded for her ambition and desire not to marry with beatings from her father. Worse, and perhaps more to the point in our modern times, he assaulted her emotionally by pleading with her not to shame him with her refusal to submit to the normal order of things, or, in other words, patriarchy.
The implication is clear: if Shakespeare had been named Judith and not William, there would be no Henrys, no Tempest, no King Lear.
Yet we can’t change the past, the devil’s advocate in us says. So why even try?
Because “what if” is the right question to ask in our current moment. It’s the one that shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” put forward – what if the worst-case endgame of society’s misogyny came to pass? It’s the question that acclaimed novels such as Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” are asking: What if one day, women’s bodies became weapons, if men were the ones who had to worry about being violated?
Culture – the places where we tell our stories, real and imagined – is where these questions must be asked. The rub of it is that cultural institutions foster a supposed meritocracy of intellect, creativity and talent, but, curiously, men are still always at the very top of the game – the film directors who win awards, the professors who get named chairs, the head curators, the publishers.
Women abound, some in positions of power, and yet, somehow the social informality of the boys’ club is too often still the currency of mentorship, of opportunity, of getting ahead, of going along. The casting couch, the hotel-room job interview at the academic conference where the only place to sit is the bed, the pitch meeting over drinks in a bar too dark to see his hands. What if her name had been Harriet Weinstein instead?
We know too often what happens to the lives of women shadowed by the specter of a powerful man’s self-entitlement or violent desire. They stay silent, drop out, move on – for the sake of colleagues whose work they do not wish to mar with scandal or out of self-preservation to avoid having their lives torn wider than the dress he may have ripped. To save themselves, they depart the field of endeavor – be it Capitol Hill, Hollywood, a publishing house, a magazine or news outlet, or the university.
And that’s if they’re lucky. If they are unlucky, they find the field padlocked or set ablaze to intimidate them into submission to the existing structures of power. Worse, some attempt to hold them in thrall to the “greater good.”
Please, implored Shakespeare Senior in Woolf’s essay, do not break my heart by thinking of yourself. Put another way and in another century, please, ask admirers of the work of Brett Ratner or Louis C.K. or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski (or all the rest of them still yet to be named), do not rob me of the joy of this man’s art by telling me your truth. I beg of you, do not disrupt the art of these great men or the pleasure I take in it with the inconvenient details of your life.
The depression, self-harm, substance abuse and professional ruin that comprise the psychological fallout of sexual violation are a tragedy, full stop. But when it comes to makers or interpreters of culture, I agree with Caroline Framke, who recently argued that true loss in the fall of “great men” from grace is the work never made by their victims. Amanda Hess put a fine point on it when she wrote, “Men like Louis C.K. may be creators of art, but they are also destroyers of it.”
I weep for any laughs that went unlaughed by fans of the likes of comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who told The New York Times they were “paralyzed” when Louis C.K. began to masturbate in front of them without their consent. I rage for the thwarted luminosity of Annabella Sciorra, who feared retribution to such an extent that she initially withheld her story about Harvey Weinstein from journalist Ronan Farrow.
But I want to take it further: include all the unwritten essays and poems, the reporting left dormant, the exhibitions unstaged or scholarship unresearched, novels festering incomplete on the page as the direct result of the unwanted advances, innuendo in the air like rotten fruit, sexual violence implied or in some cases done outright. Then think about all that creativity and enterprise interrupted, repeating itself generation after generation. That’s where we are right now. The losses multiply.
Woolf, and some who came before her, and likewise her progeny – from the recently departed Linda Nochlin to Audre Lorde to bell hooks and Maggie Nelson and others – altered the landscape for women creators in part by attempting to offer an accounting of that very loss.
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What if. It permeates our past and present, our classrooms and our culture. What if we did not brand our women and girls with ambition’s Scarlet A for wanting to make great art, or for that matter, wanting to be president? Would it matter?
As more and more of us join in this reckoning with gender, sex, power and violence, there is one refrain that must be shouted louder: that it is deeply sexist to insist on the divide between art and life, to cling to the work of “great men” if you do not also acknowledge that the same divide, working in reverse, stymies the creation of great art, transformative criticism, and groundbreaking imagination by women.