Bemused, Bothered, and Bewildered
About 10 years ago, a movie called Bright Star came out. It’s the story of Fanny Brawne, muse of poet John Keats, and it sounds quite lovely. I never had the chance to watch it, but I’ve thought of it a time or two in the decade since not because of the movie itself but because of a small controversy its release triggered that I read about at the time.
Can a man be a muse for a female artist?
Ten years on I’m pleased to think this is an obviously DUH question that would be met with an enthusiastically positive response, but back in 2009 there was still some debate about the issue. In several articles I read, it was claimed that men may be mentor, protege, perhaps inspiration to a female artist, but a muse, never, because of inherent gender-based qualities that men have and women lack. I’ve been having a tough time relocating the needle of these specific articles I recall in the haystack of the Internet; gone perhaps or secreted away behind paywalls now, so we’ll have to rely on my memory. Luckily they got burned in there due to my extreme frustration upon reading them.
The nearest hit I found was an article about a different movie The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens’ muse Nelly Ternan, so it will have to suffice. Germaine Greer also waxed poetic about the muse as specifically female in the pages of The Guardian very much in a similar tone to the articles I recall reading about Bright Star. You kinda get the gist.
Muses, as I’m sure you’re already aware, originally were the nine daughters of Zeus and Memory and served as artistic inspiration for artists, who back in the Greeks’ day were mostly dudes. Since artists have remained mostly dudes ever since, the concept of muse-as-female has endured, except for the occasional gay man. The idea that a female artist might desire a male muse for inspiration was considered laughable. The poet Robert Graves, a man obsessed with the concept of muses, emphatically insisted a female artist must serve as her own muse because muses simply had to be female, and he didn’t mean that in any way as a compliment.
Muses had to possess feminine qualities, it was and still is said by some, because there is a fundamental passivity to being a muse and men aren’t good at being passive. As Graves said, “Man does, woman is.” A woman exists, and a man creates art celebrating her, oh I don’t know, standing around looking hot, I guess. To men like Robert Graves, a male muse inspiring a female artist is upside down and inside out, a biological impossibility. Pigs could sooner fly than a man serve as muse to a woman. The handful of masculine muses history has allowed for were either famous in their own right and/or are very controlling, even domineering, such as Diego Rivera with his 20 years’ younger wife Frida Kahlo and her art – to give one of several examples of the dynamic.
For a woman to be a muse, you see, she has to be meek, mild, passive, and just this side of a non-entity so as not to ever interfere with the male artist’s chosen course of action involving her. (see also: Pygmalion) She serves as a hollow/malleable physical form for the man to fill or shape however he sees fit. For a man to be considered a muse, apparently, he must be brash, arrogant, superior to his female counterpart in every way, and run a female artist’s life for her because she is still a hollow/malleable physical form for a man to fill or shape however he sees fit. If she is a muse, her purpose is to inspire art. If she is an artist, her purpose is to create art. The man’s purpose is to tell the woman what her purpose is.
I’m sensing a familiar theme here.
As I’ve pondered the muse, I have begun to wonder if artistic men and their empty-vessel-muses is the unpleasant flipside of women and our preference for empty-vessel protagonists in romance novels.* As I’ve said in the past I believe women prefer fairly bland unremarkable protagonists in romance novels because we want to believe in a world in which you don’t have to be super impressively perfect every minute of every day for a man to think you’re the creme de la creme. Could it be that male artists prefer bland, unremarkable muses so they can believe in a woman who IS super impressively perfect and celebrate her flawless delicious creaminess even if it only exists in the confines of a man’s own mind? If a muse is meant to be an idealized, largely imaginary woman the best way to keep her that way is to never give her the opportunity to disappoint. Keats conveniently died before Fanny Brawne could show her true colors, but what of the others – those merely mortal girls so unlucky they happened to catch an artist’s discriminating eye and temporary interest? The way male artists so often sleep with and then immediately reject their muses seems to prove my supposition – once the muse’s “sanitized for your protection” wrapper has been breached and the ideal has become the real, she’s gotta go. Because holy hell, she totally has warts and all.
But this isn’t an article in which we all ponder the complexities of male psychology and how best we ladies can meet their precious sexual needs. This is an article about men as pieces of meat, as personality-less studs that we as female artists can imbue with whatever qualities WE prefer for a freaking change. Can they be? Turnabout is fair play, after all; why shouldn’t female artists be just as creeptastically objectifying as male ones? Why is it, exactly, that female artists are not more vocal about their male muses?
Because we absolutely DO have them.
I think the first, and most obvious reason is embarrassment.
Writing, even when you’re being very careful not to and I for one am never very careful not to anything, is tantamount to giving total strangers, and worse, close personal friends, the equivalent of a picture window into your head. And women are socialized from day one – without even getting into the innate stuff – to never ever EVER confess to being sexual creatures in any but the most socially accepted ways. There is a ginormous element of sexual weirdness involved in having a muse – even when there is nothing sexual or even romantic about what you’re writing!! – and men seem way more comfy embracing…even flaunting, their sexual weirdness than women are.
I mean seriously, can you even imagine being Woody Allen? Marries his 19-year-old stepdaughter (let alone anything else untoward which may have occurred) and goes right on churning out movies where an old dude lusts after a super young woman. If it were me I would be living in a closet compulsively Googling “can u die of shame” not out there begging money from Amazon to give the world more of the same.
And of course women writers are way more prone to being criticized over presumed psychological flaws, particularly sexual ones, then male writers are to begin with. Shari Lewis writes a Star Trek 50 plus years ago and still gets people saying “Lulz that chick totally wanted to do Scotty!” Is it any wonder none of us are exactly volunteering to tell the world about how totally cute our muse is?
But back to business, the second reason I think women artists keep their muses hush-hush I think is even more worthy of discussion. Jen Mediano recently wrote about her experience with male muses (if you read one link in this piece, please make it this one, it’s both insightful and fun) and she pointed out something that hit me like a bitchslap of total self-recognition upside the head. Mediano writes: “…my muse pushed me off my own bed and resumed lounging and looking at his phone. Who dreams about rejection? I do.”
I do, too. I have literally never had like, you know, a certain kind of dream ifunowhatimtalkinbout featuring a hot male celebrity. A successful dream, anyway, like one where anything fun happened and I walked away feeling good about myself. Whenever my brain goes there, and hey I’m only human, the guy in question invariably rejects me. Usually in exacting, gutwrenching detail. IN MY OWN DREAM. In the sanctity of my subconscious mind, a zone that I cannot control but I should be safe in, I’m told I’m not good enough for a scrap of pretend affection to be given to me by a man I happen to find attractive and who I am actually hallucinating.
Rejected by one’s own muse, is there anything more demoralizing than that?
Caught between public humiliation and private rejection, is it any wonder we keep our muses close to our vest? But the thing of it is, having a muse HELPS. That’s why male artists are so emphatic about the necessity of them – muses really do elevate the creative game. It makes you, well, me anyway, a better writer to put a face to a name, even if it’s a face I already have originally associated with some other name. My muses help me focus, they inspire me, they help me “hear” what my characters are saying. A muse turns the idea of a person into a tangible, if pretend person in my head. Having a muse means there’s one less thing for me to have to create which then frees me up to create lots of other things.
If it happens to be attached to a hunk of beefcake, so be it.
I’m sure this seems like an odd thing for an old married lady to write about. Over the past several months as I’ve written a lot about entertainment and feminism and the juncture between them, I keep observing women lecturing men about behaving badly, yet many women are not quite willing to lay it on the line and push the envelope in terms of challenging our own norms of behavior. Not telling men what to do and what not to do, but changing how we ourselves behave and expect other women to behave. We still insist upon acting like “ladies” (whatever the hell that means) because we don’t want anyone to think less of us – understandable, trust me, this is actually really very not easy for me to write about at all. But when we refuse to challenge sexist norms ourselves, holding ourselves above the fray even while demanding men like totally change or else, we give tacit approval to a double standard where boys will still be boys and women are either Madonnas or whores rather than fully actualized human beings. If we hide away those parts of ourselves, even FROM ourselves, out of embarrassment, out of a fear of people thinking we’re weird or slutty, we maintain that Victorian illusion that we aren’t sexual creatures in a good number of the same ways men are sexual creatures. Even if we say “these rules are bullsh--t”, if we keep enforcing them for ourselves and for others, we can’t ever expect anything to change.
So hey, you heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, women have male muses, and I don’t mean some bossy-ass man who “manages” their artistic careers and “lets them” create, but actual, real live muses in the truest sense of the word. Women have muses, Greek style. Men whose physical bodies, not their charming personalities, inspire our art and creativity. After all, if it’s ok for men to objectify beautiful girls, go turn them into objets d’art and even take pride in doing so, if it’s ok for male artists to elevate that concept of “The Muse” as a noble and glorious source of artistic inspiration surely it’s ok for women to do too.
This is the part where you say “hell yeah” and don’t leave me hanging out here all by myself alone with my imaginary friends.
*Fun aside, Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight books, claims that the band Muse was indeed her muse during the writing of the series. My copy of Twilight: New Moon actually came with a Muse CD in plastic wrap on the inner cover.
Photo by kmgsquidoo