“One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius;”, wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex; “and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.”
Of course, the fact that the book, and its author, are much better known for the other quote on processual/relational ontology – “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” – is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the first. A statement about geniuses cannot be a statement about women. A woman writing about geniuses must, in fact, be writing about women. And because women cannot be geniuses, she cannot be writing about geniuses. Nor can she be one herself.
I saw Tár, Todd Field’s lauded drama about the (fictional) first woman conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, earlier this year (most of this blog post was written before the Oscars and reviews). There were many reasons why I was poised to love it: the plot/premise, the scenario, the music (obviously), the visuals (and let’s be honest, Kate Blanchett could probably play a Christmas tree and be brilliant). All the same, it ended up riling me for its unabashed exploitation of most stereotypes in the women x ambition box. Of course the lead character (Lydia Tár, played by Blanchett) is cold, narcissistic, and calculating; of course she is a lesbian; of course she is ruthless towards long-term collaborators and exploitative of junior assistants; of course she is dismissive of identity politics; and of course she is, also, a sexual predator. What we perceive in this equation is that a woman who desires – and attains – power will inevitably end up reproducing exactly the behaviours that define men in those roles, down to the very stereotype of Weinstein-like ogre. What is it that makes directors not be able to imagine a woman with a modicum of talent, determination, or (shhh) ambition as anything other than a monster – or alternatively, as a man, and thus by definition a ‘monster’?
To be fair, this movement only repeats what institutions tend to do with women geniuses: they typecast them; make sure that their contributions are strictly domained; and penalize those who depart from the boundaries of prescribed stereotypical ‘feminine’ behaviour (fickle, insecure, borderline ‘hysterical’; or soft, motherly, caring; or ‘girlbossing’ in a way that combines the volume of the first with the protective urges of the second). Often, like in Tár, by literally dragging them off the stage.
The sad thing is that it does not have to be this way. The opening scene of Tár is a stark contrast with the closing one in this regard. In the opening scene, a (staged) interview with Adam Gopnik, Lydia Tár takes the stage in a way that resists, refuses, and downplays gendered stereotypes. Her demeanor is neither masculine nor feminine; her authority is not negotiated, forced to prove itself, endlessly demonstrated. She handles the interview with an equanimity that does not try to impress, convince, cajole, or amuse; but also not charm, outwit, or patronize. In fact, she does not try at all. She approaches the interviewer from a position of intellectual equality, a position that, in my experience, relatively few men can comfortably handle. But of course, this has to turn out to be a pretense. There is no way to exist as a woman in the competitive world of classical music – or, for that matter, anywhere else – without paying heed to the gendered stereotypes.
A particularly poignant (and, I thought, very successful) depiction of this is in the audition scene, in which Olga – the cellist whose career Tár will help and who will eventually become the object of her predation – plays behind a screen. Screening off performers during auditions (‘blind auditions’) was, by the way, initially introduced to challenge gender bias in hiring musicians to major orchestras – to resounding (sorry) success, making it 50% more likely women would be hired. But Tár recognizes the cellist by her shoes (quite stereotypically feminine shoes, by the way). The implication is that even ‘blind’ auditions are not really blind. You can be either a ‘woman’ (like Olga, young, bold, straight, and feminine); or a ‘man’ (like Lydia, masculine, lesbian, and without scruples). There is no outside, and there is no without.
As entertaining as it is to engage in cultural criticism of stereotypical gendered depiction in cinemas, one question from Tár remains. Is there a way to perform authority and expertise in a gender-neutral way? If so, what would it be?
People often tell me I perform authority in a distinctly non-(stereotypically)-feminine way; this both is and is not a surprise. It is a surprise because I am still occasionally shocked by the degree to which intellectual environments in the UK, and in particular those that are traditionally academic, are structurally, relationally, and casually misogynist, even in contexts supposedly explicitly designed to counter it. It is not a surprise, on the other hand, as I was raised by women who did not desire to please and men who were more than comfortable with women’s intellects, but also, I think, because the education system I grew up in had no problems accepting and integrating these intellects. I attribute this to the competitive streak of Communist education – after all, the Soviets sent the first woman into space. But being (at the point of conception, not reception, sadly) bereft of gendered constraints when it comes to intellect does not solve the other part of the equation. If power is also, always, violence, is there a way to perform power that does not ultimately involve hurting others?
This, I think, is the challenge that any woman – or, for that matter, anyone in a position of power who does not automatically benefit from male privilege – must consider. As Dr Autumn Asher BlackDeer brilliantly summarized it recently, decolonization (or any other kind of diversification) is not about replacing one set of oppressors with another, so having more diverse oppressors. Yet, all too frequently, this kind of work – willingly or not – becomes appropriated and used in exactly these ways.
Working in institutions of knowledge production, and especially working both on and within multiple intersecting structures of oppression – gender, ethnicity/race, ability, nationality, class, you name it – makes these challenges, for me, present on a daily basis in both theoretical and practical work., One of the things I try to teach my students is that, in situations of injustice, it is all too appealing to react to perceived slight or offence by turning it inside out, by perpetuating violence in turn. If we are wronged, it becomes easy to attribute blame and mete out punishment. But real intellectual fortitude lies in resisting this impulse. Not in some meek turning-the-other-cheek kind of way, but in realizing that handing down violence will only, ever, perpetuate the cycle of violence. It is breaking – or, failing that, breaking out of – this cycle we must work towards.
As we do, however, we are faced with another kind of problem. This is something Lauren Berlant explicitly addressed in one of their best texts ever, Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy: most people in and around institutions of knowledge production find authority appealing. This, of course, does not mean that all intellectual authority lends itself automatically to objectification (on either of the sides), but it does and will happen. Some of this, I think, is very comprehensively addressed in Amia Srinivasan‘s The Right to Sex; some of it is usefully dispensed with by Berlant, who argues against seeing pedagogical relations as indexical for transference (or the other way around?). But, as important as these insights are, questions of knowledge – and thus questions of authority – are not limited to questions of pedagogy. Rather, they are related to the very relational nature of knowledge production itself.
For any woman who is an intellectual, then, the challenge rests in walking the very thin line between seduction and reduction – that is, the degree to which intellectual work (an argument, a book, a work of art) has to seduce, but in turn risks being reduced to an act of seduction (the more successful it is, the more likely this will happen). Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, which I’m reading at the moment (shout out to Phlox Books in London where I bought it), is a case in point. Despentes argues against reducing women’s voices to ‘experience’, or to women as epistemic object (well, OK, the latter formulation is mine). Yet, in the reception of the book, it is often Despentes herself – her clothes, her mannerisms, her history, her sexuality – that takes centre stage.
Come to think of it, this version of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ applies to all women’s performances: how many times have I heard people say they find, for instance, Judith Butler’s or Lauren Berlant’s arguments or language “too complex” or “too difficult”, but on occasions when they do make an effort to engage with them reduce them to being “about gender” or “about sexuality” (hardly warrants mentioning that the same people are likely to diligently plod through Heidegger, Sartre or Foucault without batting an eyelid and, speaking of sexuality, without reducing Foucault’s work on power to it). The implication, of course, is that writers or thinkers who are not men have the obligation to persuade, to enchant readers/consumers into thinking their argument is worth giving time to.
This is something I’ve often observed in how people relate to the arguments of women and nonbinary intellectuals: “They did not manage to convince me” or “Well, let’s see if she can get away with it”. The problem is not just the casualized use of pronouns (note how men thinkers retain their proper names: Sartre, Foucault, but women slip into being a “she”). It’s the expectation that it is their (her) job to convince you, to lure you. Because, of course, your time is more valuable than hers, and of course, there are all these other men you would/should be reading instead, so why bother? It is not the slightest bit surprising that this kind of intellectual habit lends itself too easily to epistemic positioning that leads to epistemic erasure, but also that it becomes all too easily perpetuated by everyone, including those who claim to care about such things.
One of the things I hope I managed to convey in the Ethics of Ambiguity reading group I ran at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023 is to not read intellectuals who are not white men in this way. To not sit back with your arms folded and let “her” convince you. Simone Weil, another genius – and a woman – wrote that attention is the primary quality of love we can give to each other. The quality of intellectual attention we give to pieces we read has to be the same to count as anything but a narrow, self-aggrandizing gesture. In other words, a commitment to equality means nothing without a commitment to equality of intellectual attention, and a constant practice and reflection required to sustain and improve it.
Enjoyed this? Try https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00113921211057609