Ghosts of Harvard

Like every good heroine these days, Cadence “Cady” Archer in Francesca Serritella’s Ghosts of Harvard is on a social mission, one driven, in her case, by the desire to understand why her brother Eric committed suicide. True, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but Cady feels sure that there were other forces in play—people who might have pushed him, literally or figuratively, over the edge.  Like her parents, Cady is guilt-ridden, tormented by the thought that her brother’s suicide could have been prevented. Newly arrived at Harvard as a freshman, she begins her detective work, piecing together the story of her brother’s death in an effort to begin the process of healing, for herself and for her parents.

Cady has her own demons, and they manifest themselves as a trio of disembodied voices from Harvard’s past: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who graduated from Harvard in 1925 and went on to become the “father” of the atomic bomb; Bilhah, an enslaved woman who died in 1765 while “in service” at the residence of Harvard’s president; and finally an undergraduate named “Whit,” who longs to participate in the war effort as an aviator. Deftly woven into the narrative arc of Cady’s search for answers about her brother, these three figures take on a life of their own, reminding us that every tragic event in the history of institutions like Harvard is entangled in a web of narratives, some known, some forgotten, and some calling out to be told for the first time.

At a service commemorating the lives of Bilhah and three other enslaved people who had labored at Harvard, President Drew Faust noted that “the past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” And John Lewis reminded those present for the affixing of a plaque on Harvard’s Wadsworth House in honor of Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba that, as a nation, we have tried to “wipe out every trace of slavery from America’s memory, hoping that the legacy of a great moral wrong will be lost forever in a sea of forgetfulness.”

Heroines from times past used words and stories to repair the fraying edges of the social fabric as well as to mend, heal, and make whole. The auditory hallucinations that haunt Cady are both a disturbing sign of possible derangement but also a genius way of channeling voices from the past, retrieving their stories from Lewis’s sea of forgetfulness. In her poem, “i am accused of tending to the past . . . ,” Lucille Clifton told us how “the past was waiting for me / when I came” and how “the faces, names, and dates” of History, once nurtured, become “strong enough to travel” on their own. In Ghosts of Harvard, they do just that, waking us up and reminding us that there is value in tending to the past.

Double Trouble: Medusa and Embodied Paradoxes


Medusa’s name derives from the Ancient Greek Μέδουσα, which means “guardian” or “protector,” and yet, in a stroke of tragic irony, Medusa was unable to shield herself from harm. She ended up first as a literal shield for Perseus, who used her decapitated head to petrify adversaries, then on the shield of Athena, the goddess who had betrayed her. Ovid tells us in the Metamorphoses that Medusa was once a beautiful young woman with stunning tresses. She had the misfortune of catching the eye of Poseidon, who raped her in sacred precincts, desecrating a temple built to honor Athena. The enraged goddess took out her anger, not on Poseidon but on the victim, turning Medusa into a monster with the power to petrify anyone who beholds her face and venomous locks.

It is worth going back to Ovid as a stark reminder of just how blind we have been to the facts of Medusa’s origin story (or at least in the canonical version told by the Roman poet):

She was very lovely once, the hope of many

An envious suitor, and of all her beauties

Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so

From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune

Found her and raped her, in Minervaʼs temple,

And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes

Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage

As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,

And even now, to frighten evil doers,

She carries on her breastplate metal vipers

To serve as awful warning of her vengeance. (IV, lines 774-803)

The backstory of a woman who is raped and demonized resonates powerfully with what we see in the headlines today. As Christobel Hastings writes in Vice, Ovid’s account reads less like an “ancient myth” than a “modern reality.”

How has Medusa resurfaced today? Not so much as a shining example of victim-blaming and punishment (no one bothers with her backstory, in part because they are so rivetted by her face), but as a monster who threatens to undermine the political and social order. Hillary Clinton, whose severed head was brandished as a trophy by a triumphant Trump in several campaign memes, was just one of many women politicians to get the Medusa treatment. Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Margaret Thatcher (“We’ve got to shoot her down,” the British pop band UB40 sang in “Madam Medusa”): their features have all been superimposed on Caravaggio’s snake-headed Medusa.

Why are we still talking about Medusa? Classics professors remind us that the most enduring legacy of Ancient Greece does not take the form of their democracy but of their belief system or mythology, which often guides our thinking in ways more powerful than biblical wisdom. Many children today grow up with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and graduate to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in high school. Like the familiar fairy tales from times past, Greek myths have migrated into the literary culture of childhood. Yet they also haunt the adult cultural imagination, and, as Mary Beard tells us: “More often than we may realize, and in sometimes shocking ways, we are still using Greek idioms to represent the idea of women.”

How do we account for the staying power of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, and all the other fantastic creatures of Ancient Greece? Athena, Zeus, Odysseus, Achilles, Circe, Arachne, and Medusa are as familiar to many of us as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Part of the answer turns on how Greek myths take up what the French anthropologist Claude-Lévi Strauss referred to as cultural contradictions—conflicting binary terms such as life/death, compassion/hostility, nature/civilization. Myth processes these contradictions in symbolic form, through metaphorical substitutions and forms of mediation that “resolve” the conflict, at least provisionally. Cooks, for example, operate as mediators between the “raw” (shorthand for nature) and the “cooked” (products of culture), transforming what is found in its natural state into something consumed by humans

Medusa, like many of her mythical cousins from the Minotaur to Medea, is an embodied paradox, with the name already controverting her fate. In this instance, nomen is not omen, but rather a retraction or negation of what has been enunciated in it. Medusa cannot protect herself and is instead weaponized by Perseus, who then passes on her gory head to serve as an emblem on Athena’s shield. It was Athena who transformed Medusa from a beauty into a monster, once again underlining that mortal woman’s status as a living paradox. In addition, Medusa herself is a grotesque hybrid of human/animal, tressed to kill, as it were.

Beyond the paradoxes of Medusa’s name and embodiment are the contradictory ways of reading her story. A victim of Poseidon’s assault, she becomes the target of a goddess’s wrath, while the sea-god remains free to engage in one dalliance after another. Is it perverse to think of her snaky appearance as a way of punishing the gaze of male predators, disabling them with her own deadly gaze? But then again, it is Perseus the man who immobilizes his enemies with the severed head of Medusa. This is a story that challenges us to enter a dizzying funhouse that is also a hall of mirrors, one that exaggerates and distorts and gives us endlessly new perspectives on a seemingly simple story that is in fact the expression of complex thought.

Is it any wonder that Einstein told us to read fairy tales to children—that is, if we wanted to raise them to become intelligent. Like fairy tales, myths draw us into a universe that challenges us to make sense of what is nonsense and make-believe, yet always also deeply fundamental and foundational in the making of beliefs.

Time to Reboot Philanthropy








Talk the Talk: Philanthropy Vocabulary · Giving Compass

When I was writing The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, I thought long and hard about the cluster of words we use to describe our connection with those in pain. In our culture, we have enshrined “empathy” as our highest virtue, and it is a term used far more often than sympathy or compassion, with the one too muted and the other too fierce and all-consuming an emotion. The model of female heroism that emerged in the course of my research had nothing to do with a journey–women could only rarely respond to a call for adventure–but a set of traits that included curiosity, care, and, well, something like empathy or compassion, a form of being directed to others. It was only yesterday, when I looked at the word philanthropy and thought about its etymology, that I realized I had found my third attribute.

Philanthropy has gotten a bad name in the past year. Ever since the Varsity Blues scandal and our dawning awareness of how charitable trusts and donations have shielded the rich from paying taxes, philanthropy has become associated with the super-rich and their strategies for dodging paying their fair share to the IRS. Nearly a century ago, Bertolt Brecht captured the paradox at the heart of philanthropy when a worker in his play St. Joan of the Stockyards asks, in all innocence, about the men walking with the great “meat king and philanthropist” Pierpont Mauler. “Those are detectives,” is the answer. “They guard him so that no one will knock him down.”

The word philanthropy comes from Ancient Greek, a combination of phil- (love) and anthrōpos (humankind). In 1749, Fielding captured the meaning of the term in his novel Tom Jones, which records the “great and exquisite Delight” found in “parental and filial Affection, and indeed in general Philanthropy.” At the time the term was equated with “goodness” (one citation in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “dogoodery”) and the disposition to promote the happiness and well-being of others. Only in the last century has it come to denote generous donations for good causes.

Curiosity, care, and philanthropy–that’s now my trio of attributes for describing the features of heroines from times past, women who paid attention to injustices, cared enough about them to right wrongs, and understood the value of being directed towards others. They engaged in a form of what Martin Hägglund calls secular faith, a belief system that recognizes the fragility of life and seeks to mend, repair, heal, and secure justice.






From the Trojan princess Cassandra to the British Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra”

When I last read “Middlemarch,” I was a high-school senior, without much knowledge of Victorian culture. But I feel sure that Dorothea’s words and thoughts, as she surveys the marital home in which she will live, made a deep impression on me. Last night, I read the chapter in which Dorothea sinks into silence and feels some disappointment that there will be “nothing for her to do in Lowick.” She almost hopes for “a larger share of the world’s misery” in the parish where she will live, because that means she will have something to do.  “I have known so few ways of making my life good for anything.”

I could not help but think of Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra,” an essay in which the woman who would take over the management of a British military hospital during the Crimean War and save countless lives describes herself as “shrieking aloud in her agony,” not because of her ineffectual prophecies, but because of an “accumulation of nervous energy, which has nothing to do during the day.” Nightingale was tormented by the thought that “the inability to exercise ‘passion, intellect, and moral activity’ would doom British women of privilege to madness.”

It is worth recalling that Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was wooed by Apollo, who tried to win her over by promising her the gift of prophecy. There are many versions of the story, and the one told by Hyginus in his Fabulae, reports that Cassandra spurned Apollo’s advances (he approaches her while she is sleeping), and the god retaliated by turning his gift to her into a curse (in some versions by spitting in her mouth).

It was genius of Florence Nightingale to recognize how closely aligned Cassandra’s lack of credibility aligned with the plight of Victorian women.  Only a hundred pages now into Middlemarch, it becomes evident how Miss Brooke is never taken seriously and the target of constant condescension for her misguided aspirations to do some good in the world or to broaden her knowledge by trying to keep up with her husband’s broad reading. No surprise that the philanthropic efforts of women like Dorothea are mercilessly mocked by Charles Dickens through the figure of Mrs. Jellyby, with her “telescopic philanthropy” that is invested in charitable causes in Africa even as she neglects those in her domestic orbit.

“Middlemarch” captures the deep frustrations of privileged women with nothing to do, and George Eliot captured in fiction what Florence Nightingale described with such eloquence and passion in “Cassandra.” It’s fascinating to me that I grew up in a culture that saw heroism in Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Today, it’s old-fashioned to invoke their names and histories, but rediscovering them this past year left me in awe of what they accomplished in a world that was telling them to stay at home and have children.






Ashley’s Sack

Ashley’s Sack, an object handed down across three generations of Black women, tells a story about the beauty of courage and care and how women’s handicraft was deployed not just to adorn but to express feelings not found in the historical record. Here is what Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered on the seed sack given to her by her mother, when she was separated from her and sold at age 9. “It be filled with my love always.”

In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival - The New York Times

As Tiya Miles tells us, “the past seems to reach out to us” through this fabric. Before women and enslaved peoples had access to the instruments of writing, cloth became a medium for for preserving the “mythohistories” of entire groups. Ashley’s Sack reminds me of Philomela’s tapestry and other ancient story cloths that documented atrocities yet also revealed the fearlessness and love that could not be vanquished under the most oppressive circumstances. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich refers us to the “mnemonic power of things,” the evocative force of stories hitched to homespun or handmade everyday objects. “We have made art out of pain,” Miles writes, “sustaining our spirits with sunbursts of beauty, teaching ourselves how to rise the next day.”



Why are Justice and Revenge Represented as Women?

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma.jpg


How ironic that in times when women themselves never operated in legal systems and did not have access to institutional resources, justice itself was, more often than not, embodied in female figures. Create a mental image of justice, and you will no doubt imagine a woman dressed in flowing robes, a blindfold over her eyes and a scale and a sword in hand.  That’s what we see in three iterations at the building housing our Supreme Court. And that’s also how the Greeks and Romans envisioned Justice in her various incarnations at Themis, Dyke, Prudentia, and so on.

How can we explain why female figures adorn buildings housing the seats of authority and prestige? Is the presence of women at the portals of power driven by the need to soften patriarchal authority through maternal images to negate the coercive features of social institutions?  Marina Warner tells us that “we are living now among female forms who have adapted the allegorical language of the past, but are not reproducing it in stone or plaster or copper, but enacting it live.” In other words, those monuments, strategically placed where power resides, are unconsciously shaping women’s behavior today,

But since women were so often excluded from the judicial arena in times past, they slipped into another role, making appearances as goddesses of vengeance, retribution, and implacable justice. Remember Orestes and the Erinyes? Alekto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, representing anger, rage, and destruction, hounded Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra. And then there is Nemesis, who carries a sword and a whip, out to get us all for any of our lapses and missteps. And if you want to get truly scared straight, just take a look at Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys the forces of evil. Incidentally, her stuck-our tongue inspired the tongue and lips logo used by the Rolling Stones. And the first issue of Ms. magazine featured an image of Kali, her many arms representing the multi-tasking demanded of women.

Here are my questions: Is our newfound commitment to social justice driven by the increasing representation of women in the labor force, in other words, the social and economic empowerment of women? Are women now doing precisely what Marina Warner suggests, enacting the roles found in the statuary that adorns our legal institutions? And will the legal system find  ways to address the current extra-judicial means used by women (for example, the #MeToo movement) to secure justice, not just by disavowing public accusations but hearing them in a judicial setting.  Or are shaming and arraigning destined to remain separate and distinct forms of securing justice?

[edited July 19, 2021]

Curiosity and Care & How One Doc Operates

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all? Aren’t you curious? Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?” 

“It’s not my place to be curious about such matters, sir.”

“But you care about his lordship. You care deeply, . . . If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious.”

I came late to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which famously takes us inside the mind of a British butler, a “myth of England that was known internationally” (as the author put it). Ishiguro’s portrait of the butler reveals the disastrous self-deceptions by which Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington, lives. And, not to give anything away, it enshrines care and curiosity as alternatives to the treasured dignity long embraced by men like Stevens.

A few days after I put the novel down, I spoke to a physician who had been treating a patient who had developed odd lumps in his feet. A podiatrist had proposed surgery to remove them, and, of course, there was the fear they were cancerous. These days health-care plans dictate 15 minute appointments. The perplexed physician had never seen anything like the lumps on the patient’s feet and called in colleagues to take a look. They too were stumped. That would have been the end of the story for most doctors. But this one cared about his patient and sat down at his desktop and began researching until, after an hour of searching symptoms, he discovered something called Ledderhose disease, a rare ailment in which connective tissue builds up and creates lumps on the bottoms of the feet.

Because this doctor was curious, he was able to care for his patient. Or maybe because he cared about his patient, his curiosity was aroused. I’m reminded of how curiosity and care are co-dependent, each requiring the other to flourish and thrive.

Corporate America Co-opts Empathy

Emperor's New Clothes by Arthur Rackham | Museum Art Reproductions |

For years now, I have been fretting about empathy. Of course, I have faith in its power, but, like many in my generation, I rebel against orthodox pieties, especially those that try to control and regiment affect. Which is why, I put my foot down after watching an advertisement that opportunistically recruited empathy to sell Lexus’s luxury LS 500 vehicle. I have struck the term from my vocabulary.

“We’re all different,” Emmanuel Acho (the caption describes him as an athlete, author, and speaker) intones from the driver’s seat of his Lexus. “But once we get past our differences, that’s when we find empathy. Because everything great is birthed through discomfort. . . .  Because real empathy knows no difference, no age, no color, no gender. Real empathy says, hey, I see you, I feel you, I hear you. . . . I understand you.” Never mind the irony of touting the benefits of discomfort from a luxury vehicle. What really captured my attention in that ad was the mystified child, who hears Acho rehearsing his motivational speech while running by her.

Recall Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which ends with a child speaking truth to power, revealing the hypocrisy of the adults watching the naked emperor parade down the streets in the exquisite “attire” woven by two swindlers. The child in the Lexus ad serves as a powerful reminder of how adults march to a cultural drumbeat that has become an empty slogan rather than an authentic sentiment. An empathetic adult would not have been so trapped in the world of commercial enterprise and self-promotion that he would ignore the child on the street in the rush to prepare his inspirational speech.

It’s time to find new ways of expressing what it takes to cross the many cultural, linguistic, national, and geographic divides we live with today. For starters, sympathy, is a term that adds an ethical stance to the cognitive leap that it takes to designate our understanding of what others experience and feel. Sympathy, unlike empathy, includes a judgment that the “distress” felt by someone else is “bad,” as Martha Nussbaum tells us in The Upheavals of Thought.

Even better would be substitution of curiosity and care for empathy, a subject I take up in my new book, The Heroine with 1001 Faces.  Once we exercise our human desire to know, almost a reflex in most of us, we can take a second step that moves toward alleviating the pain or misery we witness. All too often, feeling bad makes us feel all too good, and it’s only when we take make the move from affect to action that the world begins to change. Lexus has it right—time to move out of the empathy comfort zone and begin the harder job of caring for those around us.

History as Farce? Tarantino’s “Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”






Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood has been acclaimed as Tarantino’s valedictory love letter to Hollywood, his “Tinseltown valentine,” but also denounced as belonging to the “Manson-sploitation” genre. Invoking the “Once upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” intertitle of the first “chapter” of Inglourious Basterds as well as the titles of two Sergio Leone’s westerns, Tarantino’s new film reminds us that we are in the realm of make-believe, invention, and playful artistry. Anything can happen, including the “happily ever after” of the Hollywood dream factory. History can be rewritten, and what was first tragedy can be repeated and, at least at the movies, turned into farce.

“Once upon a time”: that’s how we signal a story. We are about to leave the here and now for the domain of the counterfactual, the great “What if?” There are, of course, variant forms. In Haiti, a storyteller will chant “Krik” and the audience responds with “Krak”—we are ready to hear your tale. And in Majorca, a storyteller will begin: “It was and it was not.” What you are about to hear is both true and untrue, a big old lie (that’s Zora Neale Hurston), but one that captures a higher truth about who we are. Or as Milan Kundera put it, in a meditation on painting delivered by one of his characters: “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath the unintelligible truth.”

But Quentin Tarantino and fairy tales? In Django Unchained, a film that seems far removed from the world of fairy tales, it is something of a surprise to discover a Sleeping Beauty subtext. Recall that Django’s wife is named Hildy, or Broomhilda, and that we first see her locked up in an underground chamber, her punishment for trying to run away. Naked, dehydrated, immobilized, and painfully vulnerable, Hildy lives up to the name given to her by German slaveholders. Recall Brunhilde’s punishment for disobeying her father Wotan: he narcotizes her with a “sleep-thorn” and surrounds her with a ring of fire, sealing her off from the world until a man who does not know fear will rescue her.

Inglourious Basterds is just as allusive in its use of fairy tales. After all, it opens with Beethoven background music and gives us a kick in the head with the cold-blooded shooting of a Jewish family, hiding underground from the Nazis, reminding us of the German genre that captures beauty and horror with unparalleled expressive intensity. And fairy-tale tropes appear in the film with chilling force, most prominently when Colonel Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark and asks her to try on the incriminating shoe in his pocket. Presto, the shoe fits and the actress must “wear it,” Landa declares, after placing her foot in the shoe and then lunging on her to strangle her to death.

Perhaps those fairy-tale tropes are part of the nostalgic sensibility attributed to Tarantino, a filmmaker who is “profoundly and passionately conservative,” as A.O. Scott aptly put it, capturing elements of both self-indulgent regression and archival aspiration in the filmmaker’s imaginative universe. But there is more to Tarantino than that. Fairy tales are there to be rescripted, reinvented, and made new by each generation, and Tarantino does just that. They give us the tried and true, but they also stage the fears that haunt us in the here and now. The symbolic has always enabled us to navigate the real, and, since it is often larger than life and twice as unnatural, it can have a cathartic edge, the therapeutic power ascribed to symbolic stories by Bruno Bettelheim, when, in The Uses of Enchantment, he urged parents to read their children fairy tales, no matter how dark and unforgiving the violence in them.

The movies are, in many ways, our new folklore. Films tap into our collective desires and anxieties in the same way that stories once told around the fireside, in the fields, and in spinning rooms once did. They engage with all the social and cultural contradictions that are in our DNA and, they enable us to talk about those contradictions in ways that may not resolve them but at least rein in their toxic effects.

These days, in an age when we casually invoke the term “meta” to describe nearly every entertainment, we are also interested in what goes on behind the scenes as well as in the sensibilities of the filmmaker/auteur who can no longer be detached from what he directed. And here’s where even the darkness of Tarantino turns a shade darker, when we begin to wonder whether his cinematic violence is truly therapeutic and whether in the many public calculations of its cathartic value there may not also be a missing loss.

In a review of Tarantino’s film, Anthony Lane closes with concerns in an otherwise reverential viewing. Two things “freaked me out,” he confesses. “One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.” (Here, I’m reminded of gleeful reactions of audiences to the ending of Get Out, but that is another story.) Is this preposterous violence, so over-the-top vintage Tarantino that we double over with laughter rather than cringe in fear? Its hard not to notice that excessive force is trained largely on the female Manson acolytes, one of whom perishes after her face has been smashed into every surface and object available, the other of whom shrieks and screams while the fire from a flamethrower slowly consumes her flesh (it’s almost impossible not to think of the witch in another famous German fairy tale).

Tarantino is never shy about piling on, and you almost need a scorecard to keep track of the many noxious women in Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. There is the hectoring wife of the stuntman played by Brad Pitt, a woman right out of Hitchcock’s playbook who was more than likely (justifiably, as the snippet of her shrill outburst suggests) murdered by her long-suffering husband. There is the creepy precociousness of the “actor” (that’s what she calls herself), Julia Butters, whose soulless ambition turns an eight-year-old girl into a threat. And then there are the Manson minions, who eerily resemble Hitchcock’s avian killers in their power to silently and menacingly appear out of nowhere, vulture-like in the way they stare down their prey.

It took the #Metoo movement to reveal that what may appear to be standard-issue misogyny, culturally symptomatic rather than personally motivated, can be more than that. Recall Uma Thurman’s New York Times Op-ed, in which she revealed the abuse to which she was subjected while filming Kill Bill. Among the scenes was one in which she had a chain wrapped around her neck and appeared to be choking. Here’s Tarantino’s defense of how the scene was filmed, “I can act all strangle-ey, but if you want my face to get red and the tears to come to my eye, then you kind of need to choke me. I was the one on the other end of the chain and we kind of only did it for the close ups. And we pulled it off. Now that was her idea.” Was it? During the making of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino decided that his hands, rather than Christoph Waltz’s, would be filmed in the strangling scene. “Look, I’ve got to strangle you,” he told Diane Kruger. “If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck . . . it looks movie-ish. But you’re not going to get the blood vessels bulging, or the eyes filling with tears, and you’re not going to get the sense of panic that happens when your air is cut off.”

“I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou,” Hitchcock long ago declared. “He said ‘Torture the women!” . . . the trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” Nowhere is Hitchcock’s sadism more evident than when seated in the director’s chair. While filming The Birds, Hitchock had no reservations about sacrificing Tippi Hedren’s personal safety to cinematic realism and “integrity.” The two-minute assault scene in that film required a full week of eight-hour days, days that left Tippi Hedren on the brink of emotional and physical collapse. “Miss Hedren was placed daily in a cage-like room . . . and two men . . . opened huge boxes of gulls which they threw directly at her, hour after hour. . . . Eight hours daily , for an entire week, she was subjected to this nerve-wracking experience. Birds flew at her, and birds were tied to her.” As she herself tells it, “Finally, one gull decided to perch on my eyelid, producing a deep gash and just missing my eyeball. I became hysterical.” In a final stroke of irony, on each day of shooting, representatives from the Humane Society were present to ensure that the birds were not mistreated.

Cinematic violence, in other words, inevitably seeps into the real world, in ways that are not always easy to calculate. Yet do we now want to police directors, demanding an end to imaginative work that may need what Shakespeare called violent delights to capture the attention of audiences and, more importantly, to remain authentic and true to its time and place?

Can we let Tarantino off the hook? After all, he may be doing nothing more than offering a meditation on how the success of Hollywood films is fueled by mayhem and violence. Or he may be delivering a message on how stuntmen take all the risks and save the day while actors lounge in the pool. Is he mocking the way we cheer on the tough guy who will snuff out the killers (using their tactics)? Or is he revealing how a violent killing spree can be turned into just another day at the office, with the fading TV star played by Leonardo DiCaprio casually and happily accepting an invitation to socialize with Sharon Tate and her friends as charred and battered corpses are driven off in ambulances? Tarantino may be giving us the fairy tale we deserve, even as he mischievously critiques the medium in which he operates and the illusions in which it traffics. Reminding us of our desperate need for scapegoats, he shows us what hypocrites we are when we preach the gospel of kindness and empathy to our children.

Like every good fairy tale, Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood gets us thinking more and thinking harder about who we are and about why violence in the movies is, as Tarantino once put it, “cool,” even when real-life violence is “one of the worst aspects of America.” What does it say about us when we cheer on the stuntman smashing faces into walls and the Hollywood star extinguishing life with his flamethrower and then recoil in horror when we wake up to headlines about another shooting spree in America?


Scorn’d Women Getting Even: Maleficent, Dr. Foster, and now Daenerys

Image result for dr. fosterBeginning in the 1970s, rape moved to center stage in cinematic culture (I Spit on Your Grave, Act of Vengeance, Extremities), and what critic Carol Clover refers to as “rape-revenge stories” began to proliferate. Today we seem to have turned a corner, with new plots: this time “betrayal-revenge stories,” with the the “Woman scorn’d” (as William Congreve put it in his 1697 play The Mourning Bride) as the motor of the plot.

Case in point, Netflix’s Dr. Foster, which opens the second episode of season one with Suranne Jones (who plays Gemma Foster) reciting Congreve’s lines:

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.

Congreve’s wisdom has become proverbial “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (or did he appropriate the proverb?) and here is where online definitions become helpful, with the proverb meaning  that “a woman will make someone suffer if they reject her” and “women can be particularly furious and emotional when angry” (implying of course that they get even crazier than angry men). Gemma Foster enacts that proverbial wisdom, and the Dr. Foster becomes almost unwatchable in Season 2, when Gemma descends into extreme madness of the suburban sort.

We’ve seen this same behavior, which I call the Maleficent Syndrome, in Robert Stromberg’s 2014 film, starring Angelina Jolie (soon to become “The Mistress of Evil” in a sequel).  There it is Stefan who betrays Maleficent, cutting off her wings in what has been called “a metaphoric rape” Angelina Jolie confirmed this view when she noted, in a BBC interview, “We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene] was a metaphor for rape.”

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Still, it is the fact of Stefan’s abandonment that enrages Maleficent, turning her into the Evil Queen of the Moors and leading her to put a curse on King Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora.

And now we have scary Daenerys, scorned by Jon Snow, on a rampage, going full mad queen as she rides her fire-breathing dragon, engaging in what gives the term scorched-earth policy a new depth of meaning. No—Daenerys Targaryen And Her Failures Are Not 'Bad For Women'

There may be a shift from revenge-rape stories to tales of betrayal and madness, but there is a constant that remains: Hell hath no fury like a woman.