Really, it’s no secret at all that in Hollywood, profits will trump ethics almost every single time. So, when a scandal occurs involving one celebrity or another, you can assume that how a studio responds to that scandal will be more dependent upon how much capital that celebrity generates than upon some moral decision, which is problematic for a number of reasons. There are writers, directors, producers, and actors who are thriving in Tinseltown despite being involved in some very shady goings-on. Others find their careers ended due to mere associations and rumours. Then there are those who are cut off from the entertainment community with good reason. Just this week Allison Mack, a leading actor from the hit WB/CW series Smallville, confessed to being involved with a sex cult/human trafficking group. This comes after the recent sex scandals surrounding Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. (Hollywood clearly has a real problem with sexual exploitation and abuse that needs to be addressed.) In almost all of these cases, the exception being Jackson, the people caught up in these scandals have had their careers virtually wiped out by their misdeeds. And rightfully so. But in all of these instances, the people involved had multiple accusations of actual abuse made against them, and that is simply not always the case. So, what is the right course of discipline for people who may have overstepped the boundaries of propriety, of what is currently socially acceptable, but have not outright harmed anyone beyond the initial controversy of their words and actions? These are important questions in an ongoing discussion about freedom of speech and accountability in the free market world of American entertainment.
Enter Walt Disney Pictures… and Marvel Studios. When Disney bought Marvel back in 2009, around a year after the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it was supposed early on that the family-friendly corporation might hold the reins to the comic book company a little too tightly. There were fears that they might even censor the more adult content of earlier comics and comic book-inspired films. So far, that has not been the case, and it’s largely been a pleasant surprise for fans. The MCU films have been a huge success. By “a huge success”, I mean a titanic, phenomenal, cosmic success. Since 2008, the MCU raked in a massive total of $19 billion, which is astonishing by any metric. No film franchise has come close to this level of financial success within a ten year period. It’s unprecedented. The films are making so much money that it puts Disney in an interesting and somewhat dualistic position. On the one hand, that level of success means that these films are highly visible, that there’s a built-in audience, and that they will pull a massive profit no matter what, and so there’s a certain freedom there to take risks and hire filmmakers to helm franchises that may not be immediately obvious. Or even safe choices. On the other hand, it also means that they may be overprotective of their investments, of what projects go forward, and how to ensure that those projects match up with the lucrative business of their previous films, which means that studio interference and control could be a potential problem. Either way it’s a lot of pressure for a studio president or executive to deal with.
So, what happens when a filmmaker, or even an actor, does something that doesn’t line up with the almighty studio’s plan, either in their personal life or in the process of making a film for Marvel? Well, the MCU‘s success might be unprecedented, but shakeups behind the scenes are not, and this is evident in who has been let go in those ten years. One might forget that both Disney and Marvel have a history of severing ties with talent when they feel that the studios’ overall vision doesn’t line up with the individual’s. Iron Man star Terence Howard‘s character James Rhodes/War Machine was recast with Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. The original director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, was let go and replaced by Peyton Reed, who wound up directing both that film and its sequel. In the former situation, the actor was reportedly difficult to work with and made too many demands, and in the latter situation, the director’s creative vision didn’t align with that of the studio, so they were let go. But then there’s James Gunn. Gunn was apparently a charm to work with and he has been highly regarded by his cast and crew. Gunn’s vision for the Guardians of the Galaxy not only aligned with the studio’s vision, it surpassed it and enhanced it, and creatively he was responsible for two of Marvel‘s biggest hits. Marvel Studios‘ president Kevin Feige made it no secret that Gunn would be heavily involved with the future of the MCU, helping to spearhead it’s forward momentum and trajectory, much in the same way that Joss Whedon and brothers, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have. When Gunn was fired last Summer for some highly inappropriate tweets from almost a decade ago, it sent shock waves through the industry, not least of all because professionally he had done nothing wrong.
James Gunn brought so much to the tone, aesthetics, and scope of that first Guardians of the Galaxy film. It would be hard to imagine anyone else stepping into that corner of the sandbox and creating anything comparable with what are essentially his toys. After his firing, the principal cast sent an open letter to the studio, respectfully asking that the studio let Gunn return as director. Tens of thousands of fans signed petitions. However, it looked unlikely that the director would be returning for the third (and final?) installment in the GotG trilogy. The one bright light in this whole dark drama was that Gunn’s recently completed screenplay for the film would still be used. For a while rumours circulated online of possible replacement directors who could step in to replace Gunn. At the top of the list were Nicole Pearlman and Taika Waititi. Nicole Pearlman was the original writer on the first Guardians of the Galaxy film before it was rewritten by James Gunn. The other choice, and the one that most fans seemed to flock to, was Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. In response to these rumours, Waititi made a statement, saying, “For me, those are James’ films. Going into something like that with his stamp all over his films, would be like going into someone’s house and saying ‘Hey, I’m your new dad, and this is how we make peanut butter sandwiches now. It feels kind of awkward. However, I’m still hanging out with those guys [at Marvel] and talking about new stuff. I want to do another movie with them.” Apparently Disney and Marvel ultimately agreed, because now Gunn has been reinstated as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but what does that say about the ethics of the companies?
That question isn’t easy to answer. If I had to sum it up, I would say that the bottom line is profit, and perhaps if there were two bottom lines, just above that would be prestige. Almost all decisions in Hollywood are determined by how much of a profit you can pull in and how much prestige your work can acquire in terms of critical appraisal and awards. Because of that, studios and the talents hired by them are often placed above certain moral expectations, and this is why Hollywood is often criticized for its lack of morality. The problem is that generalization really only applies to a select few people who have been highly visible due to the scandals that they’ve been involved. Hollywood scandals aren’t always, or even often, based upon a genuine interest in ethics. Many times scandals are concocted in order to bring down talented people. The motivations vary and range from professional jealousy to sexism and racism, from resentment over contracts to creative disputes, from personal grudges to political retaliation. And these Hollywood scandals are in no way new. They are just more widespread and quickly disseminated in the digital age.
When the silent film era was at its strongest in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping Virginia Rappe. One of Rappe’s friends spread rumours about him raping her with an icicle and that her death was the result of Arbuckle’s weight on top of her. The doctor performing the autopsy denied there being any truth to these claims. Numerous witnesses countered the claims with their version of events where Arbuckle applied ice to her stomach while she was in pain. We know now that Rappe was suffering from medical complications arising from her alcohol consumption and peritonitis and that Arbuckle was trying to help her. The blatant lies that Rappe told were planned in an attempt extort money from Arbuckle. It ruined his career. Clara Bow also suffered similar treatment by the press. They were all fabricated for the sake of ruining her career. Some things don’t change.
Disney and Marvel came under a lot of fire when they severed ties with Gunn. This was because they knew about Gunn’s controversial tweets before they hired and then only fired him after they became well-known. That did nothing to give them any claims of taking the moral higher ground. Now they are receiving criticism from some people, most notable among them conservative actor James Woods, for having hired Gunn back. In my last write-up on this issue, I pointed out that Gunn probably should never have been hired based on his earlier social media presence and Disney‘s self-proclaimed values system, but given that the studios knew about his past and what he had said, firing him after the fact to save face was just hypocritical and facile. Now it appears all the more so since they have hired him back after Gunn’s six-month absence on social media. Interestingly, it’s been suggested by a number of sources that Marvel never really considered any other directors to replace Gunn, which may indicate that his firing to begin with was just a PR move. Whether it was always intended that he direct the film, even in the face of the backlash, it’s hard to say because the decision process has not been very transparent. What we do know is that James Gunn virtually disappeared from social media, ceasing to post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, until March 15, 2019. Then on that day, he posted a statement, one which sent fans into a frenzy, announcing that the decision had been reversed and that he would indeed be returning to direct the third GotG film.
Music + Visuals = Potency
At this point, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t ever seen a music video or a portion of one during the course of their lives. Almost without exception we have all seen music videos, at some time or another, whether on MTV, VH1, BET, or YouTube. They have become not only an accepted part of the music industry but an almost mandatory staple of it. If you want to succeed commercially in music today, you have to adapt to this, and in 1981 with the launch of MTV, the music industry was introduced to one of its greatest assets as well as one of its greatest liabilities.
If one goes all the way back to Walt Disney‘s 1940 film, Fantasia, or even further back to the Silly Symphony cartoon series which began in 1929, it becomes immediately apparent that the marriage of visual imagery with music has proven to be a most formidable combination. Music can either be enhanced or diminished by an accompanying visual presentation. Some songs and some visuals mesh so spectacularly that one can barely hear the song without imagining its video counterpart. Take Star Wars for example, it’s almost impossible not to see the scrolling titles and prologue for the films in your mind’s eye whenever you hear John Williams‘ legendary theme, or to see an iconic character like Darth Vader without imagining the ominous theme of the Imperial March. Go on, give it a try. That’s just one obvious way that musical language and visual language can complement each other and create a link between one medium and another.
Now, take a look at music videos today, and most of them seem to have a singular purpose: to sell singles and albums. In this digital age, especially with the dwindling sales of physical music (since we’re on the subject I’ll take vinyl and CD over MP3 files any day), having a popular music video can make or break a career, even to the extent of a terrible song finding widespread fame and commercial success because the music video was so memorable. There are singers and musicians whose entire careers can be chalked up to the artwork and photographs on their albums or their music videos rather than on the quality of their music. Having grown up in the late ’80s and ’90s, I’ve seen this happen with bubblegum pop, teenybopper, boyband, and dance pop stars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living under the naïve delusion that once there was this grand past of substantive and enriching music videos, because no, there wasn’t. There are occasionally performers whose music videos elevate the medium from crass commercialism to high entertainment or even true art. Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Kate Bush‘s Running Up That Hill, Peter Gabriel‘s Sledgehammer, Madonna‘s Like a Prayer, Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nine Inch Nails‘ Closer, TLC‘s Waterfalls, and The White Stripes‘ Fell in Love with a Girl are all examples of music videos whose visual aesthetics and narratives are more than just sales gimmickry. These are videos that attain artistry and relevance. They obtain renown, acclaim, and even controversy. They achieve immortality through the purity of their innovation.
Nine months ago, actor and musician Donald Glover, under his performing name of Childish Gambino, released a video for his latest single This Is America. The video immediately earned the same level of distinction as those aforementioned videos, because it is a singularly unique vision, as well as being a provocative, controversial, and riveting experience. Opening on an image of a black guitarist performing in a warehouse, the appearance of Glover dancing, and the shooting of the guitarist, whose face is now covered in a bag, in the head at point blank range, the video is openly confrontational in its effort to address racial violence. It continues and shows an all-black church chorus, singing and dancing in joyous and faithful celebration, before being gunned down, again by Glover, and then having their bodies unceremoniously dragged away and discarded. Forcing viewers to confront the harsh realities faced by black Americans every day and challenging long-held stereotypes, Glover’s song and its video present scenarios and raise questions, but intentionally leave the interpretation and the answers up to bewildered viewers.
Within 24 hours, the video for This Is America had received almost 13 million views, and at the time of writing this, the video has received over 484,500,000 views, with over 7.4 million viewers responding that they liked the video and 564 thousand expressing their dislike of it. Steeped in symbolism and allusions to current social crises, the video has become a lightning rod for controversy, and a hot topic among critics and commentators, most of whom praised its audacious visuals and metaphors. That said, the video has also received its share of reservations and critiques, with many of the criticisms focused on the abrupt and disturbing violence. Some viewers have seen it as a revolutionary statement on race relations and gun violence in the United States while others have accused it of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Some viewers have decried it as a pretentious mess of disjointed lyrical and visual content while others have hailed it as a masterpiece of Trap (a term for a form of hip-hop popular in the South and characterized by electronic beats, a dark or ominous energy, and scathing social commentary).
In terms of visibility, Donald Glover, as an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director, has been rising in prominence for some time now with his roles in 30 Rock, Community, Atlanta, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Likewise his musical persona as Childish Gambino has risen as well, beginning with the melodic and confident rap of his first album Camp, continuing with his startlingly original follow-up album Because the Internet, and culminating in the brilliantly funky and psychedelic album “Awaken, My Love!”. And though it is true that singles like Bonfire, Crawl, and the Grammy-winning Redbone certainly stood out from anything else that was coming out of contemporary hip-hop or R&B at the time, the video for This Is America has managed to overshadow most of his other creative output as a hip-hop artist. Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing, but it remains a fact. Topping the power of a strong single with an unforgettable music video will be a challenge for Gambino, but one that I think he is more than up for, and the result could be equally spectacular.
Over the years a number of songs and poems have grown out of my experiences with poverty and homelessness, both from the sides of having lived on the streets and from working with/for different organizations to aid the homeless, and this song is merely one of them. All too often, especially for people living on the margins, simply knowing you’ve been seen and acknowledged can be the beginning of healing and empowerment. The lyrics describe and invoke not only my own personal thoughts and feelings as I had them during those hard times, but they also I think sum up the thoughts and feelings of others who have lived in similar circumstances, and so I hope will provide some sense of camaraderie and even catharsis to those living it as a reality right now wherever they may be. If this song can at the very least raise awareness or empathy or give a voice to the voiceless then that is more than enough.
Can’t Go Up
In a melancholy urgency
I crawl out of my cocoon
Pick myself up out of the ooze
Take a gaze up at the moon
Grizzled in appearance
Unshaven and eyes faded
Got change to spare he asks
I say, ‘Change is complicated’
The melody of the night
Does nothing to soothe my mood
My senses are assaulted by the street
This awakening’s so rude
The broken sound of sirens
The tempo of marching feet
Copter blades flashing in the sky
Cops lined up and down the side of the street
I slide into these holy jeans
My pockets full of nothing
Barefoot on broken glass and concrete
Already I can feel my soul is chafing
Newspaper rolls in clusters
Crumpled pages from a bum’s diary
Littered rolled papers with buds of weed
Tumbleweeds and crumbling daydreams
Sky up above full of smoke
The stale scent of urine and feces
Heaviness in the cold city air
The state of things so hard to breathe
All these sickly sensations
And all these sounds and sights
Recycled and regurgitated
Just so I can have four more lines
And what am if not a failure
When you come down to it
This is my empire of the homeless
This is my kingdom of unwanted, broken shit
So, how am I supposed to rise up
How am I supposed to thrive
When social mobility is downward
And it takes everything I have just to survive
The lines to the shelter are growing
The benefits are being cut
The doors to all the churches are locked
And for us all doors of opportunity are shut
So, who am I supposed to be
My education’s going to waste
And of success I’ve no experience
Because life’s got a bitter taste
Fairness is illusion, okay
Justice protects the crime
Victims go to prison, baby
And I don’t have the time
The roof overhead’s collapsing
The walls are all closing in
The economy’s rebounding, they say
But where did that begin
I’m rolling on the sour carpet
Made of nails and dust and cum
Of leaves and rust and old blankets
And what have I become
I am nothing but invisible
To all you yuppie fucks
I am past my breaking point
So goodbye, farewell, good luck
Dear Humans, I know you care deep down
All of your anger and all your protests
Tell me just how far you have come around
Dear Humans, I know you need some relief
All of the troubles and all your problems
Stem from the same misplaced, ill-begotten belief
Dear Humans, I know you want to belong
Even though you shit all over yourselves
You still have the chance to right this wrong
Dear Humans, I know you have the will to do
Even as the bodies add up in piles
You still cling to a lie and you claim that it’s true
Thoughts and prayers
So sick and tired
Of the same refrain
The clichéd platitudes
Send my condolences
But does it change anything
Hugs and kisses
So sick and tired
Of the same old words
The dishonest well-wishers
And all of their crocodile tears
Are no better than gems on swords
There’s no problem
You just want freedom
The right to carry
And the right to choose
But the death toll
Only grows greater
And it’s not like it’s up to you
To bury the bodies
Or say the farewells
You just play the game
And you roll the dice
Sign your name
Propose the measure
What it reaps
Well, oh come now, never mind
Dear Humans, I know you don’t want to die
But I’ve watched you from above now
In my kingdom of the clouds up in the sky
Dear Humans, I know that you are all sorry
For all the wicked things that you do
Now the time has come for your apology
Dear Humans, I know that redemption is here
So say your farewells, your “I love yous”
Because I am going to shed this, my final tear
Then comes judgement
Death is my mercy
I forgive you all for this
For your murders, your policies
Broken promises, drones of death
Burnt forests without life left
This is your legacy
Then comes annihilation
Pain is your purity
I can absolve you of your sins
For your selfishness, your greed
Rebuilt palaces, banks overflowing
Homeless bodies litter the street
This is your litany
There’s no problem
You just want money
The right to earn
And the right to take
What you deserve
Is always growing
And it’s not as if you don’t
Ever give a little back
Or smile for the camera
You just play the game
And you roll the dice
Put your name up
In big, bold letters
What you build
Will come to ruin; all falls apart in time
With these words, I condemn
With these words, I liberate
All of you Humans
From the Earth
The stain that I made
My greatest folly
My greatest mistake
I now correct with annihilation
For you there is no time left
There is no need for worry
No need for panic or dread
I will reset the whole world
I’ll wipe the slate clean
Sincerely, your God
Isn’t it funny how the people that cling to apocalyptic faith fulfill their own prophecies right up until the point of the great disappointment? It becomes tiresome seeing the same adherents to so-called Christianity commit the same sins of greed and judgement that their Christ had warned them about. They speak of all these dangers to the mortal soul and then embrace them. I often wonder, with my characteristic pessimism, if it’s not all some innate predisposition towards self-destruction. I truly am beginning to accept that the same people who hold high this prophet of peace, love, and understanding, that they ultimately do so only to hold themselves up in his celebrated company and to feel chosen, to feel special and sanctified despite their own sins and their own guilt. When I look at our president, and by “our president” I claim no ownership of his presidency and no allegiance to his constituents, all I see is a man so in awe of himself that he will destroy the country and then use its blood and ashes to polish his golden palace. How anyone who rejects worldliness, greed, lust, or ambition can place that man on a pedestal, coming from a religion that also reject idolatry, is beyond comprehension; it’s appalling and repugnant.
The invention of the photograph was so much more than a mere technological innovation. It enabled the human species to graphically document their own existence while simultaneously allowing photographers the unique ability to express themselves in a manner that forced the viewer to experience their perspective. This kind of multi-faceted engagement with the viewer created a level of intellectual stimulation, and often provocation, as well as emotional stimulation, and sometimes manipulation, that carried with it the power to shape our perception of individuals and events. Lives were forever captured on film and preserved. Occurrences were frozen in time for all the world to see and to study. And ideas were proliferated through print.
Indeed, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even more depending on the picture, but more importantly, what words and how they are expressed is ultimately what determines their effect on us. Whether a photo accurately reflects its subject matter is largely dependent on the context in which we see it and how the image is in turn stored in our memories. Equally important is the intent of its author, the photographer, and how the photo is treated after its taken, whether its colours are heightened or muted, or whether the image had been cropped. Each alteration to the image can reveal so much about both the photographer’s own mindset and what they want viewers to see.
Collected here are some of the most iconic and socially significant photographs of the 20th Century and the stories behind them. While I am sharing these primarily with the intention of education, some of these images are graphic and may be considered disturbing, so view them at your own discretion.
It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This may or may not be accurate, in part depending on the picture, but also in part depending on the imagination and sensitivities of the viewer. Some images dictate to us the thoughts of their creator or evoke a particular emotional response. Some images tell an entire story or create from within our own psyche a story that we need to tell to ourselves; a bedtime fairy tale for the conscious as told by the subconscious. These stories come to us in vague imaginings or vivid dreams, and settle within the foundation of our personalities, shaping our continual personal and societal growth. Whether it’s the origin of a myth and the archetypes that proliferate throughout numerous countries and cultures or the dreams that we share together of our own fears, fantasies, and aspirations, the image contained within the mind’s eye is perhaps the most powerful and radical in changing us. It is the internal revelation that precedes the external revolution.
Sometimes you can walk past an image and not really see it. Other times you can walk past an image and see it, but not necessarily see it as it is, or in the case of a work of art, see it as it was intended. Other times still, you walk up to an image and something uncanny happens as you make a connection, simultaneously seeing and processing the image while getting the sense that the minds behind its creation can see you in return. This has been the case for me with the work of a number of photographers, but most recently, it’s the work of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick that has been speaking to me. And I’ve been listening with eyes wide open.
I work in an art museum, and part of my job is to ensure the safety of the visitors and the art, but there’s more to it than just that, because as one of many individuals who roam the galleries, I play an integral role in introducing works of art to the public and thus helping to contextualize in their minds what art is and what it can convey. Many times now I’ve been asked what does this painting mean, or what is the purpose of that modern sculpture, or how was this image created. Occasionally there are clear-cut answers, which usually are the result of having familiarity with an artist’s work or the resources to research the details of their lives, and other times the best I can do is to offer a series of interpretations and let the visitor decide which one resonates with them. When asked about Kahn & Selesnick’s poetic photograph, Melora, I have to stop and ask myself if I am offering the artists’ perspective or my own, but furthermore, I have to question if there is indeed a difference, because with some works of art there is an invitation to explore and interpret the work only from the vantage point of a spectator.
One visitor at the art museum asked if the photograph was a statement on the environment and our collective need to be closer to nature. Is Melora returning to the wild to live in symbiosis with the land and animals? Another asked if there was some mystical meaning and if Melora was a shape-shifter. Is Melora undergoing some symbolic transformation or even a physical metamorphosis? One visitor even asked as to the identity of Melora. Is Melora the deer or the woman? To this last question, the answer is at least a bit more straightforward, because Melora is the name of the model. Artist Melora Kuhn, a friend of Kahn and Selesnick, posed for the photograph and lent her name its title. The photo was taken on her property.
As a feminist and a student of both art history and psychology, I look at Melora and I see an archetype, and I see an exploration of femininity. I see a woman wearing fashion of the late Victorian Era, an era of both technological progress and gender repression, of reverence for the ideal of feminine beauty and restrictive social roles where a woman’s innate power was suppressed. The woman moves out of industrialism and into nature, out of the rigid social strata of her time and into a realm of female liberation, and this is most abundantly clear by the antlers on her head. When visitors initially ask me what the image means, the first thing I suggest they look at is her antlers, because neither female elk or deer typically have antlers. Yet here is Melora, a seemingly human woman, striding into a field where a stag stands amidst the tall grass, its gaze meeting hers, and Melora’s antlers are equal to, perhaps even rival to, that of the stag. She appears to me to be a woman who is leaving behind her own world, where she is seen and treated as a subordinate and objectified, and entering into the world of the wild, where she can adopt an independence and a strength that civilization would deny women, and where she can be an equal to her male counterpart. She is seeking gender equity by abandoning the world that has attempted to reduce her to domesticity. This is, of course, just my own interpretation.
Interestingly, the reindeer is one of the only species of deer in which the female grows antlers, though not all of them do, because in harsh environments where food sources are scarce, the growing of antlers expends a great deal of energy and nutrients. While the male reindeer uses its antlers to fight other reindeer for social dominance, the female reindeer uses her antlers to move through heavy snows and to fight for food, and while male reindeer shed their antlers in the late Autumn and grow them back in the Spring, the female reindeer retains her antlers through the Winter and sheds them in Spring. This independence and self-reliance can be viewed from an evolutionary angle, and one could discuss biologically how reindeer differ from other bovids, but from a social perspective, this makes reindeer almost eerily familiar. There is something there that we can relate to.
At the time when I first saw Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, I happened to be writing a number of essays on evolving gender roles in society throughout the ages, and during the research phases of these projects, I found myself repeatedly gravitating towards the work of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a celebrated poet, Jungian psychoanalyst, and trauma recovery specialist. Her works, particularly Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, were instrumental in introducing ideas and concepts that informed how I viewed Melora.
“Yet even in an oppressive culture, in whichever women the Wild Woman still lives and thrives or even glimmers, there will be “key” questions asked, not only the ones we find useful for insight into ourselves but also ones about our culture. “What stands behind those proscriptions I see in the outer world? What goodness or usefulness of the individual, of the culture, of the earth, of human nature has been killed, or lies dying here?” As these issues are examined, the woman is enabled to act according to her own abilities, according to her own talents. To take the world into one’s arms and to act toward it in a soul-filled and soul-strengthening manner is a powerful act of wildish spirit.
It is for this reason that the wildish nature in women must be preserved—and even, in some instances, guarded with extreme vigilance—so that it is not suddenly abducted and garroted. It is important to feed this instinctive nature, to shelter it, to give it increase, for even in the most restrictive conditions of culture, family, or psyche, there is far less paralysis in women who have remained connected to the deep and wild instinctual nature. Though there be injury if a woman is captured and/or tricked into remaining naive and compliant, there is still left adequate energy to overcome the captor, to evade it, to outrun it, and eventually to sunder and render it for their own constructive use.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The image of a woman in the wild, outrunning predators, outrunning the unwanted attentions and advances of men only to be tricked, recalls the Greek myth of Atalanta. In the tale, a beautiful huntress and priestess, Atalanta, takes a vow of celibacy in the name of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, of the moon, and of virginity. Atalanta was said to have been abandoned by her father, Iasus, left to die on a mountaintop, because her father would accept only a male heir. Like Artemis, Atalanta has sworn off all relationships with men, and she develops into an untamed beauty, self-possessed, strong, and uncompromising. Raised in the wilderness, according to some versions of the myth, by female bears, Atalanta developed a fierce wildness and could live off the land independent of so-called civilization. Other versions of the myth say that she was found by hunters who raised her as they would have raised a boy, teaching her to fend for herself, and to rely on her strength and her mind rather than just her beauty. She was said to challenge men, including the hero Peleus, to wrestling matches and would easily overpower them.
When two centaurs attempted to rape her, she defended not only her body, but her sacred vow to Artemis, and she slew them. In doing so, she gained Artemis’ favour, and she would later serve as her proxy in the legendary hunt for the Calydonian Boar. After King Oeneus forgot to make an offering to Artemis at the time of the harvest sacrifices, Artemis let loose a monstrous boar upon his kingdom, and this boar plagued the local farmers and destroyed the crops. Many of the bravest of heroes and hunters gathered together, even going so far in their hubris to place bets as to whom would succeed in killing the fearsome boar, but none of the men took Atalanta seriously as a contender. No, they either dismissed her altogether or they were outright angered by her mere presence intruding upon their fraternal display of ego, and Atalanta was only at last permitted to accompany them when one of the hunters, the hero Meleager, convinced his fellow men to allow her. He did so only because he lusted after and coveted her. The fact that he was already married was of no relevance in his decision, and Atalanta’s vow of celibacy, no deterrent to his desires. He would ensure that she was present when he killed the boar if only to win her affections. But that was not the way of it, and many of the hunters were brutally killed by the boar, and others fought among themselves and murdered one another, and when few of them remained alive and unscathed, it was not Meleager’s spear that drew the boar’s blood; it was Atalanta’s well-aimed arrow that brought the boar down. The boar, however, still lived and was only incapacitated. Not to be outdone, the conceited Meleager then killed the boar, but instead of giving it as a sacrificial offering to Artemis, as would have been proper, he gifted it to Atalanta instead. Still she would not be won.
Atalanta’s adventures did not end there. After achieving fame during the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, Atalanta and her estranged father were reunited, and as women were viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands throughout much of the ancient world, Iasus was determined to capitalize on her celebrity and marry her off. Her intelligence being no less than her physical prowess, Atalanta set forth a challenge that whomsoever could beat her in a race could have her as his wife, knowing all too well that no man could run as fast as she. However, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, intervened on the behalf of Hippomenes, because Aphrodite felt slighted by Atalanta’s repudiation of love. She gave Hippomenes three golden apples with which he was to distract Atalanta during the race. Each time he passed her, knowing full well that he could not maintain her speed, he would drop one of the golden apples. She managed to surpass him after the first two apples, but when Hippomenes dropped the third and final apple, Atalanta stopped to appraise it and Hippomenes outdistanced her and won the race, becoming her husband.
In viewing Melora, I am also reminded of Frida Kahlo, one of my favourite artists. Kahlo, who in a 1946 self-portrait, depicted herself as a wounded deer with antlers, lived a rich and complex life, and possessed character as rich and complex as her work. Kahlo experienced profound pain throughout her life beginning with a trolley accident in which she was impaled by a rail. Impalement, literally and metaphorically, would become a recurring theme in her work, as would her relationship to nature and animals. In The Wounded Deer, the two themes are united, as Kahlo, realizes herself with both male and female attributes, which has been theorized as representing her masculine and feminine sides as well as her bisexuality. While her face remains stoic, almost reminiscent of the Sphinx or the Mona Lisa, her body is pierced with nine arrows, revealing her anguish.
Frida famously began an affair with muralist Diego Rivera, which lead to their eventual marriage in 1929, but the relationship would prove to be as volatile as it was passionate, and he was incapable of remaining faithful to her. In turn, as a bisexual feminist, defiant, bold, and as desirous as he, she embraced Rivera’s polyamourous lifestyle, taking both men and women as her lovers. Still, Rivera’s affairs left her deeply hurt at times, and often seething, especially when Rivera slept with her younger sister, Cristina. This would inspire Kahlo’s 1937 painting, Memory, the Heart, in which Kahlo depicts herself caught between the Earth representing her family and the sea representing the inconstant Rivera and his many infidelities. Surrounding her, aspects of her personality, including a modern school outfit alluding to her education in European politics and paternal heritage and a traditional dress alluding to her Mexican home and maternal heritage, are strewn about and she is pierced through the chest by an elongated arrow.
Frida Kahlo‘s work is harrowing, sensual, and primal in a way that even if one does not understand the symbols, motifs, and references she utilized, the emotions she was expressing are universal; they are as clear and vibrant as her palette. She was rebelling against pretension and propriety as much as she was against capitalism and sexism. She lived in the moment, in a way counter-intuitively, throwing herself recklessly into her life, allowing herself to be hurt and immersing herself in her pain, channeling that pain back into her work, and then stripping down to her most vulnerable and exquisite self in order to do it all over again.
Which brings me to Amanda Palmer, Amanda fucking Palmer to her fans, who is also a fierce feminist willing to put herself out there again and again, to be hurt, and to lay her life bare for the honesty of her expression. Amanda’s attitude, her modus operandi, and philosophy can be summed up as “in your face vulnerability”. She seeks empowerment through connection, through creativity, through nakedness, through wildness, but above all through vulnerability. She’s the kind of artist who will walk out on stage in the nude, her legs and armpits unshaven, her eyebrows shaved off and then drawn back on, her belly and breasts exposed, and declare to the world, “This is me.” She’s the kind of woman who breastfeeds in public, and when confronted about will reply, without skipping a beat, “I’m a mother.” She’s the kind of writer who will show up to a book signing in her pajamas, put together a makeshift blanket fort, and explain it all by simply saying, “I had the worst flight from L.A..“
That’s Amanda… fucking… Palmer. When I think of Amanda, I think of the quote below, a quote that embodies a philosophy that I myself have prescribed to for sometime, and which I find all the more refreshing hearing it from someone so undaunted.
“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or less willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgement and criticism.” – Amanda Palmer
It’s coincidental, funny, and just a bit odd to me that when I look at Kahn & Selesnick’s Melora, the first person that always came to mind was Amanda Palmer, whose creative output I have admired since I first found out about The Dresden Dolls in the first half of 2003. I look at Melora and what I am reminded of is Amanda’s first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, and how her unique style left such an impression on me. Her aesthetic, an alchemical mixture of Victorian Era fashion, Weimar Era cabaret, Punk and Goth helped to define what has been called Dark Cabaret since the early 2000s.
When I see Melora, her dress hiked up, marching out into that field, her auburn hair done up in an elegant, but not meticulous bun, and her antlers protruding from her head, I think of Amanda. So, it was surprising and synchronous to me when I was scrolling through Instagram and found that Amanda brought in Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick to do promotional photography and the artwork for her next album. To me, it seems like the perfect fit, bringing Kahn & Selesnick and Amanda together. She has a history of selecting amazing photographers to work with and this time around will be no exception.
In her post, Amanda said, “This record I am about to make in L.A. is without a doubt the most personally intimate/painful/raw record I’ve ever made… my patrons who have been following the trail of demos know what I’m talking about: the songs deal with death, cancer, abortion, miscarriage. I didn’t want to just get glamour shots. I wanted to make meaningful images that match the stories and convey the heaviness of the record. This is why I’m so happy that I met Kahn & Selesnick in upstate New York—they totally get it. I actually started weeping during the shoot a few days ago: I felt so perfectly peaceful and powerful and understood.“
There’s a trend right now, a glorious trend that I wish more people were aware of, of feminist music, raw, intelligent, poetic, danceable, brilliant music by women singers and songwriters (Annie Lennox, Austra, Bat for Lashes, Cyndi Lauper, Florence + the Machine just to name the first that come to mind and the most widely known). I’m glad to see Amanda right there in the midst of it, singing about a woman’s right to choose and her experience having abortions and miscarriages, singing about Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment and assault, singing about Judy Blume and the influence she had on her as a teen and an adult, singing about the loss of her best friend who died of cancer, singing about the challenges and joys of motherhood, and singing about life as we all experience it and can relate to it. This is what the world needs right now to understand itself and to heal. Sometimes you have to go to the wilderness to heal. Sometimes you have to heal to embrace your own wildness. Sometimes you have to enter the wild in order to strip yourself down to its bare, essential, creative self. Sometimes it is only in the wild that you can be free to cry, to laugh, and to sing. And woman of the wild, I hear thee…
Artists’ and Authors’ Website Links:
Kahn & Selesnick’s website (https://kahnselesnick.biz/)
Melora Kuhn’s website (https://melorakuhn.net/)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ website (https://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/)
The Dresden Dolls’ website (https://dresdendolls.com/)
Amanda Palmer’s website (https://amandapalmer.net/)
Recommended Reading List (includes audio books):
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes/ by Edith Hamilton
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings/ by Maya Angelou
Le Féminisme ou la Mort/ by Françoise d’Eaubonne
The Word for the World Is Forest/ by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Creative Fire/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Theatre of the Imagination/ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Tales of the Brothers Grimm/ edited, selected, and introduced by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World/ by Charlene Spretnak
The Art of Asking: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help/ by Amanda Palmer
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone/ by Brené Brown