March 23, 2021
First anniversary of the lockdown
The creation, ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ ponders her life as she is starting to gain recognition in her early days as an actress in 1950s Hollywood. So many rooms in so many buildings in so many locations. She cannot recall them all. She only knows that men are in charge in Hollywood and that they must be appeased. If she is to work with an actor or a director or a producer, they are entitled to check her out first. And this they all do, even if they don’t like sex with women and girls. They have the power to do as they please. These are the rules.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ intense novel Blonde based on the life of Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes Marilyn Monroe, the horror of the hierarchy is evident, men degrading women, forced to be complicit in their own degradation. I find it very hard to read about famed actors, whom I watched and loved on the big screen as a child, behaving in real life like endlessly copulating dogs. It’s the great deceit that I find hard to bear. The deceit that men love women, that their behaviour is about love, that men admire women, that there is equality of esteem between the two.
‘Has there been progress?’ I ask myself.
My late mum, born in 1925, was a driver during the Second World War. She used to tell the story of a well-known Hollywood actor of the period, who invited her to his caravan on the film set somewhere in southern England, evidently with the intention of seducing her. She was pretty naïve and escaped his clutches, but her feelings were mixed. One part of her was flattered, another, outraged.
I am 68 years old, a beneficiary of a great education, a veteran of 70s consciousness-raising, a person who expected to live a life she wanted to live. My mother was denied such a start in life, she had little education and few expectations. This, of course, made her determined her own daughter should have all the opportunities she didn’t. Nevertheless, I shared with my mother a certain confusion about male predatory behaviour. When I was 18, she was happy for me to go out with an RAF pilot in his 30s. So was I. I remember talk among the grown-up men in his circle of being ‘leg-men’ or ‘breast-men.’ What could any of this idiocy have to do with me? I wasn’t meat.
Or was I?
The other day, an old and dear friend talked for the first time of her own sexual abuse when she was ten years old. She said she had forgotten about it, but now, when we are all recalling our own experiences of harassment, aggravation, assault, rape, she finds the memory has fought its way to the surface.
A Scot from Aberdeenshire, she is not given to excessively emotional outbursts. And this was a very sober recounting of her experience: she had to identify the perpetrator to his face, standing in front of a line-up of men with no special one-way mirrored barrier in place. And afterwards, no hug from Mum or Dad – because that wasn’t how they did things.
My aunt, in her eighties, living alone through the plague year(s), recalls countless episodes of men sitting beside her in the cinema, rubbing against her. And she recalls a violent event when a man jumped on her back as she was walking home from a concert through the car park (this was a small provincial town in southern England). She was strong enough, though in her fifties, to shake him off and run. She reported it to the police. No action taken. An invisible woman already.
Another close friend talks about the behaviour of the local catholic priest in the southern European country where she grew up, who regularly groped the young girls. She laughs at the absurdity of having to ‘confess’ some silly thing to such a man.
As for me…
As nine-year-olds, my best friend and I were shown ‘dirty’ pictures by a painter/decorator who was working in a house up our road. We thought he was a harmless, old man, took him cups of tea (why did our parents not ask us questions?). He liked to lift us off the ladder and kiss us. We didn’t like that, but we liked climbing up and down the ladder. It was a good game.
I was flashed at as a schoolgirl, walking past the cathedral in my hometown, walking the dog by the river. I remember feeling ashamed when I felt able finally to tell mum, as if it was somehow my fault. I was flashed at as a young woman, returning to my hall of residence in Clapham. I didn’t tell anyone. Who can remember all these episodes?
When I was living in rural France, working as an ‘assistante d’anglais‘ as part of my languages degree, I was 20 years old and quite lonely and sometimes went out drinking with some of the French teaching assistants. Everyone drank Pernod. One night, I ended up in a room with someone I didn’t know on top of me. I got out, but not without jokes about how much I was worth when compared to a camel – I think they agreed on 50 francs in old money. I was looking forward very much to going home for Christmas. When I got to one of the Paris train stations, quite dazed and out of it after an overnight train up from the Midi, I had to take a taxi across town to another station for the train to Calais. The young cab driver lied to me, said the trains were cancelled, some emergency somewhere.
‘Take me to the airport,’ I said (I’d been in France three months, so my French was still very much book-based).
‘All the flights are cancelled too, ‘ he said. ‘Why don’t I drive you to Calais?’ he said.
I was desperate to get home. ‘OK,’ I said.
We agreed a price. I was in the back of the cab and slept most of the way, until he woke me up talking about his poor relationship with his wife and so on. I don’t know why I believed him, I don’t know why I was so trusting. But I was, until that moment. Then I had some idea of what was happening as the flat empty plains of northern France sped by and my fear grew, my throat tightened. Somehow, we made it to Calais. He dumped me in the middle of the deserted town in the rain, alone with my giant expanding suitcase and without the money I’d been saving up. I think I was very lucky. A kind woman picked me up and took me to the port. Later at home, I recounted the story as a funny anecdote at my own expense – ‘How could I have been so stupid?’
I was always quite trusting. I had grown up loved, loving and trusting. I shared taxis with strangers, because why not? I never recognised what was actually going on. I ‘got away with it.’ I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t murdered.
Later on, in my 30s, I was followed by a man hiding his face in a hoody in New York City, feeling so scared that I sought help from the local grocery store. No-one wanted to get involved. I had to make my way home, dodging into doorways, ducking and diving. As a young female journalist, I was bitten on the breast by a drunk trader while covering a meeting in London, told to go model for Playboy magazine (this was the 1980s, the implication being that I should stop pretending to be serious), called a ‘haughty obstreperous bitch’ for questioning a sub-editor’s decision on my copy…
At the age I am now, when you would expect a certain amount of self-confidence and an ability to stand your ground, I still find I can be affected by the dismissive attitude of certain men. When I was young that dismissiveness was because I was a young woman (in a man’s world); now that I am old, that dismissiveness is because I am an old woman (how dare you fill my male space?)
…there has been progress.
I see it all around, not least in my own family. Young women and men are talking, thinking, evaluating, challenging attitudes. There is less acceptance of bad male behaviour, of male authority (based on what?), of male violence. There has to be hope that they can do better than the previous generations.
For myself, I just feel tired; tired that we are still having the same arguments; tired that I have to continue thinking of safety strategies to walk in my own neighbourhood; tired that I don’t dare walk in the woods alone even with two large dogs; tired that the dark is my enemy; tired of being frightened of my fellow human beings; tired of not being able to trust any more.
 Joyce Carol Oates (2000). Blonde. London: 4th Estate