A friend was telling me about someone she knew who worked incredibly hard, was incredibly talented and incredibly lucky and landed a staff writing job on a sitcom where she was the only woman in the room. (Very common.) She left the room to use the restroom one day and when she returned, the other writers had left a picture of a penis on her chair and were encouraging her to guess whose dick it was. “That’s so disappointing,” I said, and then, searching for the argument that might have adequately explained to the other writers why they shouldn’t do this again, “it’s just such a fucking cliche.”
The news has been full of stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault throughout this industry and others. When this story broke about the writer who was fired from Mad Men, my brain automatically added in context that he was probably saying she should get naked to give him inspiration. Which is not in the article, by the way, although it does say they were working late, but did lead me to realize the connection between this behavior, the disappointment, and The Muse Trope.
The best explanation of The Muse Trope I’ve seen was in Dogma. Salma Hayek plays a literal muse, a celestial being who inspires great works of art and literature. But when she decides to come to Earth to create things for herself, she finds the well is dry. Her value is only in inspiring others, which as the movie finds her, she is doing as a stripper.
I’m just going to pause to let that sink in for a minute. The inspiring real-world job she finds is as a stripper.
The Muse Trope plays into a lot of other tropes in our culture. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a Muse. The fat husband with a skinny wife exists as a trope because men can have value by being funny but women can only be attractive. (Skinny and attractive are two different things, but we can talk about that another time.) Women are fridged as a means of providing inspiration to men. The fact that most of our stories center men means that women are often relegated to “inspiration.” And since inspiring usually means “fuckable,” and we live in a racist society, that leaves women of color getting left out completely or filed under “fetish” characters.
And none of this would matter if it didn’t bleed into real-world attitudes, but it does. If women exist as muses, it’s nice to have one or two in a writers’ room but they are not, strictly speaking, necessary. And they never have to be promoted. If, for instance, you have a really good assistant who busts their ass, if that assistant is a man, you’ll think, “he’s angling for a promotion.” And if the assistant is a woman, you think, “better not let her get away!” Because her entire purpose is to serve you.
But for creative women, being expected to inspire others and not create work of your own is horrible. And that’s why all of these cases are so disappointing, because all of these are women who are ambitious, who have worked very hard and found themselves in a position to prove themselves and their art, and are now being told no, you’re just the stripper. You’re there for Tony to look at while he does business. And it’s such a fucking cliche.