Victoria Wiet, #MeToo, Actress Novels, and the Radical Potential of a Forgotten Victorian Genre
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With the New York Times’ and New Yorker’s exposés of Harvey Weinstein nearing their one-year anniversary, press coverage of #MeToo has begun to settle into a familiar set of narrative conventions. In his recent—and now infamous—essay for the New York Review of Books, Jian Ghomeshi runs the gamut of these conventions by deflecting charges of villainy and recasting himself as a tragic hero punished and penitent for behavior he attributes to the hubris of fame. Though Ghomeshi is the first media figure accused of sexual misconduct to publish his own first-person narrative, his essay fits comfortably in a discursive field which prioritizes telling the stories of the accused rather than those claiming to have ensured harassment and assault. With the Hollywood Reporter leading the way, the most high-profile and circulated articles tell stories of how baby boomer boys turn into men like Weinstein; how Charlie Rose and Jeffrey Tambor navigate the pain of post-“MeToo” exile; the lead-up to public exposure and the accused’s response; and the possibility of a “comeback” for Louis C.K. and others. Whether casting their main character as a melodramatic villain or tragic hero searching for redemption, such stories divert attention away from the institutional norms that enabled men like Weinstein to harass dozens of women and toward the dilemmas faced by a few individual men. It goes without saying that this kind of reporting does not deliver the analysis needed by those committed to changing the conditions that lead to workplace cultures of sexual harassment.
If the current conventions of formally published #MeToo discourse are inadequate to advance the movement’s political goals, where might we find an alternative set of narrative strategies? The Victorian novel? Given the tendency of high realism to focus on middle-class situations in which women are not consistently recognized as performing labor, the answer might seem to be “no.” Tess of the D’Urbervilles powerfully details how the intersection of Tess’s gender and class position make her the target of harassment at the dairy farm, but Tess is a single novel, not a genre that imparts duplicable narrative conventions. Though Victorian high realism does not obviously provide popular media with tactics for representing the lives of working women, Victorian popular fiction does. Now a largely forgotten subgenre of domestic realism, actress novels once claimed the public imagination in the way Pulitzer-winning reporting by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow have today; the genre also shares these journalists’ focus on the difficulties women experience in a male-dominated workplace. The actress novel reveals the value of Kantor, Twohey and Farrow’s approach while also doing something that Farrow’s powerful accumulation of stories cannot do: furnishing a model for examining how and why structural forces come to bear on an individual working woman’s life.
Actress novels typically explore what happens when a young middle-class woman has to leave a life of leisurely domesticity and enter the workforce because her subsistence has suddenly disappeared (this disappearance almost invariably reflects negatively on men, whether because a loving but irresponsible father mismanaged his daughter’s inheritance or an abusive father inexplicably evicted her from his home). Twenty-first century readers are most likely to have read Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters (1848), if they’ve read any specimens of the genre at all, but in the nineteenth century there was a thriving subgenre of domestic fiction centered on protagonists who took to the stage. Other examples include Henry Fothergill Chorley’s Pomfret (1845); Bertha Buxton’s Nell On and Off the Stage (1879); Florence Marryat’s My Sister, the Actress (1881); and Mabel Collins’ Juliet’s Lovers (1893), in addition to at least thirty others I’ve identified in my research. Though Victorian actress-heroines initially embark on their careers due to economic necessity, genuine artistic ambition and love for the theatre also motivate their professional endeavors. It’s because of this ambition that the genre provides such promising narrative model for #MeToo.
In a typical actress novel, the heroine takes to the stage eager to achieve professional success and artistic fulfillment, only to realize that the power to achieve that success lies partly in the hands of a male superior. Explicit representations of male sexual aggression are infrequent—if by no means absent—in the canonical Victorian novel, at least compared with its eighteenth-century predecessors, yet they form one of the central features of actress novels. Perpetrators include suitors whose unwanted attentions transform the heroine’s working environment into a place of fear; patrons who promise career advancement in exchange for sexual favors; and prompters (what we now call stage managers) whose sincere affection for an actress leads to inappropriate familiarity. But the figure who appears most prominently is the manipulative manager, whose present-day analogue would roughly be the producer or director. In The Half Sisters, manager Montague St Leger begins by bestowing “little privileges” on heroine Bianca Fonsari as a prelude to inviting her to his private room and promising to promote her if she complied “with conditions, insinuated, rather than clearly expressed.” (The parallels with Weinstein are uncanny—moments like these explain why, last fall, I kept thinking “this is just like an actress novel” when reading the news.) Bianca refuses with vehement indignation, and St Leger assumes that he will eventually triumph and retrieve his pride because “ambition and hunger [will] bring her to terms.” He assumed wrongly. Due to a combination of obstinacy and fidelity to her lover Conrad, Bianca holds out against St Leger’s bullying, and she ultimately receives her dismissal.
Characters like St Leger are often caricatures, an importation of melodramatic villainy into domestic realism. Yet, despite their shared use of melodrama, actress novels are far different from long-form journalism bearing titles like “Young Harvey Weinstein: The Making of a Monster.” St Leger is a villain, but he’s an oddly marginal one. In a typical melodrama, the villain drives the action, the hero reacts to the action and the heroine is the direct object of the action. Thus, even though melodramas can provide powerful expressions of women’s experience of victimization, they generally confine women to that role (with the exception of erotic domestic love, for hopefully the female victim will be reunited with the honest man she loves before the curtain falls). St Leger might be one-dimensional, but by confining such characters to the narrative function of sexual aggression, actress novels are able to explore the full meaning that aggression has within a heroine’s life. By taking advantage of her ambition, St Leger forces Bianca to deliberate over what route she’s willing to take in order to pursue that ambition and whether she’s willing to abandon that ambition if it requires acceding to St Leger’s demands. Because of St Leger’s retaliatory firing, Bianca also must seek out a new opportunity to satisfy both her hunger and her artistic desires—while also reassessing those desires given the damning knowledge about her profession St Leger’s manipulation has thrust upon her. Through his one-dimensionality, St Leger functions as a symptom of an institutional culture in which men exercise control over women’s career trajectory. Even exceptional talent and the market value bestowed by audience favor, which Bianca possesses, cannot fully safeguard an actress from abuse of power.
The task facing #MeToo narratives is to find a way to frame people like Weinstein as symptoms rather than anomalies. A charismatic businessman who nurtured independent filmmaking and promoted liberal causes, Weinstein was and is more than an aggressor, but in the lives of Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek, he actually does occupy the function of an aggressor who symptomatizes the difficulties women face in achieving safety and self-determination in their careers. Actress novels encourage us to promote the approach Ronan Farrow takes by never ending with the scenes of alleged harassment and abuse perpetrated by Weinstein and Les Moonves. Instead, he recounts the consequences such traumatic experiences have had on his interviewees’ professional and personal lives, resulting in a richer explanation of why sexual harassment is actually a problem than that which is provided by lists which pruriently catalog the details of alleged assaults. Taken in isolation, sexual aggression leads to physical harm and/or emotional distress; placed into context, sexual aggression also leads to the devaluation of women’s labor and reduces the contribution of women’s creativity, skills and dedication to their respective occupational fields. #MeToo is distinct from movements addressing sexual misconduct on college campuses and city streets because of its emphasis on how a women’s presence is taken to be an invitation to sexual contact even when she’s just trying to do her job. In order to fully understand why women and other disempowered workers cannot always do their jobs, we need stories that not only center the victimized—whether male or female—but continue to follow their protagonists long after the events that prompt them to proclaim, “Me, too.”
Enter, again, the actress novel. Scenes of attempted assault and sexual bullying typically come early in an actress novel. The early appearance of male sexual aggression can be attributed in part to the genre’s indebtedness to the familiar plot of an ingénue’s maturation (David Copperfield’s stint at the bottling factory is a familiar male-focused example). But this convention also means that their plots are able to explore the complex, protracted consequences that follow from sexual harassment and assault. In Pomfret, narrator Walter Carew is puzzled why the passionate and proud soprano Helena Porzheim submits to her manipulative singing-master Golstein, a man who schemes to marry his protegée not out of sexual interest but so that he can exploit her earnings. The reason for her submission becomes clear once he learns of her back story. Helena attempts to transform her juvenile love for singing into a career so that she can support her mother and jilted sister, yet she eschews the protection of Madame Huttenbrenner after Madame conspires with the louche Prince Caspar to give Helena patronage in exchange for sex. Helena gradually reveals the motivations that led her story to take the shape it did: she chooses what she thinks to be temporary dependence on her singing-master after refusing a far more indeterminate and objectifying dependence on Madame Huttenbrenner and her co-conspirators. Because Caspar’s attempted rape indirectly leads to Helena’s resignation to Golstein’s exploitation, Pomfret tells the story of a system in which abuse begets abuse and severely limits a working woman’s exercise of agency. At the same time, by exploring Helena’s interiority and decision-making, the novel restores to Helena the personhood Golstein and Caspar attempt to dispossess. Golstein and Caspar are not only symptoms of a corrupt system of patronage that render women like Helena vulnerable to harassment and assault; they’re also agents within a narrative structure which shape—but do not completely determine—the trajectory young woman’s life takes. #MeToo discourse should take a cue from Pomfret and other actress novels by keeping company with victims as they navigate the consequences that result from inhabiting a system in which sex is used as a tool for reinforcing their subordination. Taken as a model for constructing a narrative framework for #MeToo stories, actress novels have their limitations. By generally focusing on middle-class women, they provide little insight into how working-class women navigate a society which presumes the exploitability and expendability of their labor. They’re unable to examine the way racial inequality further disempowers black and brown women facing sexual harassment, though actress novels do attempt to say something about how gender intersects with ethnicity, even if it’s inadequate to our needs—heroines are often partly or fully non-English, as in the case of half-Italian Bianca and German-Jewish Helena. Finally, while the analysis of power the genre typically provides can offer some explanation of Kevin Spacey’s treatment of younger actors, it doesn’t explain how homosexuality might cause particular forms of vulnerability. Still, the genre has much to offer Victorianists searching for texts to bring into dialogue for #MeToo; writers searching for narrative conventions that address the complexity of institutional power; and readers searching for a framework for making sense of their discontent with previous #MeToo reporting. In an era where “sexual misconduct” has become a buzzword again, novels that explore the causes and ramifications of what The Half Sisters calls “heartless conduct” are due for a comeback.
 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/what-happened-charlie-rose-we-asked-his-friends-associates-1101333; https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/lines-got-blurred-jeffrey-tambor-an-up-close-look-at-harassment-claims-transparent-1108939. For an example of reporting whose sympathies lie with the accusers while taking this angle, see https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/celebs/a22853840/metoo-hollywood-men-comeback/