(photo ‘ Sunset’ by Gerd Altman on Pixabay)
I find it immensely interesting how we view things through the lens of our experiences, judgements and political beliefs. What I as a writer may want to express may not necessarily be interpreted by a reader in the same way.
In my novel Monsoons and Marigolds the main character, Colette, is a woman with issues who reacts to the other characters in ways that reflect what is going on inside her, but does not always endear her to those around her. My intention was to show an idealistic young woman under pressure (she’s taken hostage), whose past is something she hasn’t come to terms with but through the course of the novel she gains self-awareness and empathy for others. Unfortunately, none of that was picked up by one reader, who trashed the novel in a review because she hated the character.
At the beginning of the book we learn that Colette has a difficult relationship with her mother, which she expresses verbally. The reader’s mother had just died and the reader felt that Colette should have been more respectful and not expressed any negative feelings about her mother. We all make judgements of books and poems based on what we bring ourselves to the experience and nothing I could say to that reader would have changed her perception about my book. The character was fictional and the reasons for her behaviour were slowly revealed along with how her experiences changed her, but for that reader the book was a trigger for a hurtful experience that coloured her reading of the novel.
Our judgements about certain books or poems may change over time because our experiences will probably be different, our attitudes changing as we grow older. I was reminded of this when I picked up the paper to check out what was on TV this week and saw A Star Is Born is being featured. Last year I read a feminist critique of the film on Lindsay Romain’s blog (https://medium.com/search?q=A%20star%20is%20born%20is%20not%20a%20love%20story). In it she asserts that:
“A Star is Born isn’t about a star being born. It’s about the implosion of a star. It’s about the way female stories are framed in male agony. It’s about how women do and do and do, and are punished for loving, for caring, for being. It’s a film that, in its closing moments, tells us addiction is the fault of the addicted. It’s also a film that absolves emotional abuse because of an addiction, perpetuating the myth that deranged acts are generated by liquid — instead of coming from a deeper, uglier place.”
Ms Romain’s critique of addiction and co-dependency are spot on, as are her statements about personal responsibility:
“I return frequently to a quote I once heard about mental illness: “It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.” Jackson’s addiction isn’t his fault; he’s suffering from an annihilating disease borne out of torment, grief, and chemistry. But when you are actively hurting the people around you, addiction takes on a new identity. It isn’t yours anymore — it’s a shared additive. And it doesn’t forgive the other parts of you that are manipulative and questionable. We cannot and should not excuse the horrible things foisted on women by drunken men. And yet, A Star is Born asks us to forgive Jackson because he was just, you know, drunk.”
As a feminist reading I can’t fault her critique. I like to think I’m a feminist, but it doesn’t rule everything I think and do like it used to, when I was a young, angry, radical feminist. As a younger woman, the inequality in the male/female status was an over-riding concern of mine. Yes, I’m still concerned about it, but now that I’m much older I seem to view the film through a different pair of eyes; eyes that see men and women as people rather than adversaries. People shaped by their emotions, upbringing, insecurities and societal expectations. People with flaws.
What I liked about the film was the honest portrayal of someone in the grip of addiction and the consequences of being involved with someone like that. Both characters are insecure with physical ‘flaws’ and flawed personalities, both are affected by family, both see a ‘saviour’ in the other, both are exploited by the music industry. And at the end both sacrifice something out of love for the other – Ally is prepared to sacrifice her tour for Jackson and Jackson ultimately sacrifices his life to stop holding Ally’s career back.
The nasty moments in the fim, like when his jealousy spills over and he calls her ugly, or when he gets pissed the night of her award and then pisses himself on stage, are, according to Ms Romain:
“This kind of nastiness isn’t brewed by spirited potions. It comes from a separate plane. This is the ugly part of Jackson that pushed his brother away. The hollowed core in the middle, the part of him that won’t deal, won’t try, won’t address.”
They are also part of the arc of the film. First you like him at the beginning, then in those moments of lack of self-control you lose sympathy for him, and this takes you through to the end where you feel his death is such a waste. But those ‘nasty’ moments are honest portrayals of the spitefulness and anger that flares up through jealousy. And who’s never been jealous, or done and said spiteful things to those we love? Bad behaviour is never excusable, but as flawed human beings ourselves, we do understand it.
Ms Romain ends her critique with:
“This isn’t a love story. It’s a horror story about how men feed off of and manipulate women, and how that mistreatment is written off as disease instead of culpability. It isn’t romantic. It’s a diabolical message reverberating through current events.
A star may be born, but at what cost?”
I can’t disagree with her perception, but I feel the film is more of an indictment of the music industry, how it gobbles people up and spits them out again, and how far the effects of this reverberate, rather than it being just another expression of male dominance and female exploitation. But that’s only my perception…