It took an audience member with a question late in a New Yorker Festival panel on “The Female Gaze” to inspire three renowned women writers of television, fiction and poetry to address the most agonizing recent example of male vs. female expression: the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings. Pulling no punches, Rachel Bloom, co-created and star of the CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend lamented what she saw as the dichotomy between the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, who was voted Saturday to the Supreme Court.
“The scary part is that her side is true and his side is lying,” Bloom said, to cheers from the audience at the “Female Gaze” event that explored ways women writers are reframing stories of desire and objectification. “[Kavanaugh’s] side is the male gaze but he’s f***ing lying. It’s not as pure as two different sides, and he’s actively lying, at least about binge drinking and it’s scary that people can see her speak and think it’s a lie.”
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Fellow panelist Kristen Roupenian, whose New Yorker short story, “Cat Person,” was not only the second-most read among all stories in the magazine last year but also inspired enormous discussion about relationships added, “I watched that testimony for six hours and afterward I felt like I had drunk poison. It’s very clear she’s telling the truth and he’s unhinged….And I saw myself in that [situation] so excruciatingly because that’s what I do when I’m scared and I want people to believe me: I’m so accommodating, I’m so nice. And it f***ing doesn’t get you anything.”
Prior to the blowout question, the discussion among the panelists —a group that also included writer and actor Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of the lyrical memoir, The Terrible — centered on ways to counter the objectification of women in all art as perceived by men (thus, the “male gaze”). The female gaze, the writers felt, had less to do with regarding men in the same objectified way, but all felt the “correct” way to approach the topic was open to discussion. Or, as New Yorker writer Katy Waldman, who led the panel, wryly suggested, “It’s the human gaze if we suddenly granted humanity to women.”
Each of the writers used both their own art and the myriad reactions to it to offer their approaches to the topic. Daley-Ward admitted to once writing an unsuccessful novel with white men at the center of the action because she felt that’s what had the best chance of selling; but inspired by authors such as Alice Walker, she learned to trust her own voice, convinced that, “the moment you get honest it’s just more exciting,” not to mention powerful and relatable.
Bloom, a Golden Globe Best Actress winner and multiple Emmy nominee, offered lesson after eloquent and hilarious lessons on everything from the improper semantics of Marc Maron calling Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a “guilty pleasure” on his podcast (implying, as Bloom said, that it was “frivolous”), to an astonishing clip that became a teachable moment about the unattractive trials a woman goes through to get ready for a date (two words: butt waxing).
Roupenian, who also shared long-time trials of attempting to get more honest with her work, spoke of the need to create a level of subjectivity, especially in the face of Twitter users who believe she’d simply published her diary to create “Cat Person.” The story’s main character, Roupenian reminded, is 20, while she’s 37, and dating a woman.
All three panelists (Lena Dunham, Emmy winning creator of Girls, was scheduled to join in but canceled for health reasons) offered instances of the “female gaze” in art being a work in progress, both because of societal expectations and the ways women perceive themselves. And, with a nod to #MeToo, Bloom, citing the most recent powerful exec ousted from his post for harassment claims, admitted, “One of the great champions of [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] was Les Moonves, so that’s been weird. I don’t know how to reconcile that.”
The Kavanaugh question seemed to crystallize the writers’ frustrations — and the right next steps. As Roupenian ultimately put it, “We tried to get them to listen, we tried to say what we thought and they didn’t listen so now we just have to be the ones in power.”
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