A man is pinned supine on a bed, blood spurting from his neck in parabolic arcs, as two women work together to restrain his body while thrusting a sword under his chin to cut off his head. Oh dear – has cancel culture, as many op-ed authors fretted this year, finally gone too far?
It’s alright, we can stop the handwringing. The gory scene is from a 17th-century painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, which is currently hanging in the National Gallery in London. It is part of a sumptuous exhibition on Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who is sometimes better known for accusing a man of rape than for the considerable talent she possessed. It’s the first time in the gallery’s 196-year history that an exhibition has been dedicated to a female artist, and the show has been met with rave reviews by critics and public alike. So why now?
Three years ago, #MeToo went viral, and the movement has fundamentally changed who is being allowed to speak and what is being celebrated. The results, now taking hold, are plain to see: In film, television, music, art and literature, women are finally being given the opportunity to tell stories in ways that feel authentic to their experiences. This feminist reckoning delivered some of 2020′s best cultural products, including but not limited to the Artemisia exhibit; Kitty Green’s film The Assistant; Fiona Apple’s widely touted album of the year Fetch the Bolt Cutters; and Michaela Coel’s television masterpiece I May Destroy You.
All four deal with the difficult and delicate subject matter of sexual assault, told from a woman’s perspective. Take Artemisia’s iconic painting again. She started her first version of it in 1613, soon after enduring physical torture and public humiliation as part of a seven-month trial against Agostino Tassi, a family friend who raped her when she was 17.
It’s easy to assume the artist was mining her own desire for revenge when devising her composition. Court transcripts from the trial detail how Tassi put a knee between Artemisia’s thighs to prevent her from closing them. In the painting, a small triangle of fabric visible near Holofernes’s armpit shows Judith using her own leg for leverage. Post-assault, Artemisia also tried to attack Tassi with a knife. The parallels continue beyond reasonable coincidence.
But to stop there is to do the artist a disservice. Artemisia was a professional, and her paintings were never only personal – in its time, Judith Beheading Holofernes was a political allegory about the Catholic Church prevailing over Protestantism and the Ottoman Turks. On a more poetic level, the painting is also about sisterhood. Judith and her maidservant display fearlessness, agency and unity, qualities not typically seen in treatments of the scene.
Fast-forward to the present day. The Assistant, a tense and understated film that depicts a day at an office, lays bare how a persistent culture of complicity has allowed monsters such as Harvey Weinstein to terrorize with impunity. Jane, played by Julia Garner, isn’t able to defeat the system by herself, but this reality check is the film’s triumph: It shows that misogyny’s rot cannot be removed by tossing out a few bad apples. This year we finally put the real Weinstein in prison. The real Janes are still out there in abundance.
One artist who has never been afraid to speak the truth is Fiona Apple, whose album Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an eloquent screed against toxic masculinity that urges listeners to enact their own liberation. Like Artemisia, much of the attention paid to Apple’s career has been coloured by her biography, specifically her rape at age 12. “The first thing I did after it happened was pray for him,” she told Vulture in April. It’s taken the musician until this album – her fifth – to express anger toward her rapist after finding renewed purpose and clarity in the #MeToo movement.
Loving your abuser, or at least your trauma, is often the most realistic method of recourse available to women who desperately need to heal. It’s a knotty truth that has eluded many depictions of bloodthirsty femme fatales guided by the male gaze.
Perhaps no work of art has handled the cloudy uncertainty of sexual violence so well as I May Destroy You. Michaela Coel – director, showrunner, writer and star – drew from her experience of rape to develop the series, which finely interrogates how we navigate consent and recover from trauma. The show’s finale sees protagonist Arabella return to the scene of her assault. It becomes clear that the “I” and “you” contained in the show’s title are one and the same person: Arabella can only move past her trauma by moving through it, which she does by exploring four alternate endings to her journey.
“History is created by repetition and magnification – something men have been quite good at,” writes feminist art historian Mary D. Garrard in Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe, published in March. “If a woman artist or writer is not augmented through these tools, her ars will not be longa,” she continues, referencing the Latin aphorism “Ars longa, vita brevis,” or “Art is long, life is short.”
Sexual violence threatens to abbreviate the lives of far too many women, and surveys show that gender-based violence has worsened this year, a pandemic within the pandemic. Revenge against rapists is less desirable than bringing down the system that enables them – we must cut at the root, not the head. It begins with the act of shifting our gaze. Women must author more of our own stories and shape conversations about what power looks like. Judith may be holding the sword, but it’s Artemisia who wields the brush.
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