Celebrity women have really been making use of the op-ed lately. Leighton Meester, however, has really taken the cake. Take notes for your next term paper because her piece, “I’m Not A Tart: The Feminist Subtext Of Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men” is a great piece of writing that speaks to a theme that permeates literature, film and television: audiences seem to hate women characters for no reason, especially when they ‘get in the way’ of men.
Leighton plays Curley’s wife, in Of Mice And Men’s broadway production. The character is so dehumanized she doesn’t even have a name, she is only regarded as a tart, a tramp and a bitch despite having only had sex with one man, her husband. Of course these demeaning nicknames are mostly spewed at her by the man she married.
Leight writes, “But why is Curley’s wife’s presence so disturbing? And why does the audience agree? It’s the subconscious and inflammatory nature of Steinbeck’s writing that makes the viewer join in on the bashing of this woman, punish her existence, snicker at her mishaps. The genius and relevancy behind Steinbeck’s mission in writing this piece is that, to this day, it forces you to see yourself, to expose the depth of your own intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and naiveté.”
What Leighton finds disturbing is that the audience laughed, taunted and relished in her character being mistreated. Because the male characters regarded Curley’s wife as a whore, due to the characters’ own internalized misogyny, the audience began to see her that way, even with no evidence to suggest so, perhaps because today we ourselves still have so much internalized misogyny.
“Steinbeck sheds light on what is behind this character without a name, writing that, ‘She was told over and over that she must remain a virgin because that was the only way she could get a husband … She only had that one thing to sell and she knew it.’ He goes on, ‘She is a nice, kind girl and not a floozy. No man has ever considered her as anything except a girl to try to make … As to her actual sex life — she has had none except with Curley and there has probably been no consummation there since Curley would not consider her gratification and would probably be suspicious if she had any.'”
Steinbeck’s intent in writing Curley’s wife wasn’t to portray a whore, it was to portray the vileness of sexism, but audiences fail to miss that point and so when Curley’s wife dies they are happy to see her go. They even laugh.
“The insults are thrown at Curley’s wife: bitch, tramp, tart. The further along in the production we go, the more I realize that the audience agrees. In rooting for our heroes—the everyman protagonists who scorn and demean the only woma—the audience finds themselves unquestioningly hating her, too. [...] The final, eerie moment of her life is often accompanied by the uproar of laughter. She is violently shaken, rendered lifeless. It doesn’t seem to get less painful for me, less terrifying, less tragic with time, yet our unusually young audience seems unfazed, if not amused by the savage act. “
This reminds me a lot of Skylar on Breaking Bad. As Walter White becomes a murderous, vindictive, megalomaniac Skylar begins to challenge him for her own personal safety and the safety of her son. Yet viewers hated Skylar because they perceived her as an ungrateful bitch getting in the way of their anti-hero’s empire. It didn’t matter that Skylar was courageously standing up to an actual violent criminal to salvage what was left of her family, it only mattered that she was a woman who dared to stand up to a man that the viewers loved. It didn’t matter that Walter White was cruel and monstrous, it mattered that he was likable.
The venom spit at Skyler’s character was so harsh that the actress who portrayed her, Anna Gunn, wrote a similar op-ed in The New Times, called “I Have Character Issues.“
Anna wrote, “My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. [...] Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”
The one thing many people hate, more than a woman who is strong, complex and intelligent, is a woman who has the tenacity to get in a man’s way—even if he should be held culpable and even if she is righteous.
[Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images]