MARCH 15, 2019
IN THE MID-1970s, when I was listening to women’s voices with an interest in people’s conceptions of self and of morality, I discovered that listening to women made a difference: it changed conversations about ethics and politics. In a Different Voice: You will note that the word “woman” did not appear in my title. And yet at the time it was almost impossible not to hear the different voice as a woman’s voice or to assume that the voice it differed from was the voice of men. So pervasive, so unquestioned were the gender binary and hierarchy at that time, so invisible the framework. Without a conscious thought, we more or less took it for granted that human capacities have a gender, that they are either masculine (reason, mind, self) or feminine (emotions, body, relationships), and that the masculine capacities are stronger, better, more valued, and consequently more prized and highly rewarded.
It took the whole of Act I to sort this out. The crucial insight came from a study with girls, or rather from the series of studies that comprised the 10-year Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, involving hundreds of girls from a range of ethnic and class backgrounds in a variety of school and after-school settings. When I embarked on this project in the early 1980s after writing In a Different Voice, I had no idea what I was walking into. But listening to girls and, in particular, listening to girls narrate their experiences in coming of age illuminated that what has been considered development is better conceived as a process of initiation — an induction into a culture that requires the separation of reason from emotion, the mind from the body, the self from relationships, and of girls from their honest voices.
The unexpected finding of the research was the evidence of girls’ resistance to making these separations. As a healthy body resists infection, a healthy psyche resists an initiation that would compromise basic human capacities — our capacity for empathy, caring, and cooperation. Or to put it more starkly, an initiation that by compromising our humanity clears the way for all forms of oppression and injustice (racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it) because it subverts our moral intelligence and dulls our ethical imagination.
In the name of goodness or getting along or getting ahead in the world, girls becoming young women come under pressure to silence an honest voice, to not say or know what they are really feeling and thinking but instead to say what others want them to say or feel or think or know. And in many ways, this self-silencing is adaptive, leading girls to do well in school and to be chosen rather than cast off or left out, given the worlds they are entering as teenagers. Yet girls resist silencing the voice that says what they are “actually” or “really” feeling and thinking. In the course of the research, the words “actually” and “really” became markers of this resistance: “Do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know what I really think,” a woman asked me one day.
And perhaps the most stunning finding of the studies with girls was that the shrewder or more articulate among them named the folly, the absurdity one might say, of silencing oneself. It was a devil’s bargain: either way, by saying what they were feeling and thinking or by never uttering their real thoughts and feelings, girls would be giving up on their desire to live with integrity in relationship with others. What many girls had taken as ordinary prior to adolescence — having a voice — came instead to seem extraordinary. Loss and betrayal, it appeared, were scripted into the process of growing up.
It was in 2002, in my book The Birth of Pleasure, that I first gave name to the force girls were resisting. Patriarchy. An order of living founded on a gender binary and hierarchy, where people and things (colors, foods, cars, ways of speaking) are either masculine or feminine as the binary would have it and where the masculine is elevated over the feminine; where to be a “real man,” means not to be a woman or like a woman (girly or gay), and to be a good woman means to be “selfless,” responsive to others and seemingly without needs or desires or a voice of one’s own. Like angels.
This is the culture girls encounter full force in coming of age — the culture they have to resist if they want to have their voice and also have relationships. From my research, culminating in three books and anthologies published this past year, three things were clear: 1) The different voice, although associated with women and heard as feminine, is actually a human voice: a voice that connects thought with emotion, the mind with the body, and the self with relationships. 2) The voice it differs from is a patriarchal voice. Listen for its tell-tale markers: the gender binary (self or relationships) and hierarchy (reason over emotion), and 3) Where patriarchy is in force and enforced, the human voice is a voice of resistance: it is an alternative to the violence and it breaks the silence that maintains a patriarchal order. This was Act I.
Act II begins on a plane. I am flying home from a family vacation and among the films available for viewing is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I decide to watch it. I don’t recall ever feeling so oddly disquieted by a film, so destabilized by the responses it evokes in me. I am tempted to stop watching. The film is cueing me to respond in a way that I recognize and find familiar, and then undercutting that response. I leave the plane feeling irritated and strangely unsettled.
The following week I teach a master class in Brussels and on the return flight, Phantom Thread is still playing. For reasons I don’t quite understand — it could just be Daniel Day-Lewis — I feel compelled to watch it again. But this time I now know what I was seeing and my response becomes one of astonishment. That this film was made, that it is being shown on a plane, and that it was made by a straight man — strike me as deeply hopeful. When my husband asks why his being straight is relevant, I can’t explain it. But by then I have two further examples of films released in this past year that were written and directed by straight men — Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman — that strike me as harbingers. I want to try to talk about these films and to articulate why they signaled to me the opening of a new act in the drama of In a Different Voice and why this leads me to feel hopeful.
In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Anderson, who lives with Maya Rudolph, said that the inspiration for Phantom Thread came from his own experience. The incident in question occurred when he became ill with a flu so severe that it became impossible for him to do what he always had done, namely, to “soldier on.” Forced to slow down, with no choice but to take to his bed, he needed his partner to take care of him, and she did. Yet he was taken aback when she said, “Oh, I like you like this,” meaning, he explains, vulnerable and open. To him, this was a revelation.
In the film, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a renowned fashion designer who makes gowns for wealthy women and royalty. He is elegant and handsome, a self-obsessed man consumed by his talent and creativity. Day-Lewis worked closely with Anderson in creating the script; like Anderson, he too is in long relationship with a strong woman (the filmmaker Rebecca Miller). As fathers of sons, both men can be said to be invested, or at the very least implicated, in what it means and what it takes to become a man.
As the film opens, we see Woodcock deliver an elaborate dress to one of his fawning wealthy patrons. Exhausted, he drives to the country that evening. In the morning, he goes to a small country inn for breakfast and there he meets Alma (the name means soul), a waitress. She stumbles and blushes as she approaches his table and immediately we register his attraction; he sees something in her and invites her to dine with him that evening. But, as we also see, Alma sees him. On the paper she hands him, she has written, “For the hungry boy.” What follows is predictable: Alma becomes Reynold’s muse, his model, and his lover — the latest in the string of women who entice him, whom he picks up and then discards when he finds them tiresome, or irritating, or when they become a distraction and disrupt his routine. Because as his name conveys, Woodcock is a rigid man. This doesn’t stop Alma from asserting herself. Right at the start, she tells him that in a staring contest she will win, and it’s true: in the end, her gaze is the more unflinching.
The phantom thread that runs through the film — we glimpse it briefly at the outset, lose sight of it, and then see it again at the end — is that Alma is the film’s protagonist. The story is her story about Reynolds. At the opening and closing frame of the film, we see her telling it to the man whom in the course of the film we will come to know as the doctor. She is the protagonist also in the sense that she initiates the action upon which the plot of the film turns — the action that leads Terry Gross to ask Anderson: “Do you sanction what she does?”
This is the unsettling question, the ethical question. “I’m groovy,” Anderson says. He sanctions love, he explains. And then adds that Reynolds “sees something in her […] he’s never seen before in someone,” that “he’s responding to a kind of a audacity in her that he finds really, really attractive,” and that when it comes right down to it, it takes a “gigantic and large act […] for him to feel dominated and cared about,” an act that “brings him back to this love that he clearly has for her.” This is the unsettling insight.
In one sense, it’s obvious: as long as Reynolds remains rigid and holds on to control, he can neither feel nor express his love. What’s not obvious at first is that it takes an audacious act on Alma’s part to release what otherwise remains imprisoned: Reynolds’s humanity, and more specifically his love for her. Audacious in the sense of involving risk and also in forcing him to relinquish control. Here is what I think makes Anderson’s (and, his proxy, Reynolds’s) straightness relevant: because as a straight man, he has, one could say, everything to gain by staying in control and maintaining his position of dominance. And besides, audacity is not a word we commonly associate with love and caring.
I want to pause for a moment to register Anderson’s use of the word “care” in this context and his linking of Alma’s caring about Reynolds to her taking control and dominating him. The clear implication is that left to himself, Reynolds would never let go of control, would never allow himself to become vulnerable, and thus could not access his love or allow himself to feel cared about by her. In the course of the film, Reynolds comes both to recognize and to sanction what she does, and in the end, it is this that makes Anderson’s film at once so extraordinary and so challenging.
Let’s go on. Alma sees that Reynolds’s interest in her is waning. He is irritated by the noise she makes at breakfast when she butters her toast. She counters that this is his problem, but as he said to her predecessor, “I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations.” We see the writing on the wall; Reynolds is preparing to send Alma away. His sister Cyril will do the dirty work for him, sending her off with a dress as compensation.
Anticipating this move, Alma decides to take matters into her own hands. She will prepare a romantic dinner for just the two of them. She will make him a martini, cook him asparagus, and in that way, show him her love. Cyril is wary and tries to warn her, but Alma goes ahead with her plan, which explodes in her face. Reynolds is furious, an icy fury. She has disrupted his routine and besides, she did not make the asparagus in the way he likes. “Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” he asks her. “When the hell did this happen? Who are you? Do you have a gun?”
She tells him that she could not bear just standing around waiting for him to send her away. Her position was untenable. We see this, but Reynolds is unmoved. Silently we tell her: leave him!
It’s not what she does. Instead she sees what he cannot allow her to see, and she acts on what she perceives: not only is Reynolds a hungry boy, he is a loving man living behind a barricade of constriction, a man caught in a kind of elegant captivity. Faced by the imminence of his rejection, Alma recognizes that his love had become captive, not only to the ghost of his dead mother but also to his rigid masculinity. Seeing the toxin, she finds the antidote.
The film takes on the quality of a fairy tale as we watch Alma go into the woods. In his interview with Gross, Anderson explains that he had been reading ghost stories and also fairy tales, which, given his four young children, were lying around his house. We see Alma in the kitchen poring over a book of mushrooms, peering at its illustrations. We watch her in the woods picking a yellow-brown mushroom we recognize as poisonous. We see her scrape the its flesh and carefully measure out the grains. She is making a tea for Reynolds. We see him become violently ill.
Do you sanction what she does?
In a scene after his submission to the illness, Reynolds, wearing a woolen bathrobe over his pajamas, sits with Alma on the sofa where she had spent the night. Now for the first time, he says what previously he could not say. He tells Alma that he loves her. He asks her: will she marry him? We watch her seeing him, a long look. She has to be clear about what she is seeing. Yes, she says. Yes, she will.
Do you sanction what she does?
The story has a fairy tale ending: Alma and Reynolds have a baby. They are in a park; Cyril sits on a bench; we see her rocking the baby carriage as Alma and Reynolds walk down a path together. But all this she narrates from an armchair. She talks about Reynolds and the life they have created together, a life of abundance that encompasses them both, including his devotion to work and also her love of play. It was not the romantic dinner but the poisonous mushroom that was the crucial intervention. An antidote found in nature to something toxic in the culture, an audacious act at once risky and freeing, releasing a love that had been held captive.
Paul Schrader cites Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light among the inspirations for his film First Reformed, which also features a pastor who has lost his faith. The pastor is Ernst Toller, and Schrader makes the connection to Donne: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” It could be slogan of the environmental movement, which features centrally in the film. Schrader explains that he made the film because having reached his 70s, he told himself: “It’s time to write that script you swore you would never write.”
A member of a military family, Toller had been a chaplain at Virginia Military Institute. He had encouraged his son to enlist, but when his son is killed in the Iraq War, he is shattered. His faith is challenged, and he leaves the military academy; he leaves his marriage. He becomes the pastor at First Reformed, a church that is a historic relic, now mainly a tourist attraction, an adjunct to a thriving megachurch with its ebullient black pastor.
Toller sells postcards from the gift shop. He conducts services for the scatter of people who show up on Sundays. And among them one Sunday is a pale young woman who waits for him after the service. She is pregnant. Her name is Mary. She explains that her husband insists that she cannot have the baby. Will Reverend Toller speak with him? Toller drives to the house to find the husband glued to his computer. He blizzards the reverend with chart after chart forecasting environmental disaster. How could one think of bringing a child into this? “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” he asks the pastor. Toller has no answer. “Who can know the mind of God?” he says.
The husband goes into the woods and shoots himself. Toller finds the body. When the megachurch pastor organizes a celebration to mark the sestercentennial of First Reformed, which is underwritten by the fossil fuel company, it’s clear: Toller has reached the end of his rope. As we watch the crowd assemble in the historic church for the celebration, we see Toller in his upstairs room retrieving an explosive vest he had taken from the environmentalist’s home. We watch him strap it on under his vestments. He opens a bottle of Drano and pours himself a cup.
In an interview, Schrader speaks about the ending:
He drank the cup of [Drano], and now he’s there dying. And God comes — this is the God that hasn’t spoken to him for the whole movie — and as he’s on all fours dying, God walks over to him and says, “Reverend Toller, would you like to see what heaven looks like? I’m going to show it to you right now. I’m going to open the doors and this is what it looks like. It looks like one, long, slow kiss.[”] And he’s in heaven.
“It’s an unexpected moment,” Schrader explains, “that leaves you thinking, whoa, what did I just watch?”
What we see is that Mary is with him. Suddenly she’s there in the room with Toller, and they experience the full force of their love and it releases him. We don’t quite know if what we’re watching is happening in that spare room with its white walls and wooden floor, winter light coming through the windows, or in Toller’s mind as he is dying or whether they are in fact in heaven, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Because Schrader has made a film to show that in the face of impending doom, there is only one answer. Love. Schrader believed it but he’d sworn he’d never say it.
BlacKkKlansman. The title stops me, and then I see it. Lee is taking us into the heartland of white supremacy, the KKK, but the second k is also a bridge, crossing the gap between Black and Klansman. A Black Klansman? It actually happened. In the 1970s, in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth became the Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police, as the chief described him, the first black man to join the force. Becoming a detective, he then went undercover and joined the Klan. Improbable but true.
Here’s how it happens in Lee’s retelling. An ad in the local paper says that the Klan is seeking recruits. Stallworth picks up the phone and dials the number. “God bless White America!” he says in the message he leaves on the machine. By mistake, he also leaves his real name. The Klan calls right back. They have no inkling who they are talking to. Fluent in jive and also the King’s English, Stallworth code switches. But when they say they want to meet him, Ron Stallworth needs a white face. In Lee’s film, the white cop who stands in for Stallworth undercover is Flip Zimmerman, a Jew.
I see the film at a movie theater in Oak Bluffs, the largely African-American summer community on the otherwise mostly white island of Martha’s Vineyard, originally inhabited by the Wampanoag Native Americans. I register my unease as I watch the opening, a scene from Gone with the Wind, showing a disconsolate Scarlett O’Hara weaving her way through the bodies of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers lying on the streets of Atlanta, followed by grainy black-and-white shots of a pro-segregationist stumbling through a monologue in which he explains the so-called science behind white supremacy. Yet part way into the actual story, when the black Ron Stallworth asks his Jewish white counterpart Flip Zimmerman, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” my unease vanishes.
It was Lee’s decision to make the white cop Jewish (in Stallworth’s memoir he is not), and it strikes me initially as a courageous move on Lee’s part. But I also come to see it as part of a larger pattern, in which Lee challenges what he calls the “Okey-dokey,” things we unwittingly nod our assent to, and I recognize that especially now, when in Lee’s words we as a nation are living in “pure, undiluted insanity,” his film, as he explained to a journalist, is directed to America and asking: “Why don’t you wake up?”
Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?
In BlacKkKlansman, Lee casts the debate over violent versus nonviolent responses to the violence of racism as an argument between the glorious Patrice, head of the Black Students Union at Colorado College, and Stallworth, the undercover cop. Patrice hosts the rally for the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael: she introduces Carmichael by his nom de guerre Kwame Ture; she raises her fist in the air in the call for Black power; to her all cops are “pigs.” Stallworth is drawn to Patrice, he raises his fist in half-hearted assent to her message, but he is attending the rally as the detective assigned to ferret out and prevent outbreaks of violence. And it is Stallworth, working undercover with the Klan, who in the end saves Patrice from the bomb intended for her and planted by the wife of one of the Klansmen. Black/white, black/Jew, man/woman — none of these binaries goes unchallenged.
Lee released his film in the summer of 2018, on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville rally. He had ended it with footage from Charlottesville showing swastika-carrying white supremacists marching, followed by a photograph of Heather Heyer, the white woman killed by the white supremacist who plowed his car into the counter-protestors.
“Maybe not everyone who is white is a racist,” Lee said to one of the journalists who questioned him, “but racism is what makes us white.” Maybe not every man is a patriarch, but patriarchy is what makes us men. Like Anderson and Schrader, Lee is a straight man; he too is in a long relationship with a strong woman; he too is the father of a son. However starkly the words “Black” and “Klan” stand out, “man” is also part of his title. And in his film, it is Ron Stallworth, the Black Klansman, who takes a stand against a manhood predicated on supremacy, a manhood shored up by violence.
Among the deepest insights I have come to in the course of my work is that the requisites for love and the requisites for citizenship in a democratic society are one and the same. Both depend on our having a voice, the ability to communicate our experience, and also on our desire to live in relationship, not alone or walled off from others. The paradigm shift that has been spreading across the human sciences since the mid-1970s has changed the questions about both ethics and politics, because if, as the evidence now strongly attests, we, meaning humans, are inherently relational and responsive beings, born with a voice and with the desire to engage responsively with others, then the question is no longer how do we gain our humanity but how do we lose it?
What struck me as deeply hopeful in 2018, along with the unprecedented number and diversity of women elected to the House of Representatives, was that three straight men, filmmakers working in the mainstream, had taken up the questions raised by In a Different Voice: namely, the need for a human voice to counter a voice that constrains our humanity — the call to reframe our understanding of care and to recognize the audacity in caring: the risk it involves, the intelligence it takes, the audacity of love.
In a Different Voice, Act II: What initially sounded like a woman’s story is now recognized as a human story (why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game brother?); the different voice is a voice that helps by opposing the patriarchal voice; it is a voice of resistance, deeply unsettling (Do you sanction what she does?), leaving us unsure as to what we’re watching (is this love happening in real time, or is it a fantasy?) and improbably crossing what had been taken as irreconcilable opposites or impermeable boundaries: black and white, black and Jewish, man and woman, masculine and feminine, militant and nonviolent, audacious and caring.
Carol Gilligan is the author of In a Different Voice, The Birth of Pleasure, Kyra: A Novel, and most recently, Darkness Now Visible (with David Richards) and Why Does Patriarchy Persist? (with Naomi Snider).