Thursday, January 11, 2018

Carmen for the #MeToo Era

Sunday's Golden Globes awards ceremony was all about fighting against men's abuse of women. And it's not only America endeavoring to raise awareness about the widespread social problem. The Opera of Florence, Italy, on Sunday premiered a new production of Carmen in which the eponymous heroine does not get killed. Instead, she kills Don Don José with a gun that she wrests from him. Producers say they wanted to draw attention to modern-day mistreatment of women.

Some of my European friends were put off by the Golden Globes speeches and said they were all about hating men. One said when Oprah delivered her much celebrated oration, she looked like she wanted to grab a man from the audience and devour him. Privately, many people had a problem with the Hollywood event, but now we hear publicly from Catherine Deneuve  and a hundred other women that preventing men from going after women is an attack on men's freedom of expression.

Deneuve and others, mostly women in the entertainment business, said in a letter published by Le Monde Tuesday that “Rape is a crime, but persistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression." They described #MeToo feminism as “a hatred of men and of sexuality,” and said that some men have already suffered professionally "while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual." Of course, there was an immediate backlash. 

Oprah Winfrey At the Golden Globe Award Ceremony
As someone who grew up in Europe but has lived long in the United States, I can understand both sides. Used to the ubiquitous, but harmless flirting with men in Europe, I found the social atmosphere in the United States to be so sterile at first that I often wondered how Americans married and produced children. In Europe and even in Africa I would receive compliments, flowers, chocolates and admiring looks from men. But in Washington, any compliments for my hair, clothing or figure come from women. I have never been sexually harassed at work. I even found myself envious once at dinner when two women, unattractive in my opinion, discussed unwanted attention from their male colleagues in the past. Not being able to contain myself, I finally exclaimed: "Wow, this has never happened to me - I must be very undesirable!"

After a while, I learned to appreciate the independence coming from not having to thank for gifts that did nothing but boost my false sense of "femininity." But over time, little things have built up into a bigger picture that could not be ignored: men would not offer me a seat on the train when I was pregnant, but women would. At work, it was men who kept me down and women who gave me a boost up. I have been insulted, attacked and belittled by men in the United States more than I ever have been in any other country. In the street, a driver once shouted after me "you c..." because I crossed a road when my light was green, but he moved forward and almost hit me.

Back in Europe when a woman approached a group of men, their eyes sparked and some sort of bantering ensued. They seemed to genuinely enjoy female company. In the States, I find the male conversation is more likely to come to a dead stop when a woman comes along, with men raising their eyes as if asking: "OK, how can we help you?" (so you can go away and we can continue). I often used to think American men really hate women. They certainly seem uncomfortable around them unless they smile very broadly, which I never do. Then I thought, OK they are just confused, and shy people often seem unfriendly.  

But reading the accounts of women who dealt with Weinstein and other men in power, I cannot but wonder what if not hatred could make a man treat a woman in such offensive manner as has been described.  It is one thing to try to seduce a woman with nice words, flowers and champaign, it's another to show her your ugly body and ask for services you would normally ask from a paid prostitute. The ugliness is not only in the sexual context. Just look at all the things Trump has said about Hillary.  I cannot imagine a politician anywhere in the world using such vulgar language about a woman. When a Polish representative in the EU said that women were inferior to men, he was quickly removed. 

People respond to hateful acts with hatred.  By her own account, Oprah was sexually abused as a child by a series of relatives.  If during her Golden Globe speech she looked like she wanted to devour a man, she had an excellent reason. Though I don't think she hates men in general.

Women worldwide have been treated hatefully by men. Deneuve and many others may not have experienced the worst of it. They have learned how to deal with unwanted attention from men and even use it to their advantage.  They have learned how to avoid getting into a situation where they could be raped (no one-to-one meetings in a hotel room).  They have got used to flirting, and many enjoy being pursued by men regardless of whether they find them attractive or not. In this push-and-pull game, both men and women have to be skilled in reading the signals telling them when to stop and when to go on. For those who despise such games, the alternative is a series of awkward or businesslike questions like: "May I kiss you? Are you ready to have sex?"  To which my answer (and I suspect Deneuve's too) would always be "not if you have to ask."

Unfortunately, Weinstein and the likes do not engage in harmless flirting games nor do they ask awkward questions. Neither do men who rape children in their family, or bosses who harass their female employees. They treat women like disposable objects, existing to serve, and with a big smile.  If they resist, they get beaten or maligned, or get their heads chopped off.  So movements like #MeToo and themed events like this year's Golden Globe ceremony, exaggerated as they may be, are useful and necessary tools in drawing attention to a social ill and the need to fight it.

New production of Carmen at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino  
Turning Carmen into a killer and Don José into an abusive man distracts from that purpose. Carmen is a troubled and complex person, who uses men for her purposes such as they may be at a given time.  Maybe she was an orphan, maybe she was raped as a child, maybe she was too much on the move to form a lasting attachment - whatever the reason, Carmen is not capable of genuine affection. She is a femme fatal, but also fatalistic.  In the "Card Trio" in Act 3, she foretells her death.  In the final act she embraces it.  When warned, she does not try to avoid a confrontation with Don José. She dares him to kill her or let her go. And when he refuses both, she riles him further by pulling his ring off her finger and throwing it at him.  Carmen is far from being an abused woman as portrayed at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and is much closer to what a hateful man on Facebook called a "bitch."  

An abusive man getting killed by the victim of his violence is an excellent topic for a new opera. So were Nixon in China and Dead Man Walking in their time.  The Opera of Florence would have done better to commission an entirely new work from a contemporary composer than intervene in a time-honored classic.
And in case you missed it, here is a NYT article with another European view:

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