And Valerie, So Over It

The Plight of Modern Women

And Valerie, So Over It

People around the world are struggling to come to terms with what appears to be a giant pratfall for mankind. After years of progressive politics, the bugle klaxon to stop and march backwards seems to have been sounded. A new US Presidency looms large over North America, and with it a sense of foreboding is creeping up on us. Questions of individual rights are again central, and we all know that women's rights will be among the first subjects queued up.

The real question, of course, is very deep, but we can take a bite of it and still get all of the flavours without appearing to gorge ourselves. We can sample the meal in an example, by asking the simple question, “What would it have cost Andy Warhol to treat Valerie Solanas like she was important?” We would sit for that meal because it offers a short allegory of, and no small insight into, our times. There is also the savoury aftertaste of potential solutions, and a potentially wicked dessert of satisfying humanitarianism. Valerie's tragic event, her quiet end, and sure that unfortunate thing with the pale fellow, is a meal that we should take our time to appreciate, because she has a lot to tell us.

Can we at least be honest and admit that some of us, until we heard the full story, thought she had shot what-his-name because of the Marilyn Monroe picture? Or the one with the soup cans? It would only attest to Valerie's good taste to suppose that those affronts to Art itself wound her up enough to send a message to the “painter.” Who can spend any time appreciating the poignant depths of a Rembrandt portrait, the story in a Vermeer, the absurdity in a Dali or Pollock, and then turn the same eye to a Warhol? Certainly, we would not wish for any violence but not because of how the bespectacled mannequin would handle the criticism; we just worry about Valerie doing something she will regret later.

Take a minute and imagine that you had invited Gordon Ramsay, or Graham Elliot, to your house for dinner. They fly from wherever they live to have you cook for them. Now picture yourself serving them Campbell's tomato soup and then, with a straight face, tell them it is art. You have to know they are going to be rude to you. The only up-side to that is that they won't shoot you.

It's not over, yet, though. No, you must then go on to talk down to them and explain that it is a criticism of the food world itself, describing how superficial and decayed our standards have become. You still won't get shot because they are peaceful men, but somebody out there would be considering it.

Valerie had to be incarcerated for shooting that guy—I forgot his name already—because that is the law. She did her time, and then moved on to become a law-abiding citizen in obscurity. It was a fair outcome to allow her. She had made a brassy and bold statement, stamping the ether with a momentous stand against shallow depravity in the form of a foppish dilettante. At that point, many would like to just move on to dessert, but the meal is not over. There is a rich gastronomy left in this tapestry of culture. We wouldn't want to miss anything.

The second course is simple and unadorned snobbery, born of a trend that women complained about more than two hundred years ago: We tend to raise men to be special—way too special. In some circles that does make dynamic and creative men, such as the artists mentioned above. In many cases it creates men of real internal strength and character. On the other hand, as Mary Wollstonecraft lamented, “When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject!” it has also created a tradition of exalting men for weakness rather than holding them to any reasonable standard.

But unlike much of the polarized ranting we hear today, Wollstonecraft was unwilling to let women off the hook for their part in the problem. Instead, she made it plain that women participated in it, often to preserve a short-term sense of security at the expense of long-term prosperity. There is a hint in her letter that women compete with women on this level, perpetuating the passivity and promoting "cleverness" as she calls it, in securing the protection of a man.

Granted, there was much more to her arguments, but her point was clear and well-put: It has to stop somewhere. She saw no need to place one gender over another, but only suggested that the ideals we are promoting make no sense in reality. In other words, the mess that Valerie found herself in as a young and naive woman had been flopping around like an octopus out of water, calling itself “culture” for a long time. Andy Warhol was just one of the unfortunate products.

The 60s and 70s were the aftermath of the Beat Generation, so named because of its association with the times after World War II. The 50s generations were prosperous, and possessed of great optimism because of new technology, but had also witnessed the World Wars, and came through it with a tremendous cynicism, hostility, and fatigue that is rarely dealt with in modern literature, except by Beat Poets and writers like Kesey and Burroughs and Ginsberg. The emotional exhaustion, pervasive as it was throughout North America, did not fit into the tradition of manly behaviour, and so remained suppressed. One result was deep and engaging thinkers like Kesey—just the kind of people who would have appreciated Valerie—and another result was a grateful escape into superficial exception.

Andy Warhol: “'Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it's the way things happen in life that's unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television—you don't feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it's all television.'” (Wikipedia).

Hearing him speak that way makes it too hard to put the incident down to just paranoid schizophrenia on Valerie's part. There is no room in Warhol's statement to believe that they were kind to her, or humane. Even the hind-sight admission that there was a mental health problem involved is a bit hard to swallow after hearing his wilfully detached perspective. What does make sense of it, is placing him in the big picture where his attitude fits neatly, snugly, within the tradition Mary W had warned about.

No dessert yet, though. The main course is yet to come. All of the above is important to us now because it is naive to think that we have learned better over the years. It is naive to think that the young women who now rant about feminism are somehow going to be taken seriously by the Andy Warhols in society. The New Warhols have not become less detached, but only learned that people can be led en masse by their passions, and bilked out of their self-respect if not their money. Can we suppose that such people have some idea what to do with all of that passion? No. To them, it is all like bad television. Andy taught them that cheap copies are just as good as the original, so the discussion that Mary W undertook has only become so much TV dinner. You're going to wake up at some point and realize you were about to eat that.

When the young women in our society, the New Valeries, go knock on “The Factory” door to ask for their script back, they will get laughed at. That's when the trouble will really begin. Ladies—he's a dead horse. You can keep shooting Andy Warhol all you want. Not he, nor any of his ilk, are going to respect you.

The fighting is something the New Warhols are counting on. Your rights are a discussion they do not need to have and, if they did, would only adopt a pose of indifference. At best the women would be suckered into the same old arguments that have been so fruitless in the past. A new strategy is needed that does not play into old biases.

A better strategy is simply the one adopted by Temperance Leagues in the past. Let those who would exclude themselves do so, but make inclusion popular. Be smarter than the New Warhols, because eventually they will have to speak to smart women. Those women will be influential, while the Warhols become irrelevant. Take control of the dialogue, rather than running around at its behest. The power belongs to the people who are coolest and clearest because in a world of hype and fear, the voices of calm and experience, of reason and logic, will have the greatest appeal.

It was the part where Valerie was snubbed by Andy and “The Factory” that was the signal moment for women in North America. It was the moment when everyone should have realized that the Status Quo would remain intact; that there was no liberation going on. Women would remain divided and dominated, while fake males who aspire to be plastic would be exalted. We would be far more DEVO than Deep Purple; more Blondie than Barbara Streisand; less Wendy Mesley and more Barbara Walters.

Sure, we can admit that perhaps shooting What's his name was a bit over the top, but then he did discolour a picture of Marilyn Monroe and call it art—it's just hard to work past that. We might wonder, though, if pushing him down the stairs would have sufficed, or dropping a piano on him, so Val gets no points for originality. It's just that, since a near-death experience had no effect, it's not clear that a simple flesh-wound would have been enough. Fighting on the internet, therefore, is even less useful. The point is that as Mary W suggested, this discussion is existential for women. The time has come to decide whether it is really men making all of the decisions, or whether women are willing to work together to balance that out.

It's a question of which figurative meal you prefer. The New Warhol's are going to drop frozen fish sticks on the table and expect you to call it gourmet. It just seems to me that you can do better, and you don't have to do it alone anymore. Valerie should never have gone to the Factory alone, but something in her wanted to be taken seriously by that fake image of man and success. You want to take that cheap-ass frozen dinner off the menu entirely. Offer the New Valeries something more substantial, before they come to believe it is everything they can hope for. Don't be suckered into making this about the men anymore. Let Valerie's End be the New Warhol's last meal at your expense.

Hugh MacGillivray
Hugh MacGillivray
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