I’m almost the same age as Kathy Griffin, and though she was one of my favorite comedians back in the 1990s, I hadn’t given her much thought since before the turn of the century. No offense, Kathy, we just run in different circles, that’s all. Back in those days, America was still getting used toJoan Rivers’ scathing sense of humor. Rivers was delightfully, wickedly mean, or that was the perception, but the idea of a mean woman wasn’t shocking and fresh. Meanness is projected on women as a matter of course. Rivers, and those that followed her, like Griffin, Janeane Garofalo, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho, joked frankly about being a human in a society that sees women as Other. Lesser Other. Their unvarnished honesty was fresh, shocking.
Those women pointed directly at the double standard women deal with all the time, the same one that dictates Griffin’s fate today. Think about it: a wealthy business man ascends to the highest glory in the land even after it’s made plain that he thinks being a sexual predator is fun! He chuckles over molesting women. And when a woman, who’s a professional commentator in her role as a comedian, attempts an allegorical stab back at this man, he does everything he can to end her career.
Melania Trump called the photo of Griffin “violent, twisted, and sick”. Sure. It was also campy, with low quality, low investment effects served up by a woman in office-wear. Since I was informed I should be outraged well before I ever laid eyes on the image, I’m not sure what my unbiased reaction would have been, and I can’t help but notice how the left tore their hair out, trying to out-shame the right in their condemnation of Griffin herself. Not the image, not the photographer-coconspirator Tyler Shields, but Griffin. Shields is a bad-boy, you see, and lesser known, not the huge international celebrity that Griffin is by comparison. That’s why this is completely on her. It’s cool, he’s cool, he’s not sorry, he’s booking appointments for your next crappy media blitz.
Sure, yes, I agree, two wrongs still don’t make a right, violence is not an answer, we mustn’t become what we despise, neither a borrower nor a lender be, and above all else to thine own self be true. But wait a minute. We are surrounded by twisted images in this country, and by real violence. When it comes from white men, it’s normal. We are shamed when we point that out; told we shouldn’t politicize it. Trump wasn’t shamed, he was still elected after he sneeringly, casually, dumped a sick image into all of our brains, the image of a bloodied woman. Megyn Kelly, whatever you think about her, is a real human person, too, just like Donald Trump. She’s got three young children, ages 7, 6 and 3, who were probably more disturbed than the rest of us to imagine blood coming out of her eyes. That thought, that mental image wasn’t quite monstrous enough though, so he gave us her bloody genitals, too. She’s a lightweight, added the man who has now ground another woman, Kathy Griffin, into the dust.
I know, I know, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to make an image of a murdered president. But we live in a time when it’s normal to hear that yet another person of color has been killed with impunity by those sworn to protect them. That’s OK, we collectively say, over and over again, no jail for you, Officer Murder, it was only a black man you shot in the back, don’t worry, keep your job, your benefits, and your retirement. You young white rapists? Scamper off now before your image is tarnished and don’t get caught again!
These recurring events make me wonder what would happen if someone like Ted Nugent did something that could be interpreted as threatening the president’s life. Oh wait, he unambiguously did! Reaction? Eye rolling. Respected news outlet CNN laughed it off. Griffin didn’t read the playbook though. It’s funny to be disrespectful of the president when he’s black and if you have, or are, a white penis.
Being an art nerd, I didn’t see a reference to terrorism in Griffin’s ketchup covered mask, I saw Artemisia Gentileschi’s oil on canvas, Judith Slaying Holofernes. Griffin is even wearing the same color shirt as Judith in that painting. Gentileschi’s image reads quite different today than it did in 1620 when she painted it. Today we see a woman taking matters into her own hands, and, if we know the backstory, we see a hero saving the Israelites from a losing battle. Go Girl! But back when the paint was wet, the image was an example of the Power of Women or Weibermacht meme. Sounds tantalizingly feminist, but it wasn’t. Humor, now as invisible in Gentileschi’s painting as it is in Griffin’s photo, was part of the trope, with Eve, Delilah, Phyllis, Jael, and Salome filling out the cast of women who turned over the tables of power for one brief girl party moment. Aren’t they adorable.
Weibermacht stories were popular with the public and male artists like Caravaggio for hundreds of years because they believed a powerful woman was a punchline. Natalie Zemon Davis sums it up in her book, Women on Top: Society and Culture in Early Modern France, attributing the popularity of these stories to a kind of stress relief:
“… they afforded an expression of, and an outlet for, conflicts about authority within the system; and they also provided occasions by which the authoritarian current in family, workshop, and political life could be moderated by the laughter of disorder and paradoxical play. Accordingly they served to reinforce hierarchical structure.”
That authoritarian current is still with us, but times are changing. Women taking charge isn’t so funny anymore.
As it turns out, Griffin’s responsibility-free photographer specifically names Caravaggio as his greatest influence. Caravaggio was big on chopping heads. Including his rendition of Judith, the artist made thirteen paintings of torso-free heads; ten depict decapitations, and three feature human skulls as desk ornaments. That’s 14% of his paintings. That explains where the bizarre idea came from, but it isn’t hard to imagine what further heaps of shame Griffin would have drawn from our anti-intellectual nation had she responded with, Guys, guys, it’s an art history callback! Get it?
That art history connection leads to some comfort though, what I’m choosing to see as a silver lining. Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Trump, and our collective, ingrained, patriarchal reactions wouldn’t have cared, wouldn’t have felt the need to deliver such a beat-down if they weren’t feeling threatened. Power doesn’t think it’s so funny anymore, this idea of a woman winning out over a man. That must be progress.
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