Who would be a muse these days? Not Zoe Saldana.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan, the actress bluntly stated: “I don't want to hear another man tell me, 'Oh you were my muse'. I don't want to be your fucking muse anymore. I don't want you to just post me on your wall and look at me. I want you to listen to me!"
And who can blame her? We have seen the ugly underbelly of the artist-muse relationship between Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman. Picasso’s pursuit of artistic greatness left behind a wake of tragedy for the women in his life. We know what Tippi Hedren was subjected to in Alfred Hitchcock’s pursuit of artistic greatness.
Claiming a muse has long allowed artistic men to justify treating women terribly, subjecting them to control, abuse and exploitation. But Saldana’s point, in 2018, is that being a muse has also gifted male artists another way to silence women even as they use them.
She is particularly scathing of her time filming Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, recalling, “When you arrive on set and see your male director and male co-star having a collaborative discussion about a scene that involves you and you're not a part of it because you're the serviceable character... You feel stupid.”
When a woman is bestowed muse status by a male artist, be he a director, writer or artist, she primarily becomes a foil to his genius. He credits her with inspiration, not because she has contributed knowledge or insight, but because her mere existence has sparked something brilliant in him. Something he already possessed, that just needed unlocking.
It is a way for men to intellectualise the way they objectify women’s bodies
Her voice is irrelevant to the process and successfully fulfilling the role almost demands a respectful silence – it is not a reciprocal relationship. There is a sense that the muse should be grateful for her selection, that she should take it as a compliment and that ultimately she is disposable.
Not least because her status is invariably linked to her beauty. And, inevitably, history shows that many relationships between artist and muse have become romantic or sexual. Thus, a male artist’s creativity is intrinsically linked to his sexual desire for his female muse, and to her ability to sexually excite him. It is a way for men to intellectualise the way they objectify women’s bodies. It elevates them above gawping at a topless calendar, because they are viewing women with the eye of an artist.
In Greek mythology, the nine Muses were Zeus’s daughters born to give humanity inspiration, knowledge, music, literature and art. Of course, they were depicted as young, beautiful, nymph-like women, but they were also valued for their talents. Poets and artists would call on them for their wisdom: at the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer implores, “Sing to me, oh Muse”, to help him tell his epic story.
Of course, a few thousand years later and they are most recognisable as crumbling statues, static paintings and museum pieces. They might even be on literal pedestals. And it is this pretty but passive version of the muse that most closely mirrors how women have become silent vessels for men to glean inspiration from in recent centuries. Even the language around the subject is possessive – “She is my muse” or “I am his muse”. There is no reversed way to explain the relationship.
Consider instead the dynamic between a different artist and lead actress: Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan. In interviews, on red carpets and film sets, they have almost aggressively stood side-by-side. They hold hands and effusively praise one another. Most importantly, they both speak and they both listen. This is an artistic relationship that is flowing in both directions.
It is even more pertinent in this case, as Gerwig had repeatedly been labelled a muse for her partner (in personal and professional capacity) Noah Baumbach, despite the pair being co-writers.
On this, Gerwig has said, “I did not love being called a muse. I didn’t want to be strident about it or say, ‘Hey, give me my due’, but I did feel like I wasn’t a bystander. It was half-mine, and so that part was difficult. Also I knew secretly that I was engaged with this longer project, and wanted to be a writer and director in my own right, so I felt like the muse business, or whatever it was, was a position that I didn’t identify with in my heart.”
For a woman, being called a man’s muse removes her autonomy. It cements the hierarchy within the relationship: in being placed on a pedestal, her power is explicitly taken away.
But moving away from this habit does not have to kill the romance of artistic inspiration, rather it opens it up to more complex and more interesting possibilities. In 2018, the imbalance of power between the great male artistic genius and his carefully moulded female object of inspiration is not acceptable.
As Saldana says: “The high road for a woman for centuries was silence… The new high road is speaking up."