Detail from the poster for Der Blaue Engel
Not long ago, I watched, on the Internet, footage of myself being interviewed by Charlie Rose. It was May, 2000, and the subject of our interview was Blue Angel, my then-recent novel about—of all things—sexual harassment. Or at least, that’s what Charlie thought the novel was about.
Early in the course of our conversation, it became clear to me that he hadn’t read my book, but that someone at the other end of his earpiece had. And, just in case I hadn’t figured that out, Charlie told me, moments after the cameras stopped rolling, that he didn’t “have time to read fiction,” but his girlfriend did. As he said this, his face wore precisely the same blurry mask of interest that it had worn when we spoke on camera.
In Blue Angel, a middle-aged novelist, who teaches creative writing at a small New England college, falls in love with (and ruins his life for) a talented female student. Charlie didn’t want to talk about sentence structure or about where the idea for the novel came from. The earpiece steered us straight to the subject of sexual harassment and political correctness.
During the late nineties, there were several high-profile cases of professors losing their jobs for what seemed, from the news stories, like small mistakes. In New Hampshire, a professor was supposedly suspended for offering, as an example of a simile, “Belly dancing is like jello on a plate with a vibrator under the plate.” The subject of sexual harassment hovered in the popular consciousness, though of course not as heavily as it does now.
Today, I can hardly stand to watch the Charlie Rose footage. I look so miserable, mannered and twitchy. I’m all but jumping out of my skin. I remember, too well, how uncomfortable I felt. It was the end of a long book tour. I’d said it all, dozens of times before. But I was there to sell the book. And I was working hard not to make eye contact with Charlie, who was creeping me out for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time.
In recent months, we’ve learned that Rose lost his job for alleged sexual misconduct, and—also allegedly—often subjected his staff to rages, insults, and tantrums. I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps one of Rose’s female producers intentionally neglected to tell him what our interview was about. Was that a tremor of surprise when he heard the female voice in his ear steering him toward the topic of sexual harassment? Was someone playing a little joke on Charlie, making him talk about this? And was the interview later followed by one of those famous tantrums? Did Charlie berate his staff for wasting his time on this trivial subject? On fiction?
On the day my interview was recorded, the show also filmed talks with John Travolta and the New York Times writer Tom Friedman. But when my interview ran, it was as part of program titled “Three Women Writers.” As in, tonight Charlie Rose talks to three women writers. The other two were the feminist Betty Friedan and the British mystery novelist P. D. James, writers with whom I had very little (besides gender) in common.
One true thing I told Charlie Rose: I hadn’t set out to write a book about sexual harassment or academic politics. I’d seen the Der blaue Engel, the Josef von Sternberg film, based on a Heinrich Mann novel. In the film, a professor (Emil Jannings) destroys his career out of hopeless passion for the sexy nightclub singer, Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich. When recasting the tale in a contemporary America, I decided that if a modern professor were to torpedo his life, it was more likely to be over a student than a chanteuse.
My novel, as it evolved, seemed to me both as straightforward and as complicated as anything in which humans are involved. My protagonist, Ted Swenson, who has written a successful novel, finds himself, in his late forties, teaching at a small Vermont college. He’s happily married to the college nurse. His work on a new novel is not going well, and hasn’t for quite a while. His comfortable life has become nearly unbearable. He cares deeply about literature, and every writing-class cliché he mechanically repeats to his class seems like a lie and betrayal.
One of his students, Angela Argo—punky, pierced, sullen, and rebellious—begins to give him chapters of her work. Her writing is way better than what he’s been reading. In fact, it’s better than what he’s been writing. And her novel, which she takes very seriously, is about … a student who has an affair with her teacher. And Ted Swenson is, she says, her all-time favorite writer. His novel saved her life.
This December, in an essay for the online journal, mindthecampus.org, the feminist professor Daphne Patai comments on Blue Angel:
[It] tells the story not only of a professor’s downfall thanks to an ambitious and manipulative student but also of the vindictiveness and self-righteousness of faculty members, the jealousies of other students (and colleagues), and the pitchfork-and-torches atmosphere that invariably develops when charges of sexual misconduct become a valuable currency … Prose demonstrates that the politically correct script of professorial power and student powerlessness is a pathetically thin distortion that negates the texture of human life while producing little but propaganda tracts railing against “the patriarchy” and its hapless victims.”
Like many, perhaps most, writers, I almost never reread my own work. I was inspired to do so lately, because this March, Paladin will release a film version of my novel, directed by Richard Levine, starring Stanley Tucci, and titled Submission. The actors are really a wonder, not only Tucci but Kyra Sedgwick, as Swenson’s wife Sherrie, and Addison Timlin as Angela Argo. I no longer remember what I imagined my characters to look like, or if I even saw them as bodies and faces, but watching the film, I was fully persuaded that these actors were them.
The film is an unusually faithful translation of my novel, which makes me even more acutely aware of how the political climate has changed in the twenty years since I wrote it. That change has evolved gradually for decades and then very dramatically over the last few months.
It’s obvious, and undeniable, that there are male professors who have threatened to lower grades and ruin careers when their female students refused to have sex with them, that men have pushed women against the office walls of academia for unwelcome kisses and groping. A girl in my college dorm dated, and was beaten up by, her male sociology instructor, and as far as I know nothing was done about it.
But that’s not what happens in my novel. A man falls obsessively in love with a student half his age. And she methodically and cleverly seduces him for her own reasons, which only gradually become clear as the book progresses.
Now, we tend to assume that the male is always in the position of power, that the male is in every instance the predator and the female always the victim. But my novel, Levine’s film, and their German predecessor, look at the ways in which male power can be subverted and destroyed by youth, sex, and talent.
I suppose many readers and viewers will conclude (and have concluded) that predatory Ted Swenson gets what he deserves. But the film—again, like the book—intentionally makes it hard to decide what he does deserve, what he does to himself, what he does to Angela, what she does to him—and why.
Part of what still engages me about this story, and what makes it now seem riskier than ever, is that the female character—younger, more vulnerable—is the one who has the agency. She is the one who turns out to be in control, and who determines the way things proceed. This version of the familiar professor-student narrative is so rarely mentioned that it is likely to provoke a hostile reaction. But are we saying that these situations never exist? That woman are always the hapless innocents? Yes, Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was reprehensible. Yes, female students have been raped, pawed, bullied, and blackmailed into sex by their professors and mentors. But does that mean that we have a moral obligation to only create and consume art that follows those scripts?
At a Q and A that followed a festival showing of Submission, some audience members seemed to believe that I’d helped create a reactionary, anti-feminist, even misogynist work. That was the gist of a review that followed another festival appearance of the film in Denver, though there the critic gave me a pass for not having known any better, twenty years ago, when I wrote the novel.
Writing the book, it never occurred to me that the ambitious and determined Angela Argo was Ted Swenson’s victim, no more than a viewer of the German film would have concluded that the empowered, shatteringly sexy Marlene Dietrich was being victimized by Emil Janning’s meek, bumbling professor. Today, there is a fear that showing one woman with sexual agency, one situation in which the all-too-real narrative of male power was subverted, will take away from the other, necessary stories that women are coming forward to tell. But I would argue that we need to tell more female stories rather than fewer. Fiction celebrates the particularity of experience, the fact that each of us, and what happens to us, is as unique as our fingerprints. This has always been the role of art.
Obviously, it was not my intention to write a misogynist tract. Though the definitions of feminism are ever changing, I’ve been a feminist since before many of the readers/viewers/critics were born. And I believe that certain women, in certain situations, have the power, the agency, the will, and the intelligence to screw with some powerful guy’s head—to advance our own agenda, simply because we want to, or because we have decided that it’s our turn. In this current moment, there is an anxiety over depicting women with sexual agency. Of course, holding a man in sexual thrall is neither the highest nor the most desirable expression of female power. I’m not condoning the use of sex and seduction to get one’s way. But such situations have existed and continue to exist. To deny one portion of the female experience, one way in which women have historically subverted the patriarchy, seems a step backward rather than forward. As Patai says in her piece, no relationships are perfectly symmetrical. We are doing women a disservice if we assume that that “asymmetry,” in a love affair or sexual encounter, invariably skews in one, and only one, predictable way.
I hope that the film’s appearance will add some small degree of nuance and complexity to the cultural conversation. But I fear that nuance and complexity are no longer operative concepts. In today’s ferocious climate, where the rush to judgment is hastened by the dizzying speed of the news cycle, Ted Swenson would not only lose his job, he would have his book removed and his name erased from the college library catalogue. It will be interesting to track the response to a film that acknowledges the contradictions and ambiguities that, more and more, we are forbidden even to mention.
Francine Prose is the author of nineteen novels, eight works of nonfiction, three short-story collections, and one children’s book. Her most recent novel is Mister Monkey.
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