amie McCarthy/Getty Images for EJAF / Julia Panek

Female Gaze: Lana Del Rey, I Love Dick, And The Love Witch

When female artists stare deeply into the void, what does the audience see?

A curious message appeared on Lana Del Rey’s Twitter near the end of February, the same week she debuted her single “Love.” “At the stroke of midnight,” it announced, listing dates during each of the next four waning crescent moons. “Ingredients can b found online.” No further explanation; only a cryptic portrait of Del Rey, silhouetted plainly in black on saturated Technicolor red, left hand uncurled into a signal somewhere between “El Diablo” and the Girl Scout Promise.

Within minutes, stans were debriefing one another in Del Rey’s mentions. These were instructions, they said, for a large-scale binding spell that had already begun to go viral, intended to obstruct Donald Trump from harm-doing until the ultimate goal of impeachment. The aforementioned ingredients included a small orange candle stub, an unflattering Trump photo, and a single tarot card, The Tower — pictorially speaking, an unambiguously horrifying card, with two figures plummeting headfirst from a fiery turret senselessly balanced atop a cliff. Even if tarot readers assure you that The Tower is technically more about change than destruction, the implication is chaos.

By coincidence, the night before Del Rey’s tweet, I’d finally checked out a movie called The Love Witch, originally released last November, three days after the election. Shot in glorious 35mm, The Love Witch was written and directed by Anna Biller, a born-and-bred Los Angeles filmmaker whose singular vision and religious commitment to detail completely rationalize the seven-year DIY odyssey of the film’s creation. We meet Elaine, the Love Witch herself, headed north on Highway 101, as ominously elegant as Tippi Hedren cruising to Bodega Bay in The Birds. Played by Samantha Robinson, with a mannered theatricality that tugs against the film’s current-day setting, Elaine is painstakingly styled in lush Technicolor reds and frilly My Fair Lady pinks and glam turquoise cat-eyes, the kind of unequivocal beauty you admire so as not to resent. She is escaping Berkeley and the specter of her late ex-husband, whom we see collapse in a flashback, poisoned goblet clattering to the floor alongside him. (“Poor Jerry!” Elaine narrates. “I had a nervous breakdown after he left me!”) She grazes a card slipping out of her purse, the upright Three of Swords — the most transparent card in the tarot deck, at least on an iconographic level. No demystification is required for a bright red heart pierced by three swords.

Attempting a life reset, Elaine settles in a rented Victorian gothic mansion, each room richly decorated in homage to the Thoth tarot deck. She busies herself with her DIY Wiccan apothecary practice, or by painting medieval princess fantasies descended into bloodlust, or at whimsical high tea with interior decorator Trish, to whom she describes finding herself through witchcraft after her marriage’s tragic demise. Flashbacks gesture toward a lifetime of abuse and abjection at the hands of men she adored, from her father to “poor Jerry.” Elaine performs private rituals, brewing offerings to her goddess and laying spread-eagle on her pentagram rug, a red candle positioned between her legs: “Love me … love me,” she pleads, near tears.

Swept up in her obsessive quest for love, Elaine makes a mission of seducing every man she meets, which isn’t hard; her comically literal interpretation of a man’s feminine ideal is entrancing. (Immediately after sex with Wayne, a college professor who giddily invites her to his cabin within minutes of meeting, he whines to Elaine about the insufferableness of “other women”: either attractive but dim or bright but homely, with the nerve to demand things from him on top of it. “That seems like quite a problem!” Elaine coos with the caricatured sympathy of consoling a toddler who’s spilled his juice.) With each prospective lover comes a moment of bitter realization — that his defective capacity for love is far outweighed by his slobbering desire to see her naked — which Elaine remedies with fatal potions or good old-fashioned stabbing. By the end, Elaine is nowhere nearer to her dream of true love. In fact, the small town has turned against her, shouting “Burn the witch!” as she flees the Lynchian local cabaret — leaving her lost in a reverie of princesses and white horses, covered in her last lover’s blood.

It isn’t that The Love Witch has been poorly received; in fact, most reviews I’ve read have been fairly glowing, enchanted above all with the exquisite production design, the vast majority of which was sewed, constructed, or otherwise handcrafted by Biller herself (from Elaine’s occult fairy tale paintings to the wool pentagram rug that Biller has described taking six months to hook). But in many of even the most enthusiastic reviews, there is a pervasive off-ness — a compulsive focus on how the film looks, at the expense of any meaningful exploration of its ideas. Well-meaning critics chuckle at Biller’s “retro camp,” describing it as an artsy pastiche of midcentury kitsch with subversively flipped gender roles, and often comparing it to sexploitation auteurs like Russ Meyer or Radley Metzger. James Franco even blessed us with a review in his IndieWire column “James & Semaj” (wherein James discusses movies with his “reverse self,” Semaj, because arts journalism is in a really good place right now). He sees The Love Witch as a proto-feminist throwback about a witch who “likes to bone” and likens the acting to Napoleon Dynamite. He also notes Elaine’s uncanny similarity to Lana Del Rey, imagining the latter lingering in some California coven, “hanging out with Father John Misty and weird older dudes.”

On that last point, I regretfully admit, James and Semaj and I agree. My second thought as The Love Witch’s credits rolled — the first being, That was the best fucking movie I have seen in years — was of Lana. I’m not suggesting that the character of Elaine was inspired by her, nor that the mystical Twilight Zone noir of the recent trailer for Del Rey’s forthcoming Lust for Life was directly influenced by The Love Witch (though one sincerely hopes Del Rey has seen it, for the sake of enjoyment alone). Still, there is a striking resemblance between the two — in a certain visual aesthetic, but more profoundly, a conspicuous but hard-to-articulate aura. Dozens of fans have made the same connection: A quick Twitter search yields a small but impressive selection of mash-up art. Gathering notes to write this piece, I hoped to come upon a more precise expression of the Lana/Love Witch vernacular — the feeling reinforced but not defined by the film's production design, to which I find myself relating on an instinctual level that is difficult to describe. And though the richness of both Del Rey's and Biller’s aesthetic universes demands the kind of obsessive analysis that can send one down an endless rabbit hole of references, that elusive THING at the core of both can seem blinding in its straightforwardness. One thing I feel sure of is that satire and pastiche have nothing to do with any of it.

“The movie is about love,” Biller said point-blank in an A.V. Club interview, responding with palpable frustration to the critical subjugation of The Love Witch as a campy, sexploitation-riffing horror-comedy. “I write a script about a woman’s life being destroyed, which is a very personal story, and that’s all they get out of it? There’s an insensitivity to that comparison that becomes harrowing to me after a while. I mean, I might be taking all of this too seriously, but you have to understand this has been going on for almost 10 years.”

Biller’s first full-length, 2007’s Viva — a hyper-stylized story of listless suburban Los Angeles in the swing of the so-called sexual revolution of the early ’70s, with Biller herself starring as bored housewife Barbi — provoked similar confusion. Critics called that, too, a soft-porn pastiche, or, worse, a comedy. And parts of Viva are funny. Biller has that piercing, Eve Babitz–type grasp of the essence of L.A., enamored with its artifice but close enough to see right through it, and her visuals alone can be comic gold: chintzy living room orgies, lunch spreads in sick hues of ham and Jell-O, drippy free-love nudist communes. But the plot is ultimately traumatic: Seeking the liberation the sexual revolution promised, Barbi finds nothing but degradation and abuse. It’s “funny,” I guess, in the way that Hamlet is “funny,” but really it’s closer to tragic.

“It’s bittersweet to have a movie be so popular, but it’s popular with caveats,” Biller admitted in the same A.V. Club interview. “[But] every time I get criticism from people, I learn … what to do the next time so there are fewer misconceptions. … For my earliest 16mm film, 100 percent of the criticism … was about production values. That film looked exactly the way I wanted it to, but audiences didn’t like these fantasy sets … So I trained myself to make good sets and I worked hard. So now what happens is that people love my sets. ‘Your production design is great.’ What I started realizing is that no matter what I do, all people talk about is production design, whether it’s not good enough or it is good enough. And I’m thinking: This is because my content makes people uncomfortable … So I keep learning about how to make it more accessible to them.” Maybe in her next film, she suggested, she’ll mute the colors, preemptively removing the possible distraction. “Also, I think I would have less sex,” she added. “Maybe that will help me to make better cinema.”

The lead single from Del Rey’s fourth album first blipped on fans' radar under the working title “Young & In Love,” but by its official release, it was simply “Love.” I mean: LOVE! The most basic of emotions, the über-emotion — there had to be some significance, I thought, in the mysterious, moody Del Rey’s turn toward such transparency, embracing a feeling so primal it’s practically clichéd. To a cynical audience, such unqualified sincerity demands critique. Is it shaded with irony or satire, some meta-commentary on “girls these days,” or maybe just plain phony? These are questions that have hovered over Del Rey’s career since “Video Games”; the act of typing them out affirms their absurdity. Of course love isn’t a cliché — or, if it is, have mercy on our artless souls!

Urgency calls for directness, and so far into the Trump presidency, I’ve noticed artists seeming to streamline their work in order to more efficiently communicate their messages (some less successfully than others). Del Rey isn’t even the only star this year to employ such unambiguous emotions as song titles. One of the best songs on Kendrick Lamar’s recent album DAMN. is also simply “LOVE.” — all caps and punctuated, for that matter. From the context Del Rey has provided so far, it’s clear that the mounting political chaos informed the direction of Lust for Life; in the album trailer, she describes taking some space “to consider what my contribution to the world should be, in these dark times.” And as far as Lana Del Rey songs go, “Love” is uncharacteristically reassuring — she sings that, even amid the anxiety and confusion, “it’s enough to be young and in love.” The most striking distinction, I think, is the song’s direct acknowledgment of its audience; where most of Del Rey’s songs seem to be sung to a past or present lover, or in a diaristic sense to Del Rey herself, “Love” speaks unmediated to its listeners (“Look at you kids, you know you’re the coolest”). Her own involvement as a character — which until now we’ve understood as the complicated, sometimes controversial protagonist — is relegated simply to the narrator, watching from above.

All of this registers as, above all, sincere — as, I would argue, does the vast majority of Del Rey’s catalogue, despite critics’ endless attempts to expose some latent contradiction they are certain lurks under the surface. “It’s OK that it leaked,” she wrote on her Instagram the morning that “Love” zip files hit the internet. “It really does come down to love and the intentions behind the music. That’s why this is a perfect first single, because this one is for you.”

Still, the song’s literalness keeps me flashing back to Del Rey’s Ultraviolence-era interviews, where it was clear the constant demand for explanation had sapped the joy from her success. “With [Born to Die] having received so much analysis, there’s no more room for ambition,” she explains casually in her 2014 Rolling Stone cover story. “It breaks that part down, just because you sort of know what to expect, and that nothing is going to work out the way you think anyway.” The interviewer pushes further — on the unanimously mocked SNL performance, the specific identities gestured at in the wry “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” the veracity of her infamous claim that she “wished she was dead already” — and seems surprised to see Del Rey’s mood turn dark. “I find the nature of the questions difficult,” she told him, beginning to shut down. “It’s about my father. It’s about my mental health. It’s fucking personal. And these questions all have negative inferences: It’s just like, ‘SNL; Do you actually want to kill yourself?’ … Maybe I’m sensitive. Do you think?” Clearly distraught, she suggests canceling the cover story altogether. “I definitely presented myself well, and that’s all I’ve ever done,” she says, escorting the writer to the door. “And that’s never really got me anywhere.”

There is an irony in the critical misreadings of both Del Rey’s and Biller’s work — an ideological disjunction between the demand for clear demarcation of the “authentic” and “artistic” selves of female artists, and the reluctance to examine their work beyond face value. That imbalance of curiosity reveals, to me, an unwillingness to accept the artist’s subjectivity as equally valid as one’s own. It probably goes without saying that many of the most misguided critics of both artists are men. In fact, the extent to which both Biller’s and Del Rey’s work speaks to the exact contradictions that male critics then level against them would be hilarious, if it weren’t all so tiresome. Back in that notorious “I wish I was dead alreadyGuardian interview — in which the interviewer’s brilliantly empathetic response is, “You don’t!” — Del Rey talks about “Money Power Glory,” a song generally interpreted as the literal mission statement of a vampy social climber. (Hashtag #GirlBoss, amirite ladies?!) In truth, Del Rey meant the song sardonically. It's a darkly comic ode to never getting what you wanted. “Like, if all that I was actually going to be allowed to have by the media was money, loads of money, then fuck it,” she explains. “What I actually wanted was something quiet and simple: a writer’s community and respect.”

That void between fantasy and reality, I think, is the real setting for Del Rey’s and Biller’s respective work — a dreamy, self-constructed universe that reconciles the romantic optimism of a young woman’s expectations with the unfulfilling realities of female existence. The effect is stereoscopic, the way the old red-and-blue glasses tricked the brain into seeing a single 3-D image fused from two distinct two-dimensional shadows. Real-life events and feelings are mediated through the lens of female fantasy, creating what can function like a decoy memory that renders trauma and frustration more beautiful, cinematic, and generally more livable. (“What might have been is an abstraction, remaining a perpetual possibility,” Del Rey quotes from T.S. Eliot on her 2015 “Burnt Norton” interlude.) This is the part of both Del Rey’s and Biller’s work that resonates long after the sensual pleasures have faded, and the part that exposes the misguidedness of relegating The Love Witch or the Lana Del Rey persona to satire or camp. What these artists are getting at isn't so much an aesthetic as it is a coping mechanism. The void is the reason I write, and the reason, I sometimes think, I have made it this far through adulthood without throwing myself off a bridge.

If anything, the hyper-stylized, occasionally anachronistic aesthetic in this work functions not as pastiche but, instead, as a code that communicates directly to its intended audience. “How do you negotiate an authentic self as a woman?” Biller asks in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine. “A lot of girls who seem like they might be crazy, or sociopathic, or just stupid, they’re actually trying to negotiate all that … and that’s what drives them insane. So I wanted to make that kind of character [with Elaine in The Love Witch]: somebody who has never been valued for her brains, for her personality, for anything that she has to offer, but who only really gets valued for her beauty. So I choose this very beautiful actress, and what happens for men is, they’re bringing the same thing to the woman onscreen as they do to women in their real lives. They’re so blinded by her sexuality that they can’t see her as a human being. Now, I knew that would happen. Maybe not all men will do this, but some will. And I knew women would see her beauty differently. It may be accessible to men on the one level — because in this society, everything is accessible to men. But I’m actually trying to create a film for women.”

This begins to explain reviews that cringe at the film's “beyond stilted” acting or suggest that Biller “surrenders to the trash aesthetic instead of harnessing it for her own purposes.” (These criticisms sound quite similar to those leveled early on at Del Rey: “a pose, cut from existing, densely patterned cloth,” or “the album equivalent of a faked orgasm.”) What registers to some as parody or hypocrisy is read clearly, by an empathetic audience, as the solemn pageantry of existence as a woman — a reaffirmation of the endless, self-contradicting farce of it all.

Laura Mulvey’s conception of the male gaze in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” deals with exactly the incompatibility that Biller describes. “Cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire,” the film critic writes, outlining how mainstream films exploit and encourage patriarchal, heteronormative ways of seeing — namely, with men as the subjects, and women as objects. Perspective is power, and Mulvey triangulates the male gaze into three subcomponents: that of the camera and the person behind it, those of the film’s characters, and that of the audience themselves. When a male spectator identifies with a film’s male protagonist, she writes, “He projects his look on to that of his … screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.”

In the four decades since Mulvey’s essay, correctives have emerged to her somewhat outmoded definition of the gaze. It’s crucial to counter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” with bell hooks’s 1992 essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” which outright rejects Mulvey’s theory for its failure to acknowledge the ways in which the gaze (and the entertainment industry) is complicit in maintaining white supremacy just as much as it does patriarchy. It’s important to be conscious of the ways that any attempt at a totalizing grouping of women, like Mulvey’s, can fall short of addressing the experiences of women of color and gay or trans women. Still, I am surprised by the relative scarcity of recent attempts at a working definition of the female gaze, one that leaves room for intersectional critique and expansion — not an inversion or extension of the male gaze, but a complete restructuring.

In her keynote address at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Jill Soloway — the writer/producer/director best known for the Amazon series Transparent, and whose television adaptation of the cult novel I Love Dick officially premieres this week — outlined her own definition of the female gaze. She starts with what it’s not: allegedly liberating reversals of the male gaze, à la Playgirl (which, yes, still exists, though as of 2016 its subscriber base had dive-bombed to about 3,000 and consisted somewhat predictably of mostly gay men), or scripts that swap a male protagonist for a female one without altering the perspective. (That last bit, I would personally argue, rules out Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work and other thinly veiled marketing ploys from consideration as meaningful examples of the female gaze, to which capitalism by its nature is in opposition.) Soloway’s “female gaze” also consists of three parts, though they’re distinct from Mulvey’s framework and, as she emphasizes, merely a starting point for further intersectional development. The first deals with a specifically female formal imagery, a way of seeing; the second considers what Soloway calls the “gazed gaze,” showing the spectator how it feels to be seen by the male gaze; and finally, the returning of the gaze — unlike the prior two, not so much a filmmaking language as a “sociopolitical, justice-demanding way of art making.”

All of this is clearly very relevant to Soloway’s adaptation of I Love Dick, a show that, along with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, might appear to suggest that our country is much further along in feminist discourse than is actually the case. But I’d rather focus on Soloway's source material, the genius debut novel from writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus, which has crept toward cult status since its initial publication in 1997. I Love Dick sold fewer than 100 copies a year in the decade leading up to its 2006 reissue, but today it’s considered a canonical articulation of the female gaze (or what Kraus herself has called Lonely Girl Phenomenology). It’s one of those books you go from never having heard of to folding into the foundation of your being.

“Somewhere between cultural criticism and fiction,” according to Kraus-as-protagonist in the text, I Love Dick is also deeply and necessarily personal, assuming the abstract form of a memoir. Kraus is 39 and on the verge of a failing film, trapped in dissatisfied orbit around her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, a scholar beloved by the same art world that ignores her. An otherwise unremarkable dinner detonates in Kraus a paradigm-shifting crush on Dick, a mean intellectual slash lonesome cowboy of the type you might imagine in a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood song. (And who, yes, is based on real-life cultural critic Dick Hebdige, because sometimes life is art.) Immediately she begins writing letters addressed to Dick: strange, intimate, theoretical, obsessive letters, the majority of which, over the next several months, go unsent. Upon discovering the letters, Lotringer is unexpectedly aroused, and for a while, joins in the writing himself, even phoning Dick to confess their erotic and increasingly heady ritual. Dick’s own involvement, on any active level, is negligible, responding to Kraus’s obsession and the “project” itself with cold bemusement and, ultimately, outright revulsion. IRL-Dick, upon learning of IRL-Kraus’s intent to publish the book via IRL-Lotringer’s own independent press, threatened her with a cease-and-desist.

The few critics who acknowledged I Love Dick in the late ’90s often did so from an angle of high-concept art-world gossip, fixated on the spectacular ways Kraus had “exploited” her personal life and the real men in it. Relegating the book as a self-pathologizing tell-all felt at once beside the point and an affirmation of the point entirely — for wasn’t Kraus’s intention, beyond pure impulse, to explode the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” conundrum still present in the gendered stigma of “confessional writing” today, to harness the “I” as a means of going beyond the personal toward greater truths? And beside the fact that Kraus pointedly omitted any mention of Dick’s last name, “Dick” was a smoke screen, anyway. While its current life as a cool-girl classic inspires cheeky Instagram posts of the book's cover, its title alone speaks with hilarious precision to the exact conditions Kraus explores within. “Dick” is an actual human, and a monument of lived experience, but he is also a synecdoche for every dick in the world, and an avatar for Kraus’s feelings and failures and dreams. The crudeness of the title prevented me from ever exposing the cover on a crowded train, dreading the waggling male eyebrows it would surely inspire. On top of all that, then, it's a knowing wink at the critics who would ultimately write off Kraus's work as scandalous self-indulgence, just like Dick does. Fuck!

Underneath all these brilliant layers of meaning, though, I’ve noticed a tendency for critics to understate the extent to which I Love Dick is about LOVE. (All caps and punctuated.) It’s about a very specific love — cruel, one-sided love at that — but it’s also about the fundamental truths of even the most unattainable love, the mere proximity of which can open up the possibilities of self so often denied to women. Dick, as the object of that kind of love, becomes a vehicle for transition, a path between the life Kraus has and the life she thinks she wants. And isn’t it so much more fun to write when you know exactly who you’re writing to?

By traditional narrative conventions, the climax of I Love Dick occurs on the first (and last) night Kraus sleeps at Dick’s house. If you wanted to miss the point, you could say it’s the only real action in the entire doomed trajectory of their "relationship." Kraus drives alone to Dick’s strong-’n’-silent-type cabin, not so much by invitation as through passive consent; Dick knows about the letters, and refers to them with embarrassment as Kraus and her husband’s little game. (“How could I make you understand,” she writes, “the letters were the realest thing I’d ever done?”) Dick remains detached as the night leans predictably toward sex — as always, any real, driving action happens in Kraus’s writing, almost completely untethered from Dick as he exists — but it happens anyway, a few times.

In the morning, the fantasy deflates with one cruel prick. At the idea of seeing one another again, Dick’s passivity turns to rage. “You were assuming a position, mockery heightening your face into a mask. Ultra-violence,” Kraus writes. (Indeed.) “I don’t owe you anything,” snarls Dick. “You barged in here, this was your game, your agenda, now it’s yours to deal with.” Kraus, still naked in Dick’s bed, is numb with disappointment. “‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’ll admit that eighty percent of this was fantasy, projection. But it had to start with something real. Don’t you believe in empathy, in intuition?’ ‘What?’ you said. ‘Are you telling me you’re schizophrenic?’” Dick then tells Kraus he didn’t need the sex, “though it was nice.” His single, final letter to Kraus, opened the morning of her film’s premiere, is a photocopy of a letter he’d written to her husband, expressing with composed disgust his wish to be removed from their bizarre love triangle. It is riddled with misspellings of her name. A perfectly fucked ending.

If there is any real resolution, I Love Dick does not let on. If Kraus’s manic reclamation of her own subjectivity has inspired some shift in power, a windfall of respect and acclaim, we are none the wiser. (And if the nearly two decades it took for I Love Dick to be taken seriously are any indication, the answer is a resounding “yeah, right.”) Maybe the most resonant shared element between I Love Dick, The Love Witch, and Lana Del Rey’s songs is an undercurrent of futility, a sighing realism that grounds even the most sublime fantasy. That morning-after between Kraus and Dick reminds me of one of The Love Witch’s final scenes, when a police officer named Griff, with whom Elaine spent one perfect fairy tale day, turns against her. (Is there any better name for an emotionally stunted embodiment of “when men were men” — Dick, obviously, aside — than fucking GRIFF?) “Your creepy little sexy act doesn’t work with me,” he spits. “I don’t love you!”

And though it is Elaine’s sole empowerment, the one way she knows how to control her own narrative, even witchcraft is tainted with male authority. Meeting her coven members at the town’s cabaret, Elaine is greeted with unconsented kisses on her face and body by Gahan, the group’s male leader. “Dancing is such a powerful thing for women and girls,” he preaches smarmily as a burlesque dancer unzips her dress on the stage behind them. “All witches need to figure out where their power lies, and we feel women’s greatest power lies in her sexuality.” Self-serving as his claims may be, it isn’t that they negate the speech his partner Barbara then delivers on the history of witch-burning and the demonization of female sexuality. But they complicate things, obfuscating the clear hierarchy of power. When Barbara solemnly emphasizes, “We need to teach men how to love us in ways they can understand,” it feels impossibly loaded in the same way Kraus publishing I Love Dick through her husband’s press does, or Del Rey singing “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” does. Those who would call any of this hyperbolic fail to see how clearly it all reaffirms the contradictions of attempting a meaningful life as a woman. Nothing is going to work out the way you think it is, these works scream. “You get ready, you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular.”

There is another form of the female gaze suggested in Kraus’s, Biller’s, and Del Rey’s works. It is a gaze that doesn’t meet its opposite, but looks infinitely past it toward the void beyond, the gaping and intransferable space between fantasy and reality. There is progress implied in Soloway’s conception of the returned gaze, an active reallocation of power meant to right historical wrongs. This other gaze, toward the unreachable horizon of what might have been, is aware but inert. It does not “rise above,” or impart some hard-fought moral of defying the status quo. It speaks not to how things should be, but to how things are. This gaze works overtime, straining to anticipate the criticisms it will certainly receive from critics unwilling to see as it sees; it self-edits only to be further misread. And perhaps the stories inspired by this gaze are so often misread because, as Kraus suggests in I Love Dick, they aren’t the stories women are supposed to write — the kind grounded in the lie of denying chaos.

Attempting to define this gaze, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to a specific fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” In it, the mermaid falls in love with a human prince — moreso, really, with the idea of humanity itself — after saving him from shipwreck during her journey to the surface of the waves. But the prince hasn’t awakened in time to see her, and beyond that exists a greater incompatibility: Where humans possess immortal souls, mermaids cease to exist after death, dissolving into the foam on the ocean’s surface. The only path to immortality, the little mermaid’s grandmother warily explains, is through a human’s true love: “Then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

The mermaid can’t forget the prince — “he on whom my wishes depend” — so she journeys to the grim whirlpool where the sea witch resides. The witch offers the mermaid a potion that will transform her tail into human legs and feet, though at a cost. “You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives.” There are two more stipulations: If the prince marries another woman, the mermaid will immediately meet her end among the foam of the waves; and in exchange for her magic, the witch must take the mermaid’s perfect voice. “But if you take away my voice,” the mermaid asks, “what is left for me?” “Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes,” the witch replies. “Surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.”

The transformation complete, the mermaid silently enters the prince’s world. He loves her as one would love a little child, playing with her hair and regaling her with stories of the strangeness of life as a sailor. “She smiled at his descriptions, for she knew better than anyone what wonders were at the bottom of the sea.” But the mermaid cannot convey to the prince that it was she who once saved him from certain death, and he soon falls in love with an even more beautiful princess, who he is certain was the one who came to his rescue. This, the mermaid knows, is her end.

The night before the prince’s wedding is a party of lavish proportions, and the mermaid watches the dancers, dizzy with loss. “[She] could not help thinking of her first rising out of the sea, when she had seen similar festivities and joys; and she joined in the dance, poised herself in the air as a swallow when he pursues his prey, and all present cheered her with wonder. She had never danced so elegantly before. Her tender feet felt as if cut with sharp knives, but she cared not for it; a sharper pang had pierced through her heart. She knew this was the last evening she should ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home; she had given up her beautiful voice, and suffered unheard-of pain daily for him, while he knew nothing of it. This was the last evening that she would breathe the same air with him, or gaze on the starry sky and the deep sea; an eternal night, without a thought or a dream, awaited her: she had no soul and now she could never win one. All was joy and gayety on board ship till long after midnight; she laughed and danced with the rest, while the thoughts of death were in her heart.”


VMAs 2017