Back in the day I found myself in a movie house on a rainy afternoon watching a film called The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, or what it is commonly called Marat/Sade.
The film was directed by Peter Brook, using many of the cast from his award-winning American production, some of whom had been part of his original groundbreaking stage production for the RSC. This movie was Glenda Jackson’s screen debut and it is she you remember.
She portrays an inmate who plays Charlotte Corday, the assassin of the French revolutionary and anti-monarchist, Marat.
Set in 1808, the play also explores the idea of women as naturally hysterical; savage, irrational; hysterical.
The word hysteria is from the Greek for uterus, “hystera”. The ancient Egyptians blamed what they considered to be female behavioural problems on a “wandering” uterus. Therefore, only women could be hysterical.
This reality is ancient and deeply embedded in us of the so-called West. It does not take much to summon this reaction to women to the surface. Even we women ourselves can believe it in some part of our psyche, that part created by a male-dominated society: that we are inherently wild, primal. Subtle and corrosive, this sense of woman as inherently more dangerous, that much more out-of-control than the male, is reflected in the old “Calm down, Dear” retort and its variations.
Decades ago, the circle I hung with were mainly male, a fact that is still true today. A few of these guys were professional drag queens. Some drove meat trucks by day, armed, over the Indiana border into Illinois. Then they changed into something else at six o’clock. Then they became the Cher of Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves; the Barbra Streisand of People and always Bette Davis, who constantly seemed to be on the verge of hysteria.
I would watch my friends change into this construct they called “woman”. Some of them lived as women when they chose to; some made money pulling straight guys in bars. I would watch them create themselves, become more particular and precise in their gestures. From seemingly calm, centred males they became this creature that they called “female”. And these guys who loved playing women taught me what they saw through their eyes.
Theirs was a particular gaze; maybe even a minority gaze, but I thought of them as I followed the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard libel trial being held in Virginia and read the reaction of people online to it.
Above all what they felt about Heard. First of all, I have no idea whether she defamed her ex-husband or not. But the fact is that her accusations of him as a “wife-beater” and then his subsequent defeat in a libel case he himself brought against The Sun for implying that he was, have put an end to a very lucrative career. She had written, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, that she knew what spousal abuse was and that she supported an initiative to combat it.
Heard has nothing near Depp’s celebrity, but her notoriety now well matches up to it and this is what caught my attention.
All of the things unconsciously considered inherent in women; a kind of moral and intellectual slovenliness; and that hysteria, are present in the public reaction to Heard.
And Depp, a very fine actor and observer of human beings, must know it.
He testified that he had found excrement in his bed and that it could not have been from their dogs, part of a miniature breed. Instead of shock at the revelation, there was a kind of acceptance among many, so automatic, even casual, that it seemed to reach down into something basic.
All of the decades of feminism, the drive for the equality of women, seemed to go up in smoke. What emerged from the ashes was Heard as a kind of wild thing, something that needed to be caged; something that had attacked a man defending himself against The Irrational. The Hysterical.
Like the Daily Mail publishing on its front page a rumour abut the deputy leader of the Labour party, a rumour that contains all of the implied animal nature of women, the online “lynching” of Heard, too, reads as something natural.
Sometimes it feels as if there is a fear in too many men, of women. Fear of our bodily processes, fear of our otherness.
I have no substitute for the word “woman” but even the name for us in English has “man” in it. As if we are half-human beings. Appendices.
In Marat/Sade, you have the feeling that the playwright, the great Peter Weiss, wanted to say something about the Charlotte Corday character as instinctively murderous; instinctively out of control.
In the Depp/Heard trial, Amber Heard was diagnosed from the witness stand as having a “borderline personality disorder” and something called a “histrionic personality” disorder.
That it is fascinating to observe and even accept a diagnosis rendered by a doctor who has not examined the person she is describing says more about the online consciousness that our brains are starting to develop.
Even though Depp lost John Christopher Depp II v (1) News Group Newspapers Ltd, and (2) Dan Wootton – his libel suit against The Sun – you could still see his Dior fragrance ads up in the West End. His part in Fantastic Beasts was gone, but the solitary, wandering man in the huge wilderness of the American West, a wilderness that was/is, always will be, a myth of manhood, remained. And “manhood” is a myth, a construct, as my drag queen friends showed me night after night.
Muscular, too, some carried guns for their jobs. But as they transformed themselves, they gave me the privilege of watching the elements that go into making our roles and ourselves in society.
Amber Heard is all, for too many, that is out of control. So Johnny Depp must defend himself against this Medusa.
“I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” she wrote a few years ago, which kicked this whole thing off.
We share 98.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees. They attack their females. It is considered a form of sexual coercion, a way to mark the male’s territory, demonstrate his dominance. It is deeply instinctive behaviour.
As are the reactions to Amber Heard. Guilty or not guilty