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St. Petersburg Times (17/Nov/1991) - Reflections in a feminine mirror


  • article: Reflections in a feminine mirror
  • author(s): Pauline Mayer
  • newspaper: St. Petersburg Times (17/Nov/1991)
  • keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Wendy Lesser


Reflections in a feminine mirror

HIS OTHER HALF: Men Looking at Women Through Art By Wendy Lesser Harvard University Press, $24.95 Reviewed by Pauline Mayer

In His Other Half, post-feminist scholar Wendy Lesser reminds us that "women can learn from male artists without being ideologically compromised." This isn't exactly stop-the-press news. Still, Lesser's probing essays not only counter the male-bashing of extreme feminists, they are also wonderfully readable and idiosyncratic.

Lesser does brand some male artists (John Updike, Milan Kundera) as thorough misogynists. In contrast, those she defends all possess the yin and the yang of male and female: "a desire to be the other as well as to view her," even while they acknowledge the irrevocable separation.

Lesser's jumping-off point is the myth from Plato's Symposium describing two-headed and four-legged people so powerful that the gods felt threatened and cut them in two. The result was human love — for, after the division, the two parts searched out their other half, longing to grow into one again.

The male artists analyzed in His Other Half run the gamut from painters and writers to photographers and filmmakers. Lesser starts by looking at mothers as viewed by several writers, including Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence. In later chapters, she discusses the childhood doll of psychotherapist D. W. Winnicott, Marilyn Monroe's walk, the hat worn by Henry Higgins' mother in My Fair Lady. These, and Lesser's many other unexpected asides and connections, do more than bolster her arguments. They startle, amuse and engage the reader.

Lesser's chosen artists merge the yin and the yang, the "self-division," but none more than Henry James. "James' sympathy for his female characters would be unusual in any country and in any era," marvels Lesser, "but coming as they do from the same culture that gave us Melville's sailors, Twain's picaresque heroes, and Howells' businessmen, James' women are nothing short of thrilling." Lesser also admires the neglected Victorian novelist, George Gissing. She relates his 1893 novel, The Odd Women, to Tootsie — which she believes is one of the best movies about men and women because its central female is actually male. Gissing's novel, Lesser maintains, "is one of the best portrayals of the women's movement, old or new." She links The Odd Women to Henry James' The Bostonians, both of which present a number of acceptable alternatives for women's lives.

Lesser loves the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. She touches on their Freudian implications, and makes the point that Hitchcock's women may be victimized but they often have unsavory pasts which Hitchcock's men are forced to accept non-judgmentally.

To promote her theme of woman as the male artist's "mirror and secret self," Lesser examines the male art inspired by Marilyn Monroe. Monroe becomes the perfect mirror for Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, the males who directed and wrote her films. She is, Lesser claims, the perfect mirror for all of us, because "perceiving the tremulous, beseeching absence of a self, our own self rushes in to fill the void."

Lesser insists women must also empathize with men and must constantly try to surmount the barrier of gender. If we had more generous-hearted and clear-headed thinkers like Lesser, that barrier might not be so insurmountable. Pauline Mayer is a writer who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.