The fake news of the dude and his muse

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When asked by a Billboard interviewer about how Jameela Jamil, star of the US TV show The Good Place, 'inspired' his new album Assume Form, musician James Blake immediately corrected the question. 'She helped make it,' he said. He added that Jamil 'has an incredible musical instinct ... she has a credit on the album, it's not just a shout out, it's genuine work.'

Jameela Jamil (right) and James Blake attend the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February 2019. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)He followed up in a series of tweets further critiquing how the significant others of artists, usually women, do invisible labour that goes unrecognised. Blake tweeted: 'Shout out to all the partners who selflessly placated a musicians during a very self absorbed process like creating an album, who got the title of "muse' afterwards which basically amounts to being an object of affection while the musician exercises their genius.'

He continued in a reply, pointing out a double standard: 'In addition, women who helped their partners with their album, being a sounding board and often their only emotional support during the process, almost invariably go uncredited, while majority male producers come in and make a tiny change to the track and they're Mr golden balls.'

The Ancient Muses were goddesses of the arts, and mortals could test their skill against the Muses' at their own peril, but what has lingered in the modern conception of the muse is an emphasis on 'inspiration'. As Blake points out, the muse is an objectified woman who is seen to have no direct impact on the creation of the work itself and no creative life of her own, but is merely the source of the male artist's inspiration and a vehicle to project his own desires onto.

And while women's labour being ignored is hardly new, the way we conceptualise genius as a sole act actually is. When the Victorian era rolled around, a Romantic ideal developed of the artist as a solitary creator/god, when in reality many of the people we hold up as singular geniuses worked collaboratively and drew inspiration from many different sources. This Romantic idea of the genius also ignores how that work is usually possible through some kind of labour going on in the background, often from women.

Many examples of this can be found in the 2017 hashtag #thanksfortyping. After speaking with some colleagues about how wives often facilitated their husbands' work in academia, Bruce Holsinger started to screenshot in google books parts of the acknowledgments where wives were thanked, without their names, in academic texts.

The extent of the work was staggering. Wives and daughters were typists, researchers, editors, translators and moral supporters, usually in conjunction with their own careers and domestic work. How significant an impact a supportive partner is can be seen in the numbers: married male academics progress significantly faster in their careers than unmarried men, as well as everyone else.

 

"This type of entitlement to the labour of women doesn't stop at creative industries. Most women I've met who work in an office environment have a story of a male colleague who repurposed her idea as his own."

 

In the music industry 'muses' abound, but often the label diminishes the true contribution that that person made. Marianne Faithfull was portrayed as Mick Jagger's muse, but was actually a collaborator and only retained her credit as a co-writer on the song 'Sister Morphine' after a legal battle. Faithfull continues to be a successful musician and songwriter in her own right.

And that's when women's work is actually acknowledged at all. Male authors have sometimes straight up stolen women's intellectual property. Zelda Fitzgerald noticed her diary and letters went missing, until she recognised her writing edited into Scott Fitzgerald's book This Side of Paradise.

The recent eponymous film Colette follows a writer whose husband would take credit for her works and, apocryphally, once locked her in a room until she finished a novel. And it's endemic in Hollywood for screenwriters, especially women and other minorities, to go uncredited for their contributions to scripts.

This type of entitlement to the labour of women doesn't stop at creative industries either; most women I've met who work in an office environment have a story of a male colleague who repurposed her idea as his own.

Minimising the importance of emotional, intellectual and domestic labour of women is a centuries long legacy in how creative work from men has been produced. And while there have been efforts to bring unacknowledged women forward, the idea that women only act as inspiration to a man's sole genius still pervades in our cultural narratives.

Dealing with this problem means deconstructing the prevalent myths of the muse/genius and acknowledging that much of our art and knowledge has been produced collectively and with the support of invisible labour that often goes uncommented on.

It's uncomfortable to confront how the sausage gets made because it directly contradicts the Romantic genius ideal, as well as tapping straight into our squeamishness about confronting the power dynamics in gender and money. But no man is an island, and that includes the so-called geniuses.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street and a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Jameela Jamil (right) and James Blake attend the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February 2019. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Jameela Jamil, The Good Place, James Blake, gender inequality, women's labour

 

 

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Existing comments

Dante would have been surprised, I imagine, to learn that Beatrice was merely "an objectified woman who is seen to have no direct impact on the creation of the work itself." And though he, like Shakespeare, would have appreciated that a "battle of the sexes' is an aspect of male-female relationship dynamics, I think it doubtful that he would have reduced or forced this interaction and its constructive and playful possibilities into an end-game of "power".
John RD | 10 October 2019


In the real world, the misappropriation of credit for the work of others has to do in the main with personal aggrandisement, increase of fame and fortune and promotion up the ladder towards respect/power. The greatest "victims" of such exploitation up until the 1980s were men. Since then, many more women have entered the universities and employment and correspondingly now women have also become victims. It is not gender that drives some to exploit, discredit or prevent acknowledgement of the work of others , it is the threat that the "others", male or female, pose to the progress of the exploiter mixed in with a generous dose of jealousy.
john frawley | 11 October 2019


Heaven forbid, John Frawley, that such ignoble personal motivations as greed, ambition and envy should be permitted spoil utopian conceptions of humanity and postmodern narrative techniques that require any text or phenomenon to be "read" through the prescribed grids or lenses of gender, class, race, etc.
John RD | 14 October 2019


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