In a review of two recent novels that feature professor-student affairs, reviewer Michelle Dean asks where is the frank discussion of power? She writes,
The professor-student romance debate similarly breaks down, for the most part, to two opposing views. In one corner you have your Roiphes and your Paglias, who style themselves as revolutionaries for celebrating the power dynamics of the status quo. In the other you have feminists more aligned with Andrea Dworkin who seem to believe one can remove power from relationships entirely.
(Presumably, she meant to write instead “feminists more aligned with Andrea Dworkin who seem to believe one can’t remove power from relationships entirely. At least, I’ve never read a word of Dworkin to mean that there was any such thing as sexuality without power. This is a woman who was closely aligned with Catherine Mackinnon, the woman who wrote “man f^(ks woman, subject verb object.”)
So what do these new novelistic treatments of professor-student sexual relationships have to say about them? Both Susan Choi’s My Education and Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us “seem ultimately uncomfortable with the very subject they have taken on—as though their authors are ultimately unwilling to confront the thicket of moral issues such relationships raise.” In Choi’s novel, the relationship is between two women, and in Lott’s book it’s a heterosexual affair, but both books ultimately shy away from talking about power.
Part of the reason, Dean suggests, is that “neither author makes her protagonist the actual student, in the literal sense, of her lover. Terry, the student in Lott’s book, only audited a class by her eventual lover Rhinehart, a famous poet and professor. Choi’s Regina becomes involved with her professor’s wife, Martha, who is herself an academic.” But Dean doesn’t buy this evasion:
If one party is always a teacher, and the other a student, in a relationship, then someone has the upper hand. That someone is Henry Higgins to his Eliza. Both Choi and Lott are coy on this point. It is out of vogue to talk about power and its uses in any direct way, so they don’t. And funnily enough, it is the silence about that dynamic that, more than anything, brings out the frustrated Puritan in women who look from afar upon these relationships. Like me, reading these books, thinking about the stories I used to hear of the professors who harvested the undergraduates each fall, remembering how prudish it felt to observe the predictable cliché of it all.
Of course, all love has an element of worship, and worshipper and worshipee are not unlike student and teacher. But the gold standards of romance, those beloved 19th-century novels, understood that the worship isn’t always deserved, and provokes suffering. Think of Colonel Brandon waiting at a respectful distance for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. (It helps to lean on Alan Rickman’s heavy-lidded interpretation here.) Think of how Jane Eyre resolves to deal with Mr. Rochester’s deceit: “Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol.”
So it’s curious to find that in The Rest of Us and My Education, the renunciation of the teacher-idol never happens. Terry and Rhinehart do not live happily ever after, but neither does Terry begin to see his faults clearly. Regina and Martha are able to treat each other more maturely because of the passage of years—and so the reader is robbed of the chance to say to Martha: “My God, what were you thinking?” And never mind the reader—rebellion doesn’t seem to be an option even for the students, either. They remain simple receptors of the teacher’s message in the end. All faults are the students’ own; they were the ones with growing up to do.
Both books, then, ignore the crucial emotional experience of resenting the person who made you worship them when you were young and impressionable. As one should, by the way.
Although it’s feminism that encouraged us to think about power in sexual relationships, it’s clearly another countervailing force in feminist thought that animates Choi’s and Lott’s novels: the rejection of women’s victimhood. I see the same thing in a great deal of feminist historical scholarship, too. Feminist scholars are extraordinarily reluctant to portray their subjects as victims in any way.
This is especially true in recent women’s history. For example, over my recent vacation I read Lois Banner’s recent biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn (2012). I found Banner’s argument that MM was an invention of herself and a second-wave feminist avant la lettre compelling and convincing. However, I wondered how that reading of MM’s life squares with its sad ending: Banner mentions only in passing that MM was bugged by J. Edgar Hoover at the time of her death! She was carrying on affairs with both President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in the last years of her life, and she strongly implies that if Bobby Kennedy was not also involved in her murder, he was at least heavily involved in the cleanup after her death. Banner also mentions casually that MM’s drug use may have led to an anal gang-rape by Sam Giancana and his cronies at a party in Palm Springs! I think it’s wrong to see MM only as a victim or creation manipulated by others, but we can see her as both the author of her own life and also the victim of circumstances beyond her ability to control as well.
Young women’s sexuality can be used as a kind of power, and it can make them feel powerful. But it’s not unambiguously an instrument to power in the way that money or real power is–the kind that the Kennedys, Hoover, and Giancana possessed and used ruthlessly. I think that historians and novelists alike can tell women’s stories in complex ways that avoid both total victimhood or total empowerment, if they want to.
Have any of you read Banner’s Marilyn yet? What did you think? (I really enjoyed it and absolutely recommend it.) And what do you think about this aversion to portraying women as victims either in contemporary novels or in history books?