Why chromophobia of #MeToo does not make any sense

 

The #MeToo’ers got their aesthetic affiliation all wrong as they went for Puritanism—one of history’s archetypal patriarchies. In my latest contribution to The New Criterion, I discuss how the movement’s desire to disassociate itself from traditional trappings of femininity, including color, is incongruent with their professed embrace of the oppressed “other.” Below is the full text of the article:

Paint it black

Anyone familiar with the history of the Soviet Union will be suspicious when some political groups begin to claim moral superiority over others. Such claims always evoke the propagandistic juxtaposition of the “decaying West” and the “flawless” Homo Sovieticus. The #MeToo movement’s insistence on the fundamental infallibility of the victims of sexual harassment, combined with truculent claims to the higher moral ground, seem reminiscent of Soviet rhetorical extremes of rectitude and wickedness. To establish their moral purity conclusively and unambiguously, like their Eastern Bloc counterparts, the members of the #MeToo movement cultivate their own distinct aesthetic. Such reliance on branding makes perfect sense within our society of the spectacle, but the particular aesthetic selected by #MeToo seems less than cogent. For the movement’s visuals of choice derive ultimately from religious Puritanism—one of history’s archetypical patriarchies.

It is not especially original to compare #MeToo to the Puritans. In a warning against the movement’s extremist tendencies, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood drew a persuasive analogy between the recent moralistic purges and the Salem witch trials, during which naive young women were induced to level scrutiny-free accusations that were accepted as truth. This comparison stresses the current movement’s treacherous nature. But aside from its myopic reliance on personal testimony and reflexive prosecution, #MeToo also evokes seventeenth-century Massachusetts in its peculiar preference for Puritan iconography. Like their seventeenth-century forebears, these self-appointed guardians of sexual morality assert their power by donning severe clothing that signals their repudiation of the traditional trappings of femininity. Rejecting color, they parade their preference for black, loudly and proudly proclaiming a twenty-first century form of chromophobia.

Chromophobia is on full display in the most canonical visual representation of #MeToo to date: the cover of Time’s 2017 Person of the Year issue, which shows five of the women most closely associated with the movement, plus the cropped elbow of an anonymous victim. Giving symbolic form to their affected sisterly unity while demarcating the austere aesthetic standards they purport to maintain, each woman is dressed in black and looks directly at the camera. The flat, steel-blue background, combined with white lettering and the cadmium red border of the cover, accentuates the uniform black of their urban chic jackets and coats, all different in cut, yet made from the same satin black fabric. The image’s message is unambiguous: these women are not to be trifled with. In this they recall visual antecedents such as the group portrait painted in 1644 by the Dutch artist Frans Hals. The five dour matrons in his Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, all clad in Calvinist black with white collars and cuffs, seem similarly austere and uninviting. But the resemblance only goes so far, since the Time cohort lacks both the individual subtlety of character and the sincere communal bonding evident in Hals’s painting.

The new Puritans look vapid compared with the old. Hals’s grouping emphasizes the humanity of each sitter, made evident through the direction of their gaze, the position of their hands, their headgear and accessories. We can tell that the regentess in the foreground and another standing behind the table are widows, since both have on the appropriate mourning caps. The standing widow wears a somewhat fancier dress, with a collar of very delicate layered lace, held in place with two decorative bows; her hands are intricately arranged to hold a pair of fine kidskin gloves and a carved, folded fan. As the art historian Stella Paul points out, the simple black garments of the women designate their “sobriety, austerity, gravity,” but actually also offer an array of coded messages regarding the sitters’ wealth and social standing:

[their] deep black clothing is made of the most elegant and expensive cloth, expertly dyed to achieve those depths of inky uniform color. This is not drab or gloomy abstemiousness: it reflects bourgeois worth. Special committees of the drapers’ guild carefully inspected fine black cloth to affirm its quality before affixing a seal of approval. As for the whites, Hals’s city, Haarlem, led Europe’s bleaching industry. To get the desired brightness that signals pure cleanliness, linens were subjected to a months-long process of steeping in baths of different lyes, boiling, washing, more soaking in buttermilk, and then extended exposure to moisture and sunshine.

The painting shows both the Calvinist virtue and the pecuniary success of the regentesses through what Paul labels “largely chromophobic imaging.” Meanwhile, the composite photograph of “the silence breakers” on the Time cover represents their rage only abstractly, without offering any meaningful details that mark individual sitters—none of their hands are visible, for instance. After the issue came out, there was a rumble of complaints about the omission of Tarana Burke, who coined the expression “Me Too” in 2006, while Ashley Judd, who was one of the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, was placed in the position of most prominence. So while its surly attitude successfully out-puritans the Puritans, the Time image substitutes a convincing representation of sisterhood in favor of chromophobic styling meant to represent an impending denial-of-service doom should men fail to abandon their wicked ways.

A similar favoring of style over substance was at work in the morbid call for head-A to-toe black at the seventy-fifth Golden Globe Awards ceremony of January 2018. If the intention behind this gesture was to replace the perennial luxe et volupté spirit of the event with modesty and solemnity, it failed spectacularly—as The New York Times columnist Vanessa Friedman wittily remarked, the gathering looked less like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and more like “500 Shades of Black.” The women on the red carpet looked as stunning and tempting as ever in their carefully selected black couture. The only participant actually conforming to the prim protocol of erotic withdrawal was Frances McDormand, who arrived makeup-free and with simple hair, a high neckline, and a demurely cut frock.

Remarkably, this most recent Golden Globes ceremony has been identified as a crucial event for #MeToo by none other than the former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who recognized it as “a Cromwell moment,” noting that “the long black dresses and all that—this is the Puritans!” A variation on the chromophobia of the Golden Globes was performed a few days later in another Hollywood ceremony—the Critics’ Choice Awards, where Diane Kruger, Emma Roberts, and Kate Bosworth joined Angelina Jolie in wearing symbolically pure white.

While the superficial visual symbolism exposes #MeToo’s spectacle-oriented agenda, the ultimate irony of the movement’s puritanical self-fashioning becomes abundantly clear when we consider the complex relationships between color, pleasure, visual art, and the deep-rooted chromophobia of the West. In his book Chromophobia, which describes the history of this prejudice, the artist and writer David Batchelor presents color as a “victim systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished, and degraded” by “generations of philosophers, artists, art historians, and cultural theorists [who] kept this prejudice alive, warm, fed, and groomed.” Citing the published writings of the modernist architect Le Corbusier, Batchelor recounts the fear of corruption through color, and the historical view of color as dangerous, trivial, or both.

According to Batchelor, color’s association with sexuality has always prompted its purging from the ordered ranks of Western society. Color, he writes, “was to be contained and subordinated—like a woman.” Its spuriousness and its “lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe,” as well as its association with promiscuity, vulgarity, and cosmetic deceit (Plato refers to facial cosmetics as “a fraudulent, baseborn, slavish knave”), have resulted in repeated attempts to evade sexuality by eschewing color to avoid “moral panic.” Coincidentally, “moral panic” was the exact term used by several writers, including The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, to discuss the origins and repercussions of #MeToo. All of this means that in its incessant desire to project power by sidelining traditional femininity, #MeToo has inadvertently turned against its own credo and has condoned the historical misogyny manifested in the fear of color.

By choosing the aesthetic of what Batchelor calls “voluntary poverty,” to signal the “righteous and evangelical,” the #MeToo movement backed itself into the Apollonian corner, when its true aesthetic preference should have been Dionysian. Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous description of the classical body “cleared of any evidence of grotesque embarrassments of an actual life,” including color, is identified in Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s book The Eloquence of Color as “moral Puritanism and aesthetic austerity, . . . odorless and colorless may be said to be true, beautiful, and good.” Color, on the other hand, “exists as a disruption in the symbolic order,” representing, “the disobedient, the eccentric, the irregular, and the subversive.” If Batchelor is right, and color is indeed a harbinger of liberty, then #MeToo’s eagerness to shed patriarchal shackles should have led it to embrace color, not shun it.

Perhaps the reason for this chromophobia is that #MeToo’s narratives are essentially textual; they dwell within the confines of joyless monochrome écriture. They are opposed to visuality, tactility, sensuality, and above all sexuality, the kind of “jubilant sexuality” that trumps textuality and is always present in color. The art critic Dave Hickey, whose attitude to color could be best described as “chromophilia,” reiterates the sexual metaphor by welcoming the “corruption” inherent in the “condition of being ravished by color.” For Hickey, color cannot exist “in a linguistic condition of degradation or excess that must necessarily derive from our expectations . . . when color signifies anything, it always signifies, as well, a respite from language and history.” Conversely, the movement’s dark, forbidding aesthetic reveals its opposition to art itself, manifested in attacks on creative men, and exposes its poorly concealed attempts to police aesthetic expression.

Why would the “silence breakers” opt for the color normally associated with death, mourning, and symbolic sobriety? The artist and art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe helps to answer that question, as he contrasts the “colorless reign of the mind” with “fashion [that] provides people with the possibility to at least propose wickedness, to play with everything which is denied to them by virtue of their having to live in society: to entertain the idea that beauty could actually be important (a terrifying idea to all religions).” Wickedness and play are most certainly not on the agenda of the increasingly cult-like #MeToo. But, as Gilbert-Rolfe points out: “everybody looks good in black.” So perhaps the best way to understand the Puritan aesthetics of #MeToo would be to go in search of vanity rather than virtue.