Women have been associated with inspiration since ancient times: In ancient Greece, the Muses were the nine goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. The etymology of “muse” stems from the Proto-Indo-European root “men-,” meaning “to think.” (Although not all linguists are in agreement, the word “man” is often linked to this origin, as well.) For many of us, our first encounter with the muse idea comes in high school English class in the form the opening line of Homer’s The Iliad: “Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles…”
In 21st-century vernacular, the muse figure is perhaps more recognizable as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007, the MPDG is a young woman, often young and waif-like, whose special brand of je-ne-sais-quoi liberates the male protagonist from his own neuroses. She has no discernable personality aside from her quirkiness, nor does she express individual wants or needs. Popular examples of the MPDG phenomenon include Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Penny Lane (Almost Famous), Hannah Baker (13 Reasons Why), and pretty much every young woman John Green has ever written.
Rabin retracted the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” in 2014, but the concept still holds strong even more so in real life than in works of fiction. As a student of art history, I spend a lot (read: a lot) of time studying male artists with a predilection for women muses. In art history, in particular, the cliché that “behind every great man is a great woman” often rings true. Some of the most iconic works of Western art- think Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Olympia- feature the faces of women whose stories have been overshadowed by the glimmer in their own eyes.
A quick Google search will reveal two major patterns in the lives of female muses. One, they are frequently creators themselves, from writers and painters to musicians and philosophers, and two, they more often than not meet tragic ends. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is Zelda Fitzgerald. The wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda also had literary ambitions that often put her at odds with her husband. The pair’s tumultuous, booze-fueled relationship, coupled with Zelda’s free-spirited beauty, immortalized her as an icon of the 1920s.
Over the past several months, I’ve encountered a handful of blog posts and podcasts from young women my age whose fascination with Zelda paints pretty much that picture: a glamorous flapper with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, while she hobnobs with literary greats. History, however, is paralyzed by myth, and often leaves out the fact that Scott and Zelda’s marriage eventually crumbled, and that Zelda was condemned to a mental institution, where she died in a fire in 1948. If Zelda’s death does come up, it is to make morbid comparisons between the impassioned vigor of her life and her fiery demise.
A lesser-known example that I think about a lot is the story of Camille Claudel, the French sculptor and muse of Auguste Rodin. Aside from her contributions to some of Rodin’s own works, Claudel’s impressive repertoire was largely overshadowed by her lover’s, and remains so to this day. Like Zelda, Claudel died in obscurity in a mental institution.
In researching this piece, I also came across Victorine Meurent, the French painter who modeled for pre-eminent male artists at the turn of the 20th century. She is most famously immortalized by Edouard Manet in the aforementioned Olympia. Today, Meurent and her own work is largely forgotten. What is left of her reputation is marred by the unfounded accusations that she was a grisette, or a woman who engaged in casual trysts with artists.
The list of other women whose biographies are shaped by what men drew from them goes on. From Dora Maar and Kiki de Montparnasse to Audrey Hepburn and Tippi Hedren, our visual culture is overflowing with women whose faces we’ve memorized but whose minds we can only guess at. It should also be noted that the burden of the erased muse weighs even more heavily on women of color, whose bodies are fetishized while their spirits are ignored. A recent show at New York’s Wallach Art Gallery spotlighted the instances of black women in art history, from Delacroix’s Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Turban to Matisse’s Woman in white. Some of these faces remain entirely anonymous, their selves obscured by a cruel amalgam of racism, sexism, and colonialist attitudes.
“She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful, for the way she thought. She was beautiful, for the sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved.” These words, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, frequently make the rounds on social media. As romantic and wholesome as they sound, I always cringe whenever I see them, and not only because I don’t love that novel. Every time I read those lines, I can’t help but think about Zelda, the inspiration for most of Scott’s female protagonists, and all the other women who withered as muses.
Unlike many plagues of previous centuries, muse syndrome is still as prevalent as ever. Even in feminist circles, the fandoms that form around certain role models veers on the side of triviality and fetishization. While I love all the enthusiasm around Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, the sheer amount of merchandise- from dolls and key chains to hats and phone cases- threatens to diminish her powerful legacy at face value. While there are thousands who can retweet a comment like “You can’t handle the RUTH” or “#RBG,” I suspect that there are far fewer who remember why she is so worth celebrating in the first place.
Although it might not seem so, the 21st century is still young. As young women today, we are in a unique position to plot the course for how future generations will perceive gender issues. Part of this, I believe, involves dismantling the muse stereotype. As feminists, we must be mindful to celebrate our role models while acknowledging their complexity; those of us in positions to help revise the stories of muses gone by must take up the responsibility of doing so.
Finally, and most importantly, women today must reclaim the identity of the muse. While it’s lovely to think beautiful thoughts and speak passionately about what you care about, it’s imperative that these traits are not performances to appease others. In other words, be more than a muse. Be you.