Phoebe Bridgers. “A Star Is Born”’s Lady Gaga. Frida Kahlo. “High School Musical”’s Gabriella Montez.
What do all these women have in common?
Some living, others deceased, some fictional, others real. But each has been submitted to an artistic and even personal subjugation by means of one small title: the muse. Carrying origins from Greek mythology’s “Muses,” which were regarded as goddesses of literature, science and the arts, who bestowed their creative powers upon men — it’s a narrative that has endured centuries. And yet, despite decades of supposed feminist progress, the idea of women as muses still permeates the many shades of film, television, art and music we consume today.
As a result of this enduring archetype and the way it has been commercialized by modern media, we’re socialized to accept its unhealthy power dynamic as natural and artistically productive, even. Tales like the beloved Troy and Gabriella “High School Musical” saga prime our subconscious, motivating us to subscribe to this idea that next to every great female artist, or in Gabriella’s case, next to every amaeteur high-school-singer, there’s a more popular, more capable man enabling her artistic progress. A great deal of Gabriella’s charm as the film’s doting ingénue comes from her supposedly “dorky” shyness and stage fright — which, lo and behold, can only be cured with a healthy dose of Troy Bolton-like starpower.
And the 2018 hit “A Star is Born,” which tells the story of a frumpy, uninspired waitress “discovered” by an alcoholic male artist, was merely an elevated rendition of that same sexist narrative. In it, aforementioned frumpy waitress Ally, played by Lady Gaga, possesses insane talent and potential, but is only launched into her musical career after meeting older, wiser, richer country-star Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper. The power imbalance between the two is bleak.
A Chicago Tribune critique of the film by Jessi Roti articulated and then classified this power imbalance nicely: “Their relationship means nothing outside of the music he hears in his head — his narcissism disguised as the “love” they share. Through this, Ally is never fully Jackson Maine’s partner, in life or in music, instead secretly — and at times viciously — relegated to nothing more than a muse: She is a symbol he worships when it adds value to him or eases his pain, or exploits.”
I saw the movie and knew I had seen the story somewhere before, and not just because the film is preceded by three Hollywood iterations all carrying the same sexist undertone. This idea of a young woman as a muse, as something less than an artist and, instead, an object of untapped potential waiting to be exploited, was previously manifested in iconic student-artist duo: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
I only realized this a few weeks ago in Spanish class, when I was assigned to watch a documentary about Frida’s career, aptly titled, “Frida Kahlo: Between Passion and Pain.” Frida was 15 when she met Diego; a stark 21-year-age-gap between the two. He was an accomplished muralist and radical thinker, and she was a literal high-schooler. I learned from the documentary that later in her life, Diego cheated on Frida, his student-turned-wife, with Frida’s decidedly more “attractive” sister. She was devastated, and her art reflected this struggle: She painted depictions of her struggle for control, for power and agency, both in her marriage and in her artistic career. In her pieces, she depicts blood, vomit and organs outpouring from her own pale, limp corpse.
Since analyzing the Kahlo-Rivera relationship from this more enlightened perspective, the “woman as muse” or “woman as mentee” narrative seemed to resurface almost immediately in the other forms of media I was consuming. On TikTok, Phoebe Bridgers’ classic somber anthem “Motion Sickness” goes viral amongst the “cottagecore/lesbian/WLW/indie” sides of TikTok. And the comment sections on these fifteen-second videos are flooded with messages like “f*** Ryan Adams,” referring to the string of abuse allegations Bridgers filed against ex-collaborator Adams after their “professional correspondence turned into a romantic relationship that eventually became emotionally abusive.” The song is supposedly a callout to this abuse.
“I hate you for what you did / And I miss you like a little kid,” sings Bridgers.
The song currently has over 47.5 million streams on Spotify, making it Bridgers’ most popular track.
So, what kind of art would exist in a world where Frida Kahlo could create in true autonomy, with total control over her own work? Or Gabriella Montez could snag the lead in her school musical without the help of a mildly-handsome basketball star? Or “A Star is Born”’s Lady Gaga need not babysit an alcoholic country singer just to make her way onto a mainstage?
Perhaps the benefit in the muse’s struggle is the piercing artwork that is produced as a result. Without the emotional hurt that comes with navigating these toxic power imbalances with industry’s male professionals, maybe we wouldn’t have Phoebe Bridgers’ ghostly and chart-topping Stranger in the Alps debut album. Or Frida Kahlo’s incredible collection of painful self-portraits emblematic of a greater surrealist art movement. Ultimately, across film screens and canvases and recording studios, female artists are experiencing artistic and personal subjugation, and perhaps something artistic lies in this great, tethered string that ties all female artists together: the Gabriellas and Fridas Kahlos of the world alike.
Daily Arts Writer Grace Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.