As the news broke last week that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had joined the long list of high-profile men to be accused of sexual harassment, I was in the act of transcribing several recent comments made by Matthew Weiner.
What I was transcribing was a Q&A he did on November 7 at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, with author Zadie Smith. It was to promote his new book, Heather, the Totality, which is in all honesty not very good.
Heather, the Totality is about a father murdering a man who he (correctly) suspects wants to rape his daughter, the titular Heather. And although it attempts to delve into the daughter’s perspective, and although in interviews Weiner has insisted that “the story is about Heather not being an object,” the whole book seems incapable of imagining her as anything besides an object upon whom men might prove their masculinity.
To her attempted rapist, Heather is purity to be defiled; to her father, she is purity to be preserved; to herself, she is just … pure, in a way that reads strongly like a man having trouble imagining true subjectivity for the woman he’s objectifying. And it’s worth noting that the threatened family is extremely wealthy, whereas the murdered attempted rapist is a poor construction worker, which adds some troubling class overtones.
However, I wanted to write about the 92nd Street Y event anyway. Anything that Smith has to say about novels is fascinating, and throughout the conversation, Weiner seemed to veer in and out of self-awareness as he talked in a way that I thought was compelling, even if I didn’t like his new book. Weiner himself was puzzling to me: How, I wondered, could the man who wrote Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan and Betty and Sally so beautifully for TV be so bad at writing a teenage girl in a novel?
But then a new article came out in which Kater Gordon, an Emmy-winning writer for Mad Men and Weiner’s former assistant, said that Weiner harassed her when she was working with him. According to Gordon, during a late night at the office, Weiner told her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. (Weiner denies the allegation.) A year later she was let go from the writing staff, and now she no longer works in television, despite her Emmy.
Under those circumstances, I felt that publishing a long piece on Weiner’s view of his creative process would be in poor taste. But some of what he said that night took on a new resonance in light of Gordon’s accusations against him. Examined in this context, here’s what they seem to suggest about Weiner’s outlook.
The fantasies at the basis of Heather, the Totality depend on denying women their personhood
Heather, the Totality, Weiner said, emerged from two fantasies. The first featured Weiner as a paternal figure protecting an innocent young girl. “The story comes from me witnessing a young girl walking into a building and a construction worker seeing [and ogling] her,” he said, “and me thinking, ‘What if her dad had seen that?’”
The second was a childhood fantasy, but it was also about protecting the home. “I don’t know if this is a male thing, but as a little boy, I used to have this fantasy about people breaking into the house, and I would be the person who would fight the intruder and save the family,” he said. “It was Oedipal, I’m sure.”
Both of these fantasies are specifically rooted in masculinity, and in proving one’s masculinity by exerting power over or performing violence on or around women. Like most fantasies, they are not interested in the personhood or the subjectivity of anyone besides the person fantasizing — but what really makes Heather, the Totality a failure of a novel is that it does not succeed in moving beyond the self-indulgent appeal of the fantasy and granting Heather her own personhood. And though Weiner claims otherwise, it’s not entirely clear that it makes more than a half-hearted effort in that direction. Heather remains an object to such a pointed extent that it begins to seem as if that’s the only way the fantasy can really work: Heather needs to be an object for her father to be a hero.
The kind of sexual harassment of which Weiner is accused depends upon one’s inability to see women as people. Consequently, women become objects, and the way to prove one’s masculinity is by exerting power over them and performing violence around them.
In the book, women’s bodies become a kind of currency
In Heather, the Totality, Heather’s parents are mismatched. Karen, the mother, is beautiful and has no career, while Mark, the father, is unattractive and only mildly successful. The two are unhappy together, but Mark values Karen deeply, because she is beautiful.
Mark, said Weiner, “finds a woman whose currency to him is her beauty.” He added, “These people buy into all kinds of distasteful politics in our society. Those are not my politics.”
Mark’s politics may or may not be Weiner’s politics, but it’s worth considering that Weiner writes a lot about men who treat women as prostitutes (Don’s Madonna/whore complex was a running theme in Mad Men). And his alleged statement to Gordon that “You owe it to me to let me see you naked” would suggest a belief that women’s beauty — or, more directly, women’s bodies — are a currency, and that after having “bought” a woman’s favor with professional mentorship, he is owed access to her body.
Weiner thinks that sociopaths believe they are entitled to anything they want
In the climax of Heather, the Totality, Bobby the construction worker develops detailed plans for his abduction, rape, and murder of Heather. During Weiner and Smith’s discussion, the two circled around to the question of how much Bobby’s desire for violence was linked to a desire to control.
“I think that when you want to destroy something, as you say, you want to own that thing,” suggested Smith.
“I don’t think Bobby wants it,” Weiner said. “This is the thing that I’ve realized about being a sociopath: Bobby doesn’t want it. Bobby thinks it’s all his already.”
Weiner’s alleged statement to Gordon — “You owe it to me to let me see you naked” — would suggest a similar belief that he is owed her nakedness and that on some level, it is his already. If women’s bodies are currency, the implication here is that they are a currency he should by all rights already have.
Weiner thinks it’s important to name the pain of powerless people. He’s right.
A recurring theme throughout Weiner and Smith’s conversation was that Smith thought Heather was a dark tragedy, while Weiner thought that it was funny and cathartic.
“The news about what goes on inside people [in this book] is really extraordinarily dark,” Smith said. “As if, if you could go deep inside people you would find out that they don’t see you accurately. That’s the bit which really shocked me, because I guess the novelist’s religion is that if you could get inside of people you would see that they have empathy and they recognize you and they see you as fully human. In Matthew World, that is not the case. Can we say that?”
“I don’t know. I have a slightly different philosophy,” Weiner replied. “I think that identifying powerless people and their pain, and naming it, is catharsis in the great sense. And that is a reward that makes people feel less lonely.”
Weiner is quite correct that identifying and naming powerless people and their pain is enormously cathartic. That’s why it’s been so meaningful, over the past few weeks, to see so many women come forward and speak out against the powerful men who have hurt and humiliated them, and then hidden their abuses behind systems set up for that very purpose: In our society, women are comparatively powerless, and their avenues for speaking about what has happened to them are few. The downfall of Harvey Weinstein began the process of that naming and identification, and now it has taken on a life of its own — a life that, it seems, Weiner did not expect would come to implicate him, too.