Why Are Women's Romantic Histories Used to Dismiss and Demean Them, Even Years Later?

On Saturday, author Joyce Maynard slammed a male film critic for inferring that her teenage relationship with then-53-year-old JD Salinger had anything to do with the new film adaptation of her book "Labor Day."

Feb 2, 2014 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

Why are women's romantic and relationship histories used to demean and dismiss them, even years after the relationships in question are dunzo? It happened to Mia Farrow last week in this repulsive defense of Woody Allen in the Daily Beast; writer Robert B. Weide decided it made perfect sense to try to explain away the horrific abuse allegations of Allen and Farrow's then-7-year-old daughter Dylan by dragging out Mia's romantic and sexual history as a public shame spectacle. (The writer alludes to Mia possibly "fooling around" on Allen with her ex-husband, Frank Sinatra.)

Go read it if you want to piss yourself off, though I'd suggest reading Dylan Farrow's open NY Times letter from yesterday instead. Farrow's piece -- in which she publicly describes, for the first time, the sexual assault she says she endured from her father -- is chilling. She doesn't just call out Woody Allen, or the legal system that failed her. She also calls out, by name, a handful of Allen's willing muses over the years -- both male and female stars who worked with him despite knowing what they knew (er, what we ALL knew) about his awful history with young girls.

In another ballsy open letter, posted on Facebook yesterday, writer Joyce Maynard took film critic Peter Travers to task for his crappy Rolling Stone review of the new film adaptation of Maynard's novel Labor Day. Peter Travers didn't like the movie, which is fine, whatever -- people like what they like, and honestly, from what I've heard about the movie's premise, it does sound a bit odd. (Though I like Maynard and I like Kate Winslet, so I might see it anyway.)

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"Labor Day"

The problem for Maynard, and for me, and for various other xoJane editors who were grossed out by the sheer grossness of Travers' review, was how he tried to dismiss the film with this one choice line THAT HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MOVIE: "At 18, Maynard was the mistress of the reclusive J.D. Salinger. Draw your own conclusions."

Uh ... OK! Thanks? How the hell does Maynard's 11-month relationship with renowned reclusive genius/asshole JD Salinger -- who was, FYI, 53 years old at the time of their relationship -- have anything even vaguely, passably to do with "Labor Day," which was distinctly not based on Maynard's relationship with Salinger? (Maynard has written -- kind of a lot -- about her thing with Salinger, especially since publishing the 1998 memoir At Home In the World.)

Maynard particularly (understandably) balks at Travers' use of the word "mistress" to describe her at age 18. She writes, "The term does not apply to me. And it is an inherently offensive, dismissive and woman-hating label to describe the girl that I was, or any woman who offers up her heart to a man for no reason besides love and trust."

The notion that Maynard's past romantic history -- her LONG-PAST romantic history at that, essentially romantic choices made when she was barely an adult -- would be used to dismiss her later work is disturbing and offensive. Also offensive? The fact that because she's a woman, she is still -- still? -- being lambasted for daring to write about a serious relationship that, you know, actually happened. Like, to her. (Also worth noting is that she waited 25 years to write about that relationship. It wasn't like she published some salacious expose 6 months after hopping out of Salinger's bed.)

That relationship profoundly affected her. Which makes sense, because not only was it a relationship with a literary superstar, it was a relationship with a man who essentially sought her out as a teenager, just as he sought out dozens of other adolescent girls. But Maynard's been attacked for having the audacity to write about her dalliance with such a protected lit icon since EVEN BEFORE her memoir even came out. About her decision to publish At Home In the World, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Maynard had “no sense of shame," and the New York Post helpfully called her “shameless.” Of course, Salinger's penchant for teenagers was seen as totally NBD! As film critic David Edelstein wrote, “He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses." NO -- HOW ABOUT YOU STOP KILLING ME.

Maynard is still being chided, shamed, and painted as the tart -- the knowing teen seductress who suckered a 35-years-older (and obviously more powerful) man into her bed. Which is kind of laughable, considering Maynard's claim that she never actually had sex with Salinger (in her post yesterday, she noted that she was "a virgin when I met Salinger, and a virgin when he sent me away eleven months later").

She pretty much nails it when she writes, "...If we are talking about the relevance of a person's previous romantic connections playing a role in his or her contributions to film, let's be sure that every review of Roman Polanski's work -- or Woody Allen's -- explores the director's history with young girls."

Regardless of what you think about Woody Allen, or Mia Farrow, or their daughter's abuse allegations, or Joyce Maynard's books, you've got to admit that it's pretty sad when critics are still trying to write women artists off as slutty, talentless hacks for romantic choices they made a zillion years ago. It's not cool when it's done to Mia Farrow for possibly straying in her relationship with Allen, and it's not cool when it's done to Maynard for a relationship she entered when she was all of 18. I'd be willing to bet that most of us made some pretty sketchy decisions when we were seniors in high school. (Uhhhh, my first love was a Holocaust denier -- something I've written about, though not here. And in my defense, I didn't find out he was a Holocaust denier until years later.) I'm just glad mine aren't getting nitpicked in the public eye.

Thoughts on Joyce Maynard's post? Dylan Farrow's letter? Your own relationship history? Please share!

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