As the awards season in the US and UK begins to lead up to the biggest show in the movie industry — the Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars — two actresses who have been on every list of nominees are Cate Blanchett for Tár and Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once, the first ever Asian nominee. The former won the BAFTA and the Golden Globe, the latter a Golden Globe (in a different category) and the National Board of Review; it is a close call as to who will get that Oscar trophy.
The roles the two stars have played could not have been more different. Yeoh’s is the more conventional part, but in a movie so spectacularly imaginative (11 Oscar nominations for the film directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) that it became challenging. In the Todd Field film (six nominations), Blanchett is a complex, not very likeable person, an imperious music conductor named Lydia Tár, who cannot foresee her hubris knocking her over.
There are not too many female conductors in the Western classical music field — just 8% of the world’s top 100 maestros, as compared to just one in 100 in 2013; that is Marin Alsop, who is supposedly the inspiration for Lydia Tár. Lydia dresses in androgynous suits, and enjoys the power of her position. She prefers to be called maestro not maestra. To an interviewer in the film, she says, female astronauts are not called astronettes.
She is an out-of-the-closet lesbian (she has a partner and a daughter), and is not averse to giving breaks to young women she fancies. Lydia leaves the viewer with contradictory reactions—if she is competing for top slot in an overwhelmingly male profession, does she have to behave like a man? If she were to wear shimmery gowns and make-up, and speak softly, would she be taken seriously?
Marin Alsop has criticised the film as being anti-woman. In an interview published in The Sunday Times, she said it offended her “as a woman, as a conductor and as a lesbian… To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking. I think all women and all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction because it’s not really about women conductors, is it? It’s about women as leaders in our society. People ask, ‘Can we trust them? Can they function in that role?’ It’s the same questions whether it's about a CEO or an NBA coach or the head of a police department.”
If Lydia Tár were a man in the pre #Metoo world — or even post, to honest — his behaviour would have been considered ‘normal.’ Over the last few years, so many major names in music and dance have been accused of sexual abuse, without causing much of a dent in their reputation. But a woman — even a fictional one —daring to be on par with men and then slipping up, is sent into the hellhole of obscurity forever, doomed to loneliness, misery and creative exile.
Lydia is typical of many women who have used the wings offered by feminism to reach the top of their profession, but do not think it obligates them to help other women maximise their potential. She was involved in setting up an organisation to help women in classical music, but after her own exceptional success, she suggests that men be allowed in, because “the point has been proven”. She is a manipulative bully, again, judged harshly because she is a woman. Men are lauded for their aggressiveness in reaching out and grabbing what they think they deserve.
Blanchett, defending the film, has been quoted in The Entertainment Weekly as having said, “I don’t think you could have talked about the corrupting nature of power in as nuanced a way as Todd Field has done as a filmmaker if there was a male at the center of it because we understand so absolutely what that looks like. I think that power is a corrupting force, no matter what one’s gender is. I think it affects all of us.”
Tár is a film both feminist and anti-feminist, which is what is generating all the interest, debate, admiration and trolling.
In Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn Wang, the character played by Michelle Yeoh, is totally relatable as the woman overwhelmed with responsibility. She runs a failing launderette and has been summoned by the Internal Revenue Service because her accounts are a mess; her husband is trying to divorce her, her old father is crotchety and demanding, and her gay daughter wants to bring her girlfriend to a party being planned by the Wangs. It is hardly surprising that Evelyn’s mind goes into overdrive, splinters and imagines many parallel universes, in which she could have been anything she desired, but in this universe, the immigrant homemaker-entrepreneur at her wit’s end.
Mona Eltahawy, writing in feministgiant.com, calls the film a menopause allegory. “She [Evelyn] is a woman who knows only what the world allows her to be and who has no time or privilege to know that she could have been something else. And then bang–’verse jumping! I see that bang as perimenopause — that snapping into being as we become superheroes. The multiverse might not need us to save it, but our internal multiverse needs us to have a similar reckoning, to stand in the power of a self that has made it through the perimenopause and everything it threw at us, and to emerge as our own superheroes.”
She adds, “To see an Asian woman in her 50s ponder her other selves and the lives she could have had, is subversive. During a time when pandemic bigotry and violence in the US is targeting Asians, especially women and elders, a film that centres an Asian woman in her 50s is subversive.” She quotes Yeoh who said to NPR, “I felt that this was such a perfect opportunity to give a voice to the very ordinary mothers and housewives who are out there, you know, doing the most mundane things and get so taken for granted. And then let her discover that, oh, my God, she is a superhero.”
So, there it is: two women on opposite ends of the social, cultural, economic spectrum — one a comet who crash-landed, the other just learning to fly. Who deserves that statuette more?
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author
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