Pygmalion, My Muse

muses, golems, automatons, dolls, toys, molding, oh my!

Hey everyone—today, some musings on muses. Below is an excerpt from my book “awards for good boys” (it’s the titular phrase!) about Pygmalion.

I’ve definitely outgrown some of this thinking re: relationships—how eerie to have your evolution captured in pages others can flip through, I certainly was not the same person I was when I finished the book as when I started, and in the years since have strayed even further—but alas isn’t this true for all of us? On theme for shaping and molding and crafting, I think, to accept that we are always in flux, not static as a statue, but changing and undulating, growing and eternally remaking ourselves.

TLDR I’m eternally bewitched by muses, golems, automatons, dolls, toys, molding, shaping, breaking. And lo and behold, so many of my favorite artists and thinkers are too. If you have any suggestions for films/movies/tv/music/etc that fits those paradigms, let me know! I love it all. Hope you enjoy!

In college, I was in a long-distance "open" (more on that later) relationship with a boy a few years older than me who lived in New York, while I was finishing up school in Ohio. I received an unyielding stream of content about his own life that he released into the void of our primarily digital exchanges, demanding validation—being seen, being asked follow-up questions. Though he gave little in return, I told myself if I poured enough love and emotional labor into him, he would turn around and show me the same In many ways, I was dating him because I wanted his life. His cool job. His ability to make money as an artist, doing what he loved. I knew, but decided not to notice, that he conveniently ignored the fact that 1 was an artist, too, because I was young and not "a professional" like him and my art and words came from a place of my own vulnerability and—gasp—emotionality.

He was very much a LOGIC OR BUST sort of man. And I was drawn to that, too, because #internalizedmisogyny told me my version of seeing the world was less than, and his was the North Star I should seek to follow. The short version is: he didn't want me as a partner. He wanted me as a cheerleader. Someone to inspire him, to make him feel needed and loved and worthy, to keep him company while he waited for someone more suitable—not in college, not so emotional—to come along. During this time, I found comfort in ye olde versions of my current boyfriend: other old, white men and their art, who shined a light on the fucked-up-ness of my then-percolating ideas about men and their desires. I got most stuck on Ovid's 'Pygmalion."

It's a story you recognize, though likely not by that name. (My Fair Lady is a more modern example, as is the film Let Get Away With a Lot Of Suspect Sex-Robot Politics by Filming This Edgily, also called Ex Machina). Pygmalion is from a collection of myths called Metamorphoses, each about transformation of a sinister, specific kind: men/gods changing living women into voiceless, bodiless. inhuman beings. In one myth, Apollo turns Daphne into a laurel tree, and as soon as she's finally not such a pesky human being with agency, he breaks a limb off her tree-body AND MAKES IT INTO A FUCKING CROWN for himself. I was obsessed with how literal it all was: So many levels of male author and male hero using women for their stories, crowning themselves with women and their bodies. Story after story of men (ab)using their muses to validate and uphold their own worth. But Pygmalion is the exception. His story works a bit differently. The myth begins with our main man Pygmalion, a sculptor, wandering through town expressing his disgust with women. Its like an angsty coming-of-age movie for toxic masculinity: head leaning against a cart (I don't know, bear with me) as a pastoral rush of images whips past, some indie soundtrack setting the mood for his pivotal realization: "Real women are shit." (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Have no fear! He's an artist! Old white dude artists are notoriously chill! Which is why he promptly goes back to his studio and sculpts himself a better woman. A stoic woman with no demands because, wow! She's made of marble! He prays to Venus for his statue, Galatea, to come to life, which she grants. This seems momentarily cool because FUCK YEAH VENUS YOU'VE GOT THE POWER but alas, nope, Ovid's still writing this. Pygmalion and his now-alive statue then fuck and have a child Pygmalion, and the persistence of this myth, reflects something too true about the world, about men and their desires, real or imagined, taught or inherited or enforced.

He doesn't sculpt a better father or mother or gender-neutral lover or friend. He doesn't sculpt a dog, which would have been awesome. He sculpts a woman—a hot one—born of perceived necessity due to the failures of real women. He crafts for himself a muse, model, sex object, magnum opus with a mouth. He sculpts the figment of woman: unfeeling, distant, pure potential. The perfect woman is not about her shape, not about her contents, but, in this realm and in so many others, about her readiness to be molded into the version that best suits the man shaping her.

I knew I was being flattened in the relationship I was in when I read these myths. I knew he was taking from me, in the way he talked at me, made my own achievements smaller, forced me to drive all the Big Conversations if I wanted any clarity about what we were doing, manipulated me into essentially breaking up with myself so he could pursue his new, more serious, girlfriend. I knew my own complexities were being erased in favor of a role oriented around his tool—the literal, as in his dick, and the figurative, as in his metaphorical chisel—and that to contradict this was to threaten the comfort of whatever the fuck it was I thought we had. I stayed with him anyway. It is an odd feeling, knowing you are walking in someone else's imagining of you, which you fit closely. But it's not right. "Intellectual knowledge"—the clarity of what you should do—is cleaved from what your heart tells you to do. So there you are, inhabiting a self that's adjacent to you, that more closely parallels the needs of someone else. I sat back and watched as I became a me that wasn't me, a me that was compromised, a me that was smaller.

ID: a photo of a spread from awards for good boys the book. On the left is a drawing of a fake dating app called Cringe where a user is looking for a Muse. On the right is a collection of talking heads, with the title “women also shape other women to be more pleasing shapes for men.”

Because that’s admittedly a bit of a grim note to leave you on, let me follow up with a paragraph and concept that’s been resonating with me since I read it, this from The Mushroom at the End of the World.

ID: a photograph of a book page with underlined passages. The underlined phrases read “we are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others…one value of keeping precocity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival.”

We are contaminated by our encounters—they change who we are as we make way for others.

More on this soon,
Shelby (and Clem)