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Sending a Woman to do a Man’s job: Gendered Power in Tár

In some ways, the sort of tragedy we bear witness to in Tár is hardly new.

At the climatic moment of Todd Field’s Tár, whilst Mahler’s Fifth Symphony rings in our ears, Lydia Tár appears before us, her face contorting into a mask that would appear at home in a Greek tragedy. It is little wonder that Field conjures her in this fashion. Her tragic downfall, a slide from the prophetic heights of her power, has already been decided in a boardroom somewhere offscreen. 

In some ways, the sort of tragedy we bear witness to in Tár is hardly new. The archetype of a Faustian deal, where consummate knowledge, or in this case artistic achievement, is acquired at the expense of the human soul, is time-honoured. As such, whilst Maestro Lydia Tár’s flight into artistic perfection grants her power, it also anaesthetises her to the obvious abuses she perpetuates in virtue of that power. 

For us viewers, the resulting question is quite simple. Is there something in Lydia’s character that led her to her own downfall, or is there something in the nature of power itself that is the source of the many moral harms she enacts? Eschewing the dogma of the tragic protagonist’s hamartia, Blanchett’s own answer has been quite clear — “I think that power is a corrupting force, no matter what one’s gender is.”

This brings us to what is certainly new in the tragedy Tár represents. Lydia is a woman, and a queer one at that, engaging in the sorts of manipulations that paradigmatically belong to the male abusers of the #MeToo era. By the admission of the filmmakers, this is a ploy designed to deny us viewers recourse to a certain pre-established reaction. In fact, Blanchett has said that the movie would fail “if there was a male at the centre of it, because we understand so absolutely what that looks like.” Essentially, if Tár were a man, our explicit recognition of him as an abuser would prevent the cultivation of the film’s empathetic identification with its central character. Such a limitation on our outrage is meant to show that the corrupting influence of power transcends gendered categorisations and lures all sorts of people, possessing all sorts of bodies, into its vice.

But there is more to be said on the subject of Lydia’s gender. The film goes to great lengths to distance her from the condition of her womanhood. She herself rejects the title of ‘maestra’ and frowns at the suggestion that there is a marked difference between being a female composer from a composer in general. More pointedly, she rallies dramatically against her student’s views that would reduce the value of an artwork to a set of facts about the identity of its creator, declaring that the success of artistic creation necessarily depends upon the evisceration of the artist’s identity. As a result, it might be tempting to conclude that Lydia’s character is symbolically ‘masculinised’. But, it is more apt to say that it is not Lydia who is masculine, but rather the conception of power at the heart of the film. 

In Field’s view, power is a force innately tied to a ‘natural’ struggle for domination. Even when we witness Lydia’s activities as a mother, protecting the interests of her child against a bully, she utilises her adult power in a coercive sense, complete with an (admittedly amusing) threat of violence. French philosopher Luce Irigaray would have us believe that this conception of power arises because all of culture features a ‘sectarian’ rift at its core. Only one side of that rift, that of the masculine, has elaborated its own system of values and ideals, a ‘Symbolic.’ It has also enforced this ‘symbolic’ by developing institutions to repress the feminine other. As a result, only the masculine is illuminated by the light of human logic. Inside this logic, power is the primordial tool through which the chaos of nature is reduced to the vassalage of man’s projects. 

To fail to envision a different form of power is to accept the supposedly ‘natural’ masculinist articulation of power. It is also, if we buy Irigaray’s claim, tantamount to swallowing that the male component of culture is all that culture can be. I doubt very much that either Field or Blanchett would have us take that bitter pill. A different form of power is within the reach of our imagination. Irigrary herself offers that it may lie in cultivating ‘a world of our own’ inside ourselves, renouncing the need to violently bring the outside into our dominion. 

In the end, it is Blanchett, throughout her cavalcade of awards season acceptance speeches, who has frequently reminded us of the oft-neglected truth that women’s experience is not a monolith. This moviegoer only hopes that one day we might be able to acknowledge that power too, is not so monolithic, or merely that it doesn’t have to be. 

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