Art, Power, and Sex (1986)



My experience on The Harvard Advocate seems to me to be in some ways emblematic. And though I would like to think that we are living now in more enlightened times than those, the so-called liberated 1960s, I fear that there are many readers—mostly younger, mostly female—who may recognize something of their own histories in the following:

Early in my freshman year at Radcliffe, I attended an introductory meeting at the Advocate. A few days later, I got a call from an upperclassman I’d met at the meeting. On our first date, he informed me of his ambitions: First, he wanted to be a poet. Second, he wanted to be President of the Advocate. And third, he had wanted me ever since he saw my wan, follow-cheeked and rather gloomy photo in the Radcliffe freshman register. What I understand now is that this photo was the very image of a pre-Raphaelite poet’s mistress. Not only did he want to be a poet—he wanted a girlfriend who looked the part.

And so we began going out. As I remember, it took him somewhat longer to ask about my ambitions. By then, I had given up all thought of being ‘a writer,’ which is what I had wanted to be throughout high school. The slot had, so to speak, been taken. How could I be a writer if my boyfriend was a writer? I’d never even heard of most of the famous poets with whom he seemed to be on a first name basis. So I announced—and decided on the spot—that I wanted to be ‘an artist,’ that is, a visual artist, something for which I had absolutely no talent, my output until then being limited to dreadful, sentimental, badly drawn linocut-Christmas cards I sent to family and friends.

Sometime during that year, my boyfriend was in fact elected President of the Advocate. He promptly appointed me Art Editor. (My memory is vague on whether such an editorship existed before). I was delighted. Not only did I have an important boyfriend, I had an important job. I immediately began adorning the magazine with examples of my own beastly awful (I am not being modest about this) artwork, with the somewhat more accomplished doodlings of other.

Sadly, and for reasons irrelevant here, I was less delighted with my boyfriend. And sometime over the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I told him so. The next fall, I fell in love with someone else—an artist as it happened—and immediately appointed him to be my one-man art staff. My original boyfriend was understandably upset, but was hardly in a position to accuse anyone of nepotism.

Meanwhile I faced a new problem: How could I be an artist if my new boyfriend was an artist? Perhaps I should go back to being a writer—though this is not the story of how I eventually did. In any event it was all becoming very confusing. And editorial board meetings—with their constant potential for psychodrama—were beginning to be a strain. So sometime during that year, or the next, I stopped going, and began instead putting down the Advocate staff for being stuffy, retro literary types with nothing to do but debate which superannuated British poets to give readings. My friends and I, so I thought, had better uses for our time, and while some of these things—protesting the war in Vietnam and Harvard’s stockholding in South Africa, for example—still seem worthwhile, others—taking mind-altering drugs, listening to James Brown and the Rolling Stones—appear, in retrospect, pleasurable but less urgent.

Looking back, I am saddened by how reactive, how (in the psycho-parlance of those times) outer/ other-directed my decisions were. At the same time, I feel enormous compassion and sympathy for my younger self: her misplaced priorities, her confusions, her stupefying insecurities. Even so, I am a little embarrassed by what I realize now to have been my complete inability to distinguish between art, power, and sex—which isn’t to say that later life revealed these distinctions to be always reliably uncomplicated and clear-cut.

I thought about all this again when I learned that the President and Managing Editor of the Advocate are women, and I wondered how much has and hasn’t changed.