[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two part series exploring the life of Valerie Solanas, read the first part here.]
The day after Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol the headline of the New York City tabloid The Daily News read, “Actress Shoots Andy Warhol.” This headline undermines the significance of Solanas’ life and work, while also undergirding the importance of it. While it is true that Solanas did act—she had brief roles in two of Warhol’s films— neither her, nor her fellow artists at Warhol’s artistic community “The Factory” consider her an “actress.” Rather, she was a writer of plays, short stories, and manifestos. She was not simply an “actress”; she was an artist.
It is important to unpack all the implications of referring to Solanas as an “actress” after she had tried to kill Warhol, since it is not simply inaccurate but is also representative of the culture that Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto critiques. While acting is an art in and of itself, the purpose of actors is to illuminate someone else’s art (unless the actors themselves have written their own script). While the actors can choose to interpret and perform characters however they want, they have no control over the plot or overarching message of the work they are acting in. Calling Solanas an actress, therefore, was a way of defining her not in terms of her own work but in terms of a man’s work– namely, Warhol’s work. To put it in perspective, referring to Solanas simply as an actress is on par with referring to Hillary Clinton simply as a former first lady. It delegitimizes her own accomplishments and work by defining her through her relationship with a man.
Neglecting to tell the public that Solanas was in fact a collaborating artist with Warhol would have also made it easier for people to dismiss her. Those who read the headline could have easily dismiss her as a lunatic, a diva, a hysterical woman who felt somehow wronged by Warhol perhaps because she (as a woman) was not intellectually capable of “getting” his art. By presenting her as someone who only worked under Warhol’s direction and was not on the same artistic level as him, many would have seen this as the culmination of a petty feud which almost made Warhol a martyr for his art. However, presenting Solanas as an artist makes her seem more like his equal, maybe someone who would not try to kill over something considered petty or trivial. Her motivation for the attempted murder, after all, was her suspicion that Warhol was conspiring to steal and take credit for her work.
Of course, this is all speculation, and I can only assume that the misleading headline in The Daily News was simply another instance of the laziness and inaccuracy expected of such a tabloid. I am also not trying to say that Solanas’ murder attempt was justified or that Warhol deserved to die. I do think that all the connotations and implications of the headline “Actress Shoots Andy Warhol” need to be explored in order to continue the original point from my first article on Solanas: that there are many gendered reasons why she has and continues to be dismissed as a lunatic rather than an insightful feminist writer.
We also have to acknowledge that society still does not take kindly to aggressive women even when they have done far less inflammatory things than Solanas in their lifetime. This trend also extends into the world of fictional women such as the character of Mellie Grant in the show Scandal. In it, Mellie is the First Lady of the United States. She is incredibly shrewd and smart, though she is consistently bitter that her talents must take a backseat to her husband’s image. It is made very clear in the show that the role of a housewife and mother is not fulfilling to her, but she gave up her career as a successful lawyer in order to help her husband get into the White House and to hopefully ensure her own political career in the future. Also, she is painfully aware of the love affair between her husband and Olivia Pope– the protagonist and “white hat” of the show. Throughout the show she is shown to be cold, calculating, and an excellent political strategist.
It is difficult to describe what makes Mellie Grant so easy to hate from an audience’s perspective, but hated she most certainly is. In season 6, episode 4 of the NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation, two characters who are painted as typical in terms of their media consumption and mainstream opinions bond over their love of Scandal, saying that they love every single character “except for Mellie!,” they exclaim at the exact same time. The writers of Parks & Recreation chose Mellie to be singled out as the hated character, even though there are other (male) characters in Scandal whose motivations are purely selfish rather than also for the good of their country and their family, and whose backstories provide far less justification for the less palatable things they do. Could this be because, unlike the universally loved Olivia Pope, Mellie acts more on her concerns for her husband’s success as a president and, therefore, for the good of the country rather than for his short-term emotional needs? Could it be that she is not shown to be hopelessly in love with anyone (especially not her husband) in the same way that Olivia most certainly is? There are many reasons why Mellie is so hated, and all of them are rooted in sexism. Why else would audiences and characters alike seem to resent Mellie’s coldness so much more than they resent that same trait in several other male characters?
The public’s reaction to Mellie is a testament to the fact that strong women can never be too strong. They must act like Olivia Pope or Emma Watson– powerful and righteous but still warm and nurturing, as women should be. They can never be too much like a Mellie Grant or Valerie Solanas—shrewd and insightful but cold and violent. Women need to channel their passions and their feminism through respectable means, even while men who behave in similarly inflammatory and violent ways are not criticized nearly as much because they are simply “being men.” This is why you will see people insist that we should call the movement “humanism” or “equalism” instead of “feminism” (a similar, though racialized instead of gendered, logic is also used when people respond to #blacklivesmatter with the much less relevant or meaningful hashtag, #alllivesmatter).
These are examples of how when those of a privileged class, race, gender, etc., are criticized in a way they view as too “mean” by those whom they oppress, they will shut down the conversation by derailing it and saying that it is contrary to the overarching (but ambiguous) goal of “equality.” That is why underprivileged people must hold themselves to a higher standard than privileged people in order to liberate themselves. This way of thinking is convoluted and perpetuates the endless cycle of discrimination that people experience every day, but is also not surprising as it is part of the narrative controlled by those with privilege and power.
To provide viewers with a sense of closure, in season 3 Shonda Rhimes (All Hail) reveals a traumatic event (SPOILER ALERT!) that happened to Mellie in the years before she became the First Lady. This softens her character a bit, explains many of her behaviors a little more, and provides her and her relationship with her family much more depth. However, besides a few particular quirks, I do not believe her actions needed to be justified any more than any other character’s actions did. In the same way, I do not believe that Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto needs any justification from her troubled past. While her attempted murder cannot be justified, I do believe that if sexist factors did not prevent her from being taken seriously she would have gotten help for her paranoid schizophrenia earlier and, therefore, might not have committed the crime. In any case, it is important to question any impulse to declare “what a psycho bitch!” when confronted with any woman, real or fictional. Until then, Solanas’ life, work, and reputation will serve as an ironic testament to the pervasiveness of sexism and the hegemony of the patriarchy in our society.