Interviews

Is Being a Muse Ever Empowering?

January 30, 2019

When you become a muse, do you give up agency? Or is there something empowering about being one? Tatum Dooley talks to filmmaker Nadia Litz about muses, maestros, power, and lingerie.

 A common mantra that has gained popularity within lean-in feminism is: don’t wear lingerie for your partner, wear it for yourself.

This way of thinking is essentially: be a maestro, not a muse. The maestro is the creator, in control of another’s—or their own—image. In contrast, the muse takes pleasure in using their image as capital to exchange. The notion of only doing things for yourself seems somewhat narcissistic to me, it ignores the fact that it’s nice to do things for other people, including wearing something sexy for a partner (of course, I’m not suggesting doing anything that you hate, or makes you uncomfortable). While sometimes it’s fun to wear sexy lingerie for yourself—a secret that only you know about, enhancing the sexiness of the situation—it’s also fun to wear it for someone else. Lingerie is meant to be seen and enjoyed, a collaborative sartorial decision.

In many ways, the relationship between muse and maestro is also a collaborative one. Yet, a muse is often mistakenly thought of as synonymous with submissive, while maestro gets paired with dominant. This is an archaic notion of a muse, one that ignores the power in giving your image to someone else when you remain in control of the image you are offering, and the sexiness it can feel to submit to that power dynamic.

Musician Ralph floating in a pool

Ralph for Bully Boy

The Canadian filmmaker Nadia Litz is interested in this tension, and how the maestro and muse are presented on screen. Originally an actor, Litz then studied film theory with the intention of becoming a director. In our interview she mentions the benefits of having first been in front of the camera, which gives her an empathy for the actors and ability to coax them into giving their all. In 2016, she directed The People’s Garden, which starred Pamela Anderson. In a conversation between Litz and Anderson, the director remarks that she wanted Anderson to star in her film after seeing her on The Ellen Show with a pixie cut: “You had chopped your famous locks in exchange for a pixie cut. You looked like a Godard muse.” She goes on to to ask Anderson if she could discuss her relationship to “being a ‘muse,”— a theme that has preoccupied the director ever since.

Litz recently partnered with Canadian lingerie brand Bully Boy to continue her inquiry into muse/maestros, while also facing her own trepidation about overt-sexuality in advertising. Bully Boy is the lingerie of the femme fatale. It’s bondage-inspired but swaps leather for lace. For the brand, she shot three short ad campaigns and a documentary, titled “MUSE/MAESTRO,” that asked women creators (artists, musicians, and writers) if they considered themselves muses or maestros. The documentary tracks seven creators from Toronto, including Sophy Romvari and RALPH, as they answer Litz’s questions clad in lingerie: what does it mean to create? To be a muse? To be sexy?

Stella Cade for Bully Boy

The women’s answers surprised Litz. Even though these women were by all accounts maestros in their work, they enjoyed being the object of inspiration. Being the muse was part of their work. “When I first started directing, I always thought I was going to have a muse, now I’ve become my own muse,” Sophy Romvari said. “I think women are inherently quite beautiful, so it’s easy to see an image of a woman and fetishize or commodify [it], even as a woman,” she continued.

Not every creator featured in the doc agreed that being a muse was powerful. “I loathe the concept of muse, I think it’s been a way of writing women out of creative history,” Stella Cade, a painter, said. Throughout the film, Litz plays a meta role of directing the women—her directions can be heard offscreen. In a way, Litz is working through her own questions of being a maestro as she interviews other women on the same topic.

The short documentary feels like a sign that we’ve finally gotten over the constraints that dictate a “right way” to be sexy. There’s agency in being a muse, as well as a maestro. This ability to code shift between being in charge of someone else’s image, and giving your own image to someone else, creates a tension that feels sexy. I spoke with Litz over the phone to talk more about her film and being a muse and maestro.

Misbah Ahmed for Bully Boy

Tatum: What did that original conversation look like when you approached people to participate in the documentary?  

Nadia: I talked about this idea that I’m interested in — muses and maestros. The passive female trope has been prevalent in so much media and advertising for so long that I feel angry about it. I want to challenge it. And yet I consume those images with a voracious appetite. I question at what point do you come across as passive in front of a camera that is used to just sell things because you’re “beautiful”? And is there any room for a more active protagonist, without disavowing their sexuality or playfulness? I’m not really political about it, I just have a relationship with those two concepts of life: creator and muse.

I wanted to get a sense of the kind of role these women related to— maestro or muse. A good handful of them said muse, that they really love what they could be under the guise of being a muse.

Tatum: Do you think there is power in being a muse?

Nadia: I think that there can be a power. But I think that that sort of unequal transfer of power has for too long been inherent.

Tatum: I think a muse can feel empowered when there’s a collaboration, rather than a creator dictating and projecting an image onto you. I think a new way that we’re considering muses is where the muse retains agency.

Nadia I think that’s true. I know there’s going to be people that watch the films I made [for Bully Boy] and feel like they’re not empowering. But for me, the creative elements came directly from the women I collaborated with.

Tatum: What have you found most challenging about directing?

Nadia: So much is a challenge, you’re putting yourself out there in a very vulnerable way when you’ve written and directed something. We have a lot more of awareness right now of female directors than we did in the past. It has become almost like a brand — it feels a little bit performative. I think that you don’t really have equality until I can make films about my obsessions — no matter what they are. Being able to follow your proclivities, do what you love to do, and not have it only identifiable by your gender is equality. Men aren’t marginalized in that way. They have been able to do whatever they want.

Tatum: what interested you in exploring the connection between lingerie and the dichotomy of muse/maestro?

Nadia: I chose Bully Boy in particular because the brand is body positive and that was very important to me. It’s also really sexy to me. There’s an overt sexuality to their lingerie that I’m both a little bit terrified of but also very drawn to. The women in [Bully Boy’s] ads sort of look like they belong in a David Lynch film or something. So this [documentary] is like that a little bit.

Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto.

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