Cate Blanchett’s Tár is an abusive boss, but her story has much to tell us about feminism too | Susie Orbach

Beyond the superficial row, there is a debate to be had about progress, pitfalls, and a character who seems emblematic of her generation

Following claims of misogyny, the debate about Tár – the film starring Cate Blachett as Lydia Tár, a famous, fictional and sexually predatory classical conductor – has been reframed in terms of power, not gender. But is that right?

Yes and no. We can’t ignore that she is a woman of a particular generation. Thirty years younger than second-wave feminists (my generation) who came of age in the early 1970s, she is not identified as the much smaller group of third-wavers, yet she fits that age group. If we take Tár as emblematic of her generation, we may better understand her character and the costs she faced.

Second-wave women knew that their power was problematic. They knew it was scary to take it up. They knew that as they endeavoured to do so, they would encounter internal constraints and taboos. Judgments would come from themselves if they risked doing so. Judgments would come from others as they dared to move forward.

What became critical in second-wave feminism was the joining together of women to understand the many conflicts – internal and external – that would ensue from breaking out of the expectations they had imbibed. We knew we needed one another as we attempted to break through these barriers. It wasn’t easy, but when support for personal and social change occurred it made us anew.

Of course, there were downsides. There was a tendency to walk in step, to not break ranks, to move forward in a literal phalanx in a new form of sisterliness that could, at times, stifle. Individual women taking up space could be experienced as threatening (as well as admired). Judgments would come from others as they dared to move forward and yet, it was managed.

When it came to parenting, second-wavers recognised that, in order to give their daughters the world, they needed to find a way to convey to them that conflict and fear would be part of what awaited them. The world would not be their oyster without that knowledge.

For the generation of women who grew up 10 to 20 years after the second wave, who were influenced by feminist ideas without having been in consciousness-raising groups, the noble longings they had for their daughters and students meant they foisted ambition and support for being “great” and “going for it” on them, while inadvertently leaving out the cost of inner conflict and doubt and the scariness of taking up space. Girl power was the mantra.

Tár embodies that generational ambition. She is a huge talent. She is fierce in her passion for music. She works hard. She is serious. She can’t, however, do vulnerability. When her daughter is bullied, she beats down the bully, perhaps as much to silence the scared part of herself. When a student in a masterclass questions knowledge based on the fecund composer Bach, she tries to invite him in, to show him Bach’s genius and musical questioning, to give this young man what she didn’t have in her training, but it backfires.

Tár appears fearless, even ruthless. She has a softness, yes, but we sense it is towards those who don’t have what she has. Then she is hurt by them or tires of them and discards them. Perhaps she can only tolerate a little of seeing needs that can’t be met.

Watching this film put me in mind of another current film, Women Talking, in which we witness the individual women of an isolated Mennonite colony struggling to speak up, to speak of their experience – much of it abject – and to come together to decide on scary action. It reminded me of the second wave, of daring to speak, to differ, to be difficult, to be tetchy, to be accepted, and yet find a way to work with one another, recognising complexity and difference. That struggle is what led many of us to psychoanalysis and to reconfigure it, to understand how the outside got in and the inside got out. It led other second-wavers to rethink history, art, science, education, technology, theatre and so on.

The many internal conflicts of being raised a girl these days – and boy, too – are as costly, limiting and not simply expansive as we may hope. It’s no surprise that emotional literacy and therapy, once ridiculed or hidden behind doors, are now prized. The young, the old: we all need to listen. We all need to be heard, to manage the complex multiple inequalities that are structural and internal.

  • Susie Orbach is a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, writer and social critic

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Susie Orbach

The GuardianTramp

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