This week musician James Blake confirmed what some women have known for centuries: a “muse” is a flattering euphemism for uncredited and often unpaid female labour.
In an interview with Billboard about his latest album Assume Form, Blake spoke of the significant role his partner, actress and activist Jameela Jamil, played in producing this album.
“[Jameela Jamil] helped make it. She has an incredible musical instinct,” Blake said. “She has a credit on the album itself and it’s not just a shout out. It’s [for] genuine work.” Blake likened Jamil’s musical skill to that of record producer and former co-president of Columbia Records Rick Reuben.
Even then, Billboard couldn’t get their collective heads around the idea that a woman might play more than a bit part in the creative process, promoting the interview as: “[H]ow his girlfriend Jameela Jamil inspired the record”.
Blake hit back, “Not just inspired it – she actually worked on it. I even said it in the interview, but people focus on ‘inspired’ because the idea of the ‘muse’ is so romantic and pervasive.”
Just so no one was left in any doubt that this is a gender issue, Blake continued: “[W]omen who help their partners with their album, being a sounding board and often their only emotional support during the process, almost invariably go uncredited, while majority male producers come in and make a tiny change to a track and they’re Mr. golden balls.”
Blake’s shout out to all the “muses” who were reduced to “an object of affection while the musician exercises their ‘genius’”, generated an online storm of support and a flurry of woman sharing their stories of being relegated to the status of “muse”.
Writer and editor Lynda Gorov tweeted: “As a woman still waiting for credit – and payment – for the massive amount of work I did creating and building an ex’s artistic career, I applaud you so hard.”
Others pondered what Star Wars would have been without the work of George Lucas' ex-wife Marcia Lucas and Carrie Fisher rewriting lines behind the screens.
From Leo Tolstoy to Vladimir Nabokov there is a long history of male artistic “geniuses” building their careers off of the labour and skills of their female partners.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was scathing of the way her husband stole her work and took credit for it, reportedly saying: “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald ... seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home”.
It’s not just in the arts where women’s contributions are diminished or erased entirely. Tuesday this week was Ada Lovelace Day, to recognise the brilliant mathematician who wrote instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s.
Throughout most of history, Lovelace’s work and genius has been overshadowed by her male mentor Charles Babbage. When her work was published in an English Science Journal Babbage was named as the author and Lovelace was only acknowledged by her initials A A L.
The muse has always been a double-edged sword for women. It’s a way of simultaneously acknowledging women’s absolutely central role in creative endeavours, while at the same time downplaying their role. Women are cast as essential to sparking creativity, but also uninvolved in the final product.
When women’s contributions to men’s careers is acknowledged, it is often derogatory. They are the pushy and overbearing women manipulating men for their own ends.
And like all good backlashes against women’s growing power, it comes with a nasty little name: The Tiger Wife. Tiger wives are the new Lady McBeth’s, accused of micro-managing their husbands’ careers to push them to the top.
In contrast to the muse, which has romantic connotations and plays into stereotypes of creativity as a process filled with passionate intensity, the Tiger Wife is abrasive and, well, a bit awful. The choice is between a sex object or schemer.
It’s time we consigned the muse – and the Tiger Wife – to the dustbin of history. Anyone who knows the creative process knows just how overblown the myth of the lone creative genius is. Anything worthwhile achieving is a product of a collective process. And women are and have always been full players in that process.
Bravo to James Blake for calling out the ruse of the muse.
Kasey Edwards is the author of the young adult series The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.