In 1994, feminist writer bell hooks wrote an article about gangster rap. She both condemns the misogyny and violence of gangster rap and the hypocrisy of its white critics, who treat that misogyny and violence as unique to young black men. Gangster rap, she says, is not an aberration or subversion but a reflection of mainstream culture’s values. I don’t really agree with a lot of her points – the part where she describes the cover of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle as pornographic seems over the top, and she makes no room for genuinely subversive racial politics in gangster rap – but I get where she’s coming from. To make her point, she wants to draw contrast with another popular piece of art, made by a white woman, that also reflects the mainstream valorisation of misogyny and male violence but hasn’t received the same backlash. She picks a terrible example.
bell hooks is wrong about The Piano.
The Piano, Jane Campion’s 1993 film, is beautiful and sexy and sad. Holly Hunter plays Ada, a mute Scottish woman sent to a rainy frontier town in mid-nineteenth century New Zealand, along with her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). She’s been sold by her father into marriage to Stewart (Sam Neill). She’s brought her piano all the way from Scotland, and Stewart refuses to bring it to the house, leaving it wallowing on the beach. He talks about her like faulty goods – his first words to her are that she’s shorter than he expected. The real romantic lead is Baines (Harvey Keitel), a white man who has adopted many Maori customs, who buys the piano from Stewart and has Ada earn the piano back, one key at a time. It was acclaimed at the time, making Campion the second woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars and the only female director to win the Palme d’Or, and since regarded as a classic.
But when it was re-released for its 25th anniversary this year, I witnessed several people regurgitate bell hooks’s reading as gospel: she’s a beloved feminist figure, and so her opinion on The Piano is treated as the canonical feminist opinion on The Piano. Here’s just such a case in the Irish Times, for reference – in a review that also erroneously describes Baines as a rapist. The problem isn’t just that bell hooks has a different opinion to me, or even that her opinion is held up as beyond reproach. The problem is that almost everything bell hooks says about The Piano is wrong, to the point where it doesn’t read like she’s even seen the film.
As the film is set in nineteenth century New Zealand and focuses primarily on white characters, I get why hooks would criticise its racial politics. But she says that the film presents the Maori people as “docile happy darkies… who appear to have not a care in the world.” I don’t know where she gets “docile” out of, but to the extent that they’re portrayed as carefree, it emphasises their natural ease in their native land, contrasting the white characters other than Baines, who are depicted as uncomfortable outsiders, an absurd intrusion on the land and its people. As hooks mentions, Stewart attempts to buy the land on which the local Maori’s ancestors have been buried for generations, and when they, of course, refuse, Stewart complains that they’re not even using it. It’s a small scene, but it establishes the film’s distaste for the callous, presumptuous self-absorption of the white settler class. hooks describes this scene as the “sympathetic poor white male” coming to the rescue, referring to Baines, but all he really does is translate. He is more sympathetic to the Maori side, but they’re the ones who refuse to sell. hooks throws in “poor” in an oddly dismissive way, too – as if Baines, illiterate and working-class, is in the same power position as Stewart. I’m not saying that the film has great racial politics, necessarily, just that saying it “glamorises” colonialism is a hell of a stretch, especially when hooks spends less than four lines backing that assertion up.
But hooks’s primary criticism is of The Piano’s gender politics. Much like how the film glamorises colonialism, hooks says, it glamorises the “conquest of femininity” in the person of Ada (who she calls “corpse-like” for no reason that I can see – she’s pale and mute, I guess, but she’s also lively and defiant). In the film’s last act, Ada and Baines finally have sex, and Stewart witnesses it through a crack in the wall. A dog licks his hand in a symbolic representation of his arousal. After this incident, Stewart becomes furious, obsessive and controlling, attempting to force himself on Ada, locking her in the house and boarding the windows, and eventually forcing her to promise she will not see Baines. hooks misreads this escalation at a fundamental level. She writes, “Rather than being turned off by her love for Baines, it appears to excite Stewart’s passion; he longs to possess her all the more.” This is really odd way to put what is made explicit in the film – that in witnessing Ada and Baine’s lovemaking he realises that Ada’s coldness towards him is not, as he assumed, frigidity, but personal dislike, and it enrages him.
When Ada attempts to send Baines a message – “Dear George, you have my heart. Ada McGrath”, inscribed on a piano key – Stewart chops off one of her fingers with an axe. He makes her daughter, Flora, bring the finger to Baines, saying that he will cut off more fingers if Baines attempts to contact Ada again. It’s a horrifying, disturbing sequence, that genuinely shocked me when I saw it. Yet hooks describes it as if it is filmed at a cool remove: she questions why Flora would “follow the white male patriarch’s orders and take the bloody finger to Baines,” as if the abject terror of watching your mother have a finger chopped off by the “white male patriarch” isn’t sufficient motivation. As if Flora isn’t scream-sobbing when she gets to Baines’s cabin, hardly able to say more than a few words, as if she isn’t a child.
This violence, hooks writes, “is portrayed uncritically, as though it is ‘natural,’ the inevitable climax of conflicting passions.” But we’re not talking about a fist fight between Stewart and Baines, here. Stewart swings his axe at Ada’s possessions, then shakes her violently and shoves her against the wall and the table. He drags her outside into the rain, and she struggles with all her might to get away as he forces her hand onto the chopping stump. The piano score swells and becomes erratic, faster and the notes less uniform, conveying the intense anxiety of the moment. Stewart chops off her finger, while her daughter watches on, helpless, screaming out and crying, and then splattered in her own mother’s blood. Ada is bloodied and covered in dirt, and as the score briefly cuts out and then returns, softer, slower, she stumbles away, collapsing and returning to her feet. If this sequence is violence portrayed “uncritically”, then I have never in my life seen violence portrayed critically in anything. It is not portrayed as “natural”, but intensely disturbing.
A huge part of that horror is that Ada will no longer be able to play the piano. hooks claims that Ada’s piano-playing is a “substitution for repressed eroticism” and so “[w]hen she learns to let herself go sexually, she ceases to need the piano.” Ada’s piano-playing and her sexuality are certainly closely linked the film – although one being a substitution for the other is a little too neat – but the idea that she ceases to express herself artistically when she begins to express herself sexually has no relationship to the actual film. In the film’s epilogue, Ada has a new life with Baines and Flora in Nelson – and Baines has made her a prosthetic finger. The joy of it is that she will be able to play the piano again: we see the finger, made from silver, as she plays her new piano, and she tells us in voiceover that she has become a piano teacher. hooks makes no mention of Ada’s piano-playing and -teaching in the film’s epilogue. Bizarrely, she gives Baines’s making Ada a prosthetic finger as evidence that he is “in charge” as they form a patriarchal nuclear family.
hooks claims that The Piano plays into the old trope of a woman having to choose between art and sex/love. But Ada’s dilemma is much simpler: on one side, Stewart, and no sex, love or art, and on the other, Baines, and all three. The dilemma is not in the choice but in the lack of it. It’s that she has been sold into marriage, that her husband thinks of her not as an autonomous person but a possession, that art and sex and love are there for the taking but denied to her nonetheless.