The Muddy Death of the #MeToo Movement

by Valerie M. Fazel and Louise Geddes

Brad Pitt evoking Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 Ophelia painting in the August 2022 issue of GQ

Promoting his new film, Bullet Train, Brad Pitt is the cover star of this month’s issue of GQ, photographed by Elizaveta Porodina. In one of the dozen highly stylized photos included in the magazine’s piece on Pitt, the globally recognized film star appears in what is presumably an homage to Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 iconic painting Ophelia. Although the article’s final photo renders Pitt not quite in “muddy death,” nonetheless he lies in a flowery brook, eyes opened wide, hands in prayer, and clothing saturated with pond water: Shirt, $518, by ERL. Pants, $1,475, by Versace. Suspenders, stylist’s own.

Ophelia is semiotically rich material for popular culture and Ophelia cosplay has an ample history of being used for diverse cultural purposes. In the past two decades, “rebooting” Ophelia has become what Sujata Iyengar calls “a focus for online creativity.” Likewise, Millais’ painting has recently been analyzed by Laurence Roussillon-Constanty as “a ‘metamorphic image’ … a painting in its own right but also a symptom, an open tomb in which to bury one’s deepest anxiety or a screen onto which one can project one’s innermost desire” (1, 2019). The well-known work is much appropriated and re-rendered on art sites like DeviantArt.

What is startling, however, about the GQ image is the audacity of Ophelia’s appropriation by a rich and powerful white man. Pitt has been the subject of controversy in recent years, particularly for the long drawn out custody dispute with his ex-wife, actress Angelina Jolie, whose accusation of spousal battery while he was in an alcohol-induced rage is allegedly validated by their children who bore witness to the incident. A bonafide movie star since his first appearance in Thelma and Louise in 1991, Pitt has long sought to be taken seriously. He has worked to establish himself as more of an artist and activist, albeit with mixed success — although he is an Oscar-winning producer for the 2013 Steve McQueen directed film Twelve Years as a Slave, his 2015 art-house movie By the Sea, co-starred and directed by then-wife Jolie, was widely derided. When he fancied himself an architect, he founded the Make It Right project in New Orleans only to abandon the community when the sustainable housing the organization built was publicized as riddled with mold and structurally unsound.

Pitt is, according to his brand, a good guy doing the best he can, and has obliquely accounted for his failures in the interview conducted by Ottessa Moshfegh for the GQ piece, where, for instance, he discusses his experience as a famous man navigating the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Co-opting Ophelia’s martyrdom, then, is curiously on-brand for Pitt’s self-styled celebrity. He adopts her self-destruction, appropriating her statement of autonomy in defiance of institutions of power to suggest his own vulnerability. He is, this image implies, a victim and not a perpetrator: he is Ophelia, and not Hamlet.

Pillaging Ophelia’s space in her watery grave, Pitt, like his celebrity peer, Johnny Depp, also recently accused of spousal battery, uses his popular appeal and his fan base to usurp a female voice. The ways the photograph collapses any gender distinction between Pitt and Ophelia accentuates the imagined importance of white victimhood, which once again elides the 2006 initiation of the #MeToo movement by Tarana Burke for women of color before the hashtag’s 2017 revival. The rugged, white masculinity that defines Pitt weaponizes female victimization in a way designed to appeal to a type of white woman who aligns with the power structures that men uphold, rather than with other women who likely suffer for speaking out about injustice. Although a blockbuster movie star in her own right, Angelina Jolie, with the reputation as husband-stealer extraordinaire, is a considerably less sympathetic to the public eye, in particular, the consumers that the LaineyGossip blog defines as “the minivan majority” — the soccer moms who buy People magazine and show up to support their stars.

Pitt’s photo seems designed to elicit sympathy from the minivan majority. It also seems to appeal to male fans who have grown up admiring Pitt and feel threatened by the increasing visibility of women demanding accountability from powerful men and the structures that prop them up. Indeed, the exoneration of Depp in his defamation trial against his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, has been largely heralded as the end of the #MeToo era, as men use the tools available to them to fight back against pernicious women. Writing for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg suggests that Depp’s victory is part of “a broader misogynist frenzy at work, one characteristic of the deeply reactionary moment we’re living through.”

The GQ photograph, then, can be seen as part of a larger cultural project of parodying female suffering, of reorienting the very real fear of domestic abuse back towards the men who imagine themselves victimized by those who speak against them. Ophelia’s death by suicide is the most potent statement of agency that she makes in the play, and it is entirely appropriate that it is described by the only other woman in the text, Gertrude. The twenty-first century has given us many terms by which we can define Ophelia’s experience at the hands of her lover, her brother, and her father: gaslighting, shaming, love bombing, emotional or verbal abuse. Isolated, alone, and barely believed, Ophelia is subject to a litany of abuses and finds herself powerless in a corrupt system that stymies her voice against the high-profile, powerful men who systematically enact violations against her body and mind.

As she is repeatedly told, her virtue is the only asset Ophelia has to protect herself. To become an imperfect victim, like Jolie, Heard, or even perhaps Gertrude, is to instantly discredit oneself in the court of popular opinion. Hamlet’s first act of condemnation is directed at his mother — “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (1.2.150) — effectively dismissing Gertrude’s right to sympathy. He uses his characterization of her to validate his appalling treatment of his mother for the remainder of the play. Ophelia, in the madness born from Hamlet’s earlier dismissal and the murder of her father, Polonius, speaks of her own pain, implicating everyone in her suffering. Through her unceremonious funeral, in a back field behind a consecrated graveyard, those who heard her testimony literally and metaphorically bury her addled body.

Image is everything. While we cannot say Hamlet’s pants were also Versace, he utilizes the powerful weapon of celebrity, wearing his grief stylishly upon his body through his inky cloak and writing over Ophelia’s silence with his own spectacles. While Hamlet does not literally lie in Ophelia’s grave as Pitt does, he nonetheless leaps in, attempting to fight her grieving brother over her corpse, proclaiming himself the victim. In a horrifying scene in which the two men may or may not be grappling over (and treading on) her body, Hamlet tells Laertes that “forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (Hamlet, 5.1.269–71). Marking Ophelia (once more) as the property of men, he claims her brother’s grief: Hamlet asks, “What will thou do for her?” Take a seat, boys. You have done quite enough.

The exploitation of Ophelia that begins with Hamlet and pauses with Pitt, who insists in a post-interview follow-up email that he is practicing “radical accountability,” spurs the question: what does accountability mean, particularly for men like Pitt and Depp when, as A. O. Scott notes, “celebrity and masculinity confer mutually reinforcing advantages”? Hamlet himself, who begins the play by explaining that he conterfeits his madness and is single-handedly responsible for the death of Laertes’ father and sister, begs forgiveness from his old friend on the following grounds:

What I have done
That might make your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet!
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is the faction that is wronged,
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy (5.2.230–239)

Radical accountability, indeed.

What Pitt and Hamlet show us in this continuous abnegation of responsibility for Ophelia’s ongoing abuse are the ways privileged men allow their celebrity to protect them and insulate them from accountability, either professionally or personally. For the swooning author of the article, Brad Pitt’s movie stardom, combined with his projected suffering, is enough. As Moshfegh muses on an unspecified problem of her own, she writes that “then I remember Pitt’s comforting half-smile. ‘All our hearts are broken,’ he said.” We are all, Pitt implies, Ophelias. A practice of more radical accountability might suggest that some of us are, in fact, Hamlets.

Valerie M. Fazel, Ph.D. teaches in the Department of English at Arizona State University. With Louise Geddes, Valerie is the co-author of The Shakespeare Multiverse: Fandom as a Literary Praxis, and co-editor of The Shakespeare User: Creative and Critical Appropriations in a Networked Culture and Variable Objects: Speculative Shakespeare Appropriation. Her essay work on Shakespeare and popular appropriation appears in several edited collections and journals.

Louise Geddes is an Associate Professor of English at Adelphi University. With Valerie M. Fazel, she is the author of The Shakespeare Multiverse: Fandom as Literary Praxis and the co-editor of The Shakespeare User: Critical and Creative Appropriation in a Networked Culture and Variable Objects: Speculative Shakespeare Appropriation. She is the co-general editor of Borrowers and Lenders: A Journal of Shakespeare Appropriation.

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ACMRS is a research center housed at Arizona State University. We support inclusive, accessible, and forward-looking scholarship in premodern studies.