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How Arthur Miller Created an American Myth of the Male “Witch Hunt” Men Still Cling to Today

image: 20th Century Fox Winona Rider in a scene from "The Crucible" (1996)

The current preoccupation with men being “falsely accused” of harassment or assault, like so many other accepted truths can be traced to a moment in time during which a version of the idea was created and then absorbed into the culture. In 20th Century America, it all started when a playwright named Arthur Miller had an affair with a Hollywood actress named Marilyn Monroe.

One of the more infuriating things about this #TimesUp moment is that there are far too many men continuing to be more concerned with the hypothetical possibility of “false accusations” (even though most of the accusations either come from multiple women corroborating stories about the same person, or have been confirmed by the accused themselves in self-serving apologies) than they are with the suffering of victims of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse.

In a piece over at The Daily Beast, Maria Dahvana Headley writes about Arthur Miller’s history with Marilyn Monroe, and how that affected his plays, which perpetuated very specific ideas about women through the American literary canon.

Whereas women’s sexuality has long since been tied to the idea of personal “hysteria,” Miller updated that by singling out women’s desire for love and sex as a direct cause of mass hysteria. It used to be that women were only mad themselves because of their lusts. With The Crucible, Miller extrapolated that, citing women’s “instability” when it came to the instability of an entire community.

Headley writes:

In his telling, witch hunts are perpetrated by the marginalized rather than upon them, since, when sex is involved, women are inclined toward group-malice, sexual irrationality, and wholesale invention.

John Proctor, as Miller portrays him, is a good man who’s made a bad, but human, mistake. Largely because of that mistake, he is buffeted by a couple of elements shaped to suit the underlying narrative of Miller’s story, and thus not found in primary sources. […]

Both of these historic elements, however, were shaped by Miller into a story about a married man tormented by an orphaned, libidinous teenage girl seeking to punish him for a sexual transgression she participated consensually in. The playwright sets that story as the catalyst for a larger, quite literal witch hunt, stoked into a frenzy by a mostly unprovoked confession of witchcraft spoken by a fantastically-minded woman of color who’s been practicing sexy voodoo in the woods with the girls of Salem.

In other words, there was how things actually happened during the Salem Witch Trials, and there was how Miller wrote about them, taking lots of liberties to tell this story through a prism that made sense to him.

For The Crucible, Miller aged Abigail up from her actual age of 11 to a more easily sexualized 17, while aging down John Procter, who was historically 60 at the time the trials went down to 35. Still creepy, but slightly less creepy? He tells the story of a man in a cold marriage who because of this is “pushed” into an affair with a much younger girl who then “goes crazy” and accuses him of wrongdoing. The play results in a mob mentality and hysteria taking over because people believed a lying girl.

As Headley puts it, “John Proctor is portrayed in The Crucible as a tragic hero, a fundamentally good man whose life is ruined to execution first by the unwillingness of his wife to sleep with him, and then, when he’s succumbed to temptation, by the accusations of a hysterical girl.” In her conclusion about that particular play, “Terrible things happen, The Crucible confirms, when you believe women.”

It’s interesting to look at this in the context of what was happening in Miller’s real life. Namely, that he was in a marriage he wasn’t happy in, and ended up having an affair with the much younger Marilyn Monroe, with whom he then had a troubled relationship and marriage.

As Headley points out, he cites his relationships as instrumental to his writing of The Crucible in an essay he wrote about his process for The New Yorker:

I visited Salem for the first time on a dismal spring day in 1952; it was a sidetracked town then, with abandoned factories and vacant stores. In the gloomy courthouse there I read the transcripts of the witchcraft trials of 1692, as taken down in a primitive shorthand by ministers who were spelling each other. But there was one entry in Upham in which the thousands of pieces I had come across were jogged into place. It was from a report written by the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was one of the chief instigators of the witch-hunt. “During the examination of Elizabeth Procter, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam” — the two were “afflicted” teen-age accusers, and Abigail was Parris’s niece — “both made offer to strike at said Procter; but when Abigail’s hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up, into a fist before, and came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with open and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned… ”

In this remarkably observed gesture of a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly the human center of all this turmoil.

All this I understood. I had not approached the witchcraft out of nowhere or from purely social and political considerations. My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay. That John Proctor the sinner might overturn his paralyzing personal guilt and become the most forthright voice against the madness around him was a reassurance to me, and, I suppose, an inspiration: it demonstrated that a clear moral outcry could still spring even from an ambiguously unblemished soul. Moving crabwise across the profusion of evidence, I sensed that I had at last found something of myself in it, and a play began to accumulate around this man.

Poor, poor men and their cold wives and their not being able to “help” being drawn to younger women only to ruin their lives, too.

Headley proceeds to talk about Miller’s other works, and how they basically all tell the story of The Crucible (and of his own marriage and relationship to Monroe) in different ways. All of them leaning really hard into the idea that younger women aren’t to be believed or trusted, because they’re unstable.

It makes one wonder why older men continuously try to have relationships with them, huh? If they’re that much trouble?

And it’s this body of work, which students have been instructed to read at school for decades, that has permeated the culture and contributed to our modern version of blaming women’s desires for society’s ills. This idea that when trouble comes, particularly when it comes to a man who’s just trying to get laid, it comes at the hands of an unstable woman who should never be believed.

Which is how we get to guys like Liam Neeson, Woody Allen, and today, Alec Baldwin, as well as women like Mika Brzezinski and Wendy Williams bending over backwards to find reasons not to believe the women coming forward about the harassment and assault they’ve experienced. Because we are all taught that if we listen to women too closely, that way lies the unraveling of the fabric of society.

To every guy out there today whose greatest concern is being “falsely accused,” you’ve been manipulated by a frustrated playwright into genuinely believing that being callous and abusive with women don’t have consequences. Both he and you are wrong.

(via:, image: 20th Century Fox)

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