Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Moving from the Madonna/whore complex to the princess/slut complex

We're living in a post-feminist la-la land. I really mean that "we". Usually, when people use the word in a sentence like the one above they mean, "Everybody but me and you dear reader". I mean all of us.

I've been reading and listening people getting upset about Miley Cyrus for a few weeks now. It's interesting in that everybody knows exactly what upset them about her performance on the music video awards right up until the moment they have to explain it.

I watched a discussion on FaceBook on the subject slowly slide into oblivion. People started off cheerfully bashing Miley but then other singers were mentioned. Rihanna for example. And that's tricky because Rihanna is black and a bunch of white liberal women always get a little queasy when it comes to criticizing women of other races and ethnic groups for doing the same things they find unacceptable in a Miley Cyrus. (If you ever find yourself in a room full of members of the VAW (violence against women) movement, ask them how they feel about issues of violence against women in Muslim or Lesbian subcultures. The squirming will be painful to watch.)

And then there was the tricky issue of Madonna, Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde, all of whom exploited their sexuality to move product. That was different because ... . Well because crickets chirping.

The reason the women on the FaceBook discussion I was following but not participating in were so uncomfortable was that they not only think is that it's not just okay that women "express their sexuality" in any way that appeals to them but believe that it is a sacred right for them to do so. Women should even be encouraged to do so because mean old men where preventing them in the past don't ya know. And they should be allowed to do so in any way they want (including, paradoxical as this may seem, by engaging in fantasies and role playing involving rape and submission). Except Miley Cyrus. She can't! Because ... .

I'd tell you why I think the Cyrus performance actually bothered people but I don't really know either. I live in the same la-la land that you do. I can think of three possible reasons that you have probably already figured out for yourself:
  1. Because she used to be Hannah Montana.
  2. Because she didn't even try to conceal that she was doing this as a promotional gimmick
  3. Because she did her erotic performance for a specific man, and a rather creepy man at that, rather than some purely imaginary lover.
In one way or another, all these issues come down to "authenticity", whatever that means. I do know that you can be a crazed, self-destructive addict coming apart psycholgically and physically who exploits your sexuality to an increasingly desperate way get attention (Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin) and the critics will love your authenticity. You can even be a mercenary capitalist who dresses your exploitation of your sexuality in a thin veneer of utterly artificial sexual rebellion (Madonna, Lady Gaga) and be admired, because that too is apparently a sort of "authenticity".

Because we are living in a post-feminist la la land, Miley Cyrus was disgusting but she was also "poor Miley". How did that happen? Well, the explanation went, because she and Britney are also being exploited by evil corporate handlers who are doing something akin to child porn by creating these sexualized images of unrealistic erotic readiness to move product.

It was at that moment that the argument left reality completely behind. Why do I say that? Because it is the exact opposite of what actually happened to Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. The evil corporate exploiters actually created images of unrealistic sexual wholesomeness to move product. It was when the two women went out on their own that they both selected the more erotic image.

Don't tell yourself that this is new because it isn't.  Here is a silhouette of Cassandra Austen, sister of Jane (Courtesy of Wikipedia):

That's an erotic image and it didn't get that way by accident. The silhouette was carefully framed to get what were clearly some pretty spectacular breasts "into the shot". And so too the dress was gathered by an Empire waist that we can't see to accentuate those breasts, not that they needed much help. (By modern standards, she is getting very little support from what she is wearing; the shape you see here is pretty much what you would see if you saw her naked.)

The message here is not, "good, child-bearing stock" but very much "I'm a sexual being". I don't think it was that she was a sexual being purely for the enjoyment of others but, and this is always the tricky issue, because being a sexual being for her own enjoyment requires the affirmation from others. All, without actually having sex, which remains the challenge today; women may be freer to have sex for their own pleasure but they also clearly crave public affirmation of their sexuality from people they will never have sex with.

Cassandra was probably a tiny little thing by current standards, although pretty typical by the standards of her day. Put her in a size zero dress, which she would almost certainly have fit into, and a push up bra and she'd create quite a sensation today. I suspect that had such options been the fashion of their time, the Misses Austen would have both exploited the possibilities.

No, I can't imagine Cassandra Austen twerking or pole dancing or grabbing her crotch in public but it isn't difficult to imagine her privately having the experiences of which those things are merely a simulacrum. It's a virtual certainty that she did. When Jane Austen died, her sister Cassandra destroyed hundreds of her letters, do you think the problem was that they all contained mean spirited remarks about how the vicar's wife held a fish knife when eating sole?

What has changed between then and now is not that women's sexuality is a now public thing. Even societies where women are cloistered or forced to wear burka do that, albeit in a negative way. Cassandra Austen participated in the making of that silhouette for the same reasons that so many girls now take nude or near-nude selfies with their smart-phone cameras.

So, what has changed?

A few years ago, it was popular to talk about TV shows and magazines that promoted particular interests as "porn", as in "house porn", "fishing porn", "sailing porn" or "food porn". The expression mocked the fact that these magazines took what were properly little compartments within a full life and blew them up into some crass, cheap and ridiculous the way real porn does with sex. In that sense, you could call some aspects of our culture "childhood porn" for it takes what is a small and temporary part of life—a child's real role in life is to be an adult-in-training—and glorifies it as an end in itself.

And there I think we begin to get a hint of the real problem. Contrary to what is often argued, the Madonna-Whore complex always comes about because of unrealistic portrayals on the Madonna side of the equation. And here I have to reverse some of my earlier defense of princesses, for there has been a tendency to turn the princess into a medieval virgin and this trick is done, painfully ironic as this is, by putting her through a feminist filter.

First, we should note that these girl-women are not children; Disney princesses tend to have breasts and hips. They have a sexual presence for the same reason virgin martyrs did. To get at this, think of the difference between two five-year-old kids kissing as compared to two thirteen-year-old kids. It's cute to imagine the five-year olds because we're pretty sure that they are aping the activities of older people but they don't understand the full significance of what they are doing. With the thirteen year olds, they might well start off not understanding but we worry that they will soon begin to feel something that will, left unchecked, lead to "understanding".

The old, oppressive view was that while women may be able to feel these things as early as twelve or thirteen, they should keep themselves "pure" until marriage; that they should "save themselves" for the man they are going to marry. Historically, the man she was going to marry might well have been some stranger 15 years older than her as arranged by her parents. You can see why there might be some resistance.

One option for resistance was to continue saving yourself for some even higher goal:
Even when promised in marriage to a pagan named Valerian, she remained true to her Divine Spouse. It was at Iconium that St. Paul met St. Thecla, and kindled the love of virginity in her heart. She had been promised in marriage to a young man who was rich and generous. But at the Apostle's words she died to the thought of earthly espousals; she forgot her beauty; she was deaf to her parents threats, and at the first opportunity she fled from a luxurious home and followed St. Paul. The rage of her parents and of her intended spouse followed hard upon her; and the Roman power did its worst against the virgin whom Christ had chosen for His own. She was stripped and placed in the public theatre; but her innocence shrouded her like a garment. Then the lions were let loose against her; they fell crouching at her feet, and licked them as if in veneration. Even fire could not harm her. Torment after torment was inflicted upon her without effect, till at last her Spouse spoke the word and called her to Himself, with the double crown of virginity and martyrdom on her head.
That's a fairytale. There is almost certainly a real woman, even a saintly one, behind it but the story has been put through a fantasy filter and come out as something utterly fantastic. That story has an obvious kinship with this product of a more modern fantasy filter:
In Scotland, a young Princess named Merida of the clan Dunbroch is given a longbow by her father, King Fergus, for her fifth birthday, to her mother Queen Elinor's dismay. While practicing, Merida ventures into the woods to fetch a stray arrow, where she encounters a will-o'-the-wisp. Soon afterwards, Mor'du, a giant demon-bear, attacks the family. Merida escapes on horseback with Elinor, while Fergus fights off the bear at the cost of his left leg. Eleven years later, Merida has become a free-spirited, headstrong sixteen-year-old with much younger identical triplet brothers, Hamish, Huburt, and Harris. Elinor informs her that she is to be betrothed to one of her father's allied clans, against her will. Reminding Merida of a legend about a prince who had ruined his own kingdom by pride and refusal to follow his father's wishes, Elinor warns her that failure to consent to the marriage could harm Dunbroch, but Merida is still unhappy with the arrangement.
We can pretend the second story is more "feminist" because of seeming crucial differences between it and its predecessor. We might say that Saint Thecia is a passive being to whom things happen while Merida is an active agent who actually does stuff, even though these actions often backfire on her. She is protected by a real bow that fires real arrows that can actually kill things.

Only she doesn't actually kill anything with her bow does she? This girl-women acts only when provoked and otherwise spend her time mostly enduring trials until they are ready for ... well marriage. Her extraordinary ability with a bow and arrow is a mostly decorative function just like some 18th century heroine playing her Virginal. (By the way, sorry for being such a pedant, but Merida would not have been physically strong enough to draw a longbow.)

You may be thinking that, however similar the starts of these stories are, the endings are very different. You'd be wrong about that. Both these stories are really about two things: 1) they are about how women's sexuality is always and everywhere public and 2) they are about how every society pressures young women into having sex. Properly understood, the virgin saint is just as feminist a story as Merida is. Or, if you prefer, neither story is feminist and both are how even the girl who resists the accepted sexual identities available to women in her time must do so according to socially accepted norms. The difference is that now the thing a girl must preserve is her child-like innocence as opposed to her purity. (Of course, she can now only do so as a child. "Spinster" became a term of mockery a long time ago.)

Okay, but why would such a story of preserving innocence appeal to women at all? I'm always saying that women like sex after all. Why wouldn't they embrace some counter-myth that reinforces a woman's right to be actively sexual? Because society pressures women into having sex at an age when they are still girls. That's what both the story of the virgin saint and the princess have in common. For the virgin saint, paganism stood in sex. For Merida, bears stand sex.

Shift your attention away from the heroine of Brave for a moment and consider the timeline of the "bears" in the story. The bear is a monster. Let's see what happens to it in the story (I'm borrowing a lot from the Wikipedia plot summary here because the wording is so precious.):
  • Mor'du, a giant demon-bear, attacks the family rending it assunder.
  • Merida's mother Elinor tells her the story of a prince who ruined his father's kingdom by refusing to follow his wishes.
  • Merida buys a magic cake from a witch and feeds it to her mother in the hopes of changing her mind about her getting married. It doesn't work and changes Merida's mother into a bear.
  • Merida learns that she has to repair "the bond torn by pride" and goes to the forest with her mother and there meets Mor'du.
  • Merida now is now shaken to learn that Mor'du is actually a prince whom her mother told her of.
  • "When Fergus [Merida's father] enters the bed chamber, Elinor, who is losing control of her human self, attacks him, but suddenly regains her human consciousness and races out of the castle in desperation." (Read that sentence a few times until the meaning realy sinks in!)
  • Fergus thinking the bear who actually is his wife has killed and consumed (I use the word advisedly) his wife, pursues her.
  • They all run into Mor'du and wild battle ensues. Mor'du is killed, not intentionally by Merida or anyone else, but by having a giant rock monument fall on him. (Merida remains a passive little virgin-martyr no matter how well this is disguised.)
  • This "death" frees the prince's spirit from the bear and he shows Merida how grateful he is.
The state of being a bear is obviously that of sexual arousal. Like all such metaphors, it's been used before. There was a song in the 1920s called "I'm a bear in a lady's boudoir".

Anyway, sexual arousal in the guise of a bear raises its ugly head and tears Merida's family asunder. In real life, it is only sexual arousal that makes the family possible in the first place. A society that really embraced the ideal of virginity would disappear as the Shakers did. But this is a girl's story. It's meant for her not society in general. For her, this sex is a threat. It's a threat she can't stop looking at just as prey can't stop looking into a predator's eyes as it closes in. It's a very real threat.

Because it is a girl's story, her mother's sexual arousal is just as much a threat to her as his that of young men. The mother's new bear identity becomes problematic when her father finds her in the bed chamber! It's there that the mother-bear loses control of her human side and allows her animal side to attack her husband. Could Disney be any less subtle about this? This is most emphatically not the way a man would imagine an interaction with a woman who loses control of her "animal" instincts!

The mother is, of course, a double threat in that she is a bear-demon after Merida's father and she is the one who wants to force Merida herself into having sex. (The most famous medieval virgin-martyr myth was that of Saint Ursula, whose name means "she bear". That story metaphorically makes the she-bear into the virgin.)

Merida runs around trying to stop disaster but ultimately the solution is by divine intervention. The rock falls on the prince killing his bear-demon that is sexual arousal but freeing his rather harmless spirit so that spirit can connect with Merida in a non-sexual way. He thanks her for having done so.

Now read the way the folks at EWTN tell the story opf Saint Cecilia (not Saint Thecia, although you could be forgiven for wondering) and you can see that it is a variation on the earlier story, even to the point of using the same name for the unwanted spouse:
Even when promised in marriage to a pagan named Valerian, she remained true to her Divine Spouse. On the evening of their wedding day, Cecilia told Valerian that she had an angel guarding her virginity — an angel that would cause him suffering if he was to violate her. Being of good will Valerian said "Show me this angel ... if he be of God, I will refrain as you wish." Ever the evangelizer, Cecilia, stated that her husband would only see the angel if he was enlightened and illumined by the Sacrament of Baptism. Pope Urban I administered the Sacrament, upon which Valerian saw the heavenly guardian.
Valerian is described as his being pagan but he clearly isn't. He already accepts the authority of Cecilia's God. The real problem is that he wants to have sex with her.  The solution is not anything that Cecilia does but a shockingly sacrilegious use of magic that ought to appall any Christian. The whole story, if you go read it at the link, is a superstitious mishmash of pagan nonsense and pointless violence not unlike the story of Merida. And in both cases, the net effect is the same, the sexual threat that the girl-woman saw as threatening her is magically dissipated.

(Funny, by the way, that both Saint Thecia and Saint Cecilia are women of noble background that both are betrothed to a pagan named Valerian. Well, funny until you realize that both are mythical princesses in Christian garb. In legend, that is, there may well be actual women who died for their faith hiding beneath the many layers of gloss layered over them.)

By the way, the very same story structure is inevitably subverted to serve pro-sex ends. When Merida starts masturbating, assuming she hasn't already started (she is sixteen after all), she will construct fantasies that subvert the same story structure to get the orgasm she wants while still being as passive in that rough fantasy where she gets sex as she is here in this story of being saved from sex. There is no reason a girl can't do both.

Back to life, back to reality

In medieval practice, the sticking point was that an arranged marriage is socially sanctioned rape (although a shocking number of these marriages did end up in loving relationships). It was the rare woman who held out for a love of Christ. The real point, the real feminist point, that was achieved over centuries was the autonomy to marry someone of your own choice or to not marry if you didn't want to marry. But, and this is important, if that is the real point, then the huge mythical construct exists just as something to hide behind.  (Which is why otherwise devout Catholics like the people at EWTN can trade in such horrid pagan nonsense as they do when discussing Cecilia.)

The modern girl isn't faced with an arranged marriage but these stories still have force because  she is surrounded by a sea of sex that threatens the little island that is her sense of herself. The fact that her own instincts sometimes line up with the social forces that hem her in is not a comfort. No matter how much she may enjoy exploring her new sexual identity as her body changes through her teens, she is also aware that her sexual identity is a public fact and not just what she imagines it to be. That is threatening. And there is a constant, nagging pressure to actually have sex that, while it doesn't have the legal sanction that arranged marriages did in the past, is absolutely relentless.

The modern feminist viewpoint is that virgin-martyr stories are created by men to control women but the origin of these stories is always with women themselves. These stories serve important mythological purposes for girl-women. Brave made more than half a billion dollars! Girls don't have to be forced to embrace this story structure. They crave it because, like the story of Saint Cecilia once did, it helps millions of girl-women make sense of their lives in those years when their body becomes fully sexual but they aren't ready for sex.

The feminist point is not completely groundless, however; as noted above, this mythology can be subverted for other purposes. It serves her mother and father who are painfully aware that their daughters are now sexual beings but want them suppress rather than experiment with her sexuality for a little while longer. (Which, I remind you, is the exact opposite of what Merida's mother is forcing on her.) It also serves the purposes of the narcissistic man who doesn't like to think that his girlfriend or wife has any sexual existence outside of his enjoyment of her. (And the over-protective mother and father have more in common with the narcissistic boyfriend than they are likely to want to admit.) But that isn't the reason that girl-women spend billions of dollars on Princess merchandise every year.

At the same time, the girl is expected to become a sexual being someday. And she sees other girls around her and she knows she is in competition with them. The girl who has already started having sex looks down on her virgin friends the same way the married woman in an 19th century novel looked down on her unmarried friends.

Where things are different now is that we are more explicit. The married rival in a Jane Austen story was probably just as aware of the fact that to be sexual means to be fully sexual, as opposed to lying back and thinking of England, but the conventions of the time were such that these things were only alluded to. And, however the challenge was met, it was worked out (or not) between a wife and her husband in the marital bed. A woman's sexuality may have been public but her sexual performance was not. Nowadays, everyone is explicitly aware of the kinds of thing a woman might be in bed and the competition from other women is such that every woman who wants to be taken seriously as fully a woman has imagine herself and, to some extent, present herself as a fully sexual being. I won't go on about it but if people around you can't imagine you being that, then they won't see you as a complete woman.

This true for every woman but the issue is acute with former child stars because their corporate handlers create an image for them in which are heroic in being sexually attractive while not having actual sex for idealistic reasons and this image lingers in the public mind. If they later want to become adult stars, they have to compensate or even over-compensate the other way.

And it's not just child stars, Meg Ryan had to do it too. In fact, every woman who initially becomes a success playing some clean and wholesome princess, seems to be obliged to turn around and release her inner slut to be treated seriously in other roles nowadays. In fact, I'd go so far as to say every woman has to make the transition at some point in her life. If she doesn't, she'll live a life that may be satisfactory but will never seem complete. The price of failure is high but most women make the attempt because they all have to.

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