Upon hearing of the recent deaths of both Barbara Billingsley and Bob Guccione, my first thought was that between the image of June Cleaver portrayed by Billingsley and the faux-ified images of women hawked by Guccione’s Penthouse, a tremendous amount of damage was perpetrated on our perceptions of female worth and identity. And while June took off her pearls and heels a long time ago, the skewering of female reality in the media and in entertainment continues unabated. Consider these examples:
- As the Feminist Peace Network blog pointed out recently, the pornography business is gargantuan and has become so ubiquitous that it becomes a de-facto part of what is normal.
- In a recent piece on the Ms. Magazine Blog, Carolyn Heldman calls out Disney for their appalling portrayal of sexual slavery, and at that, geared towards very young children,
As many as 4 million people–most of them women and children–are sold into slavery globally each year, according to the United Nations, and 70 percent of those women are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation [PDF]. An estimated 200,000 American children are at risk for sex trafficking each year, and the International Human Rights Law Institute estimates that 30,000 sexual slaves die annually from abuse, torture, neglect and disease.
So why is Disneyland still asking us to laugh at an overt depiction of sexual slavery in its popular Pirates of the Caribbean ride?
- For a fascinating look at how women fare in so-called reality television shows, check out Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back. Pozner writes that in these shows, women are portrayed as, “golddiggers, bimbos, and bitches, and women of color are violent, “low class” whores”.
- And then there are advertisements like this for Lost Abbey Witch’s Wit beer which makes light of a period of history where women who were labeled as witches suffered unimaginable brutality and were murdered by the millions.
The examples are endless, these are merely ones that have crossed my desk during the last few weeks.
But purposeful misogynist misrepresentation goes beyond media, entertainment and advertising; it is an integral part of our historic narrative as well. Or more to the point, women’s lives are not shown as an integral part of that tale. Last week I had the opportunity to contemplate the story that we are given in our daily lives from three rather interesting vantage points, on a tour of the United States Capitol, a lecture by Judy Chicago on the life and art of Frida Kahlo at the National Museum for Women in the Arts and a visit to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.
While on a trip to Washington, DC, I accompanied my son on a visit to the Capitol. As we entered the Visitors’ Center, we were surrounded with statues and pictures of people who were pivotal in the history of the United States and yes, you guessed it, they were predominantly male images. The almost complete erasure of women (save a few tokens) from the narrative of our country is inescapable, it is as if we are supposed to believe that men did it all by themselves while women just sat passively by.
The following day, we went to hear artist Judy Chicago give a lecture at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on her new book, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, co-authored with Frances Borzello. Unlike most of the museums in Washington, this one is a privately run museum, necessary because as Chicago noted and the Guerrilla Girls have pointed out so many times, most of the art in traditional museums, even the so called National Gallery of Art mostly contain art by men and represent the male gaze. Before the lecture, I made a quick trip to the restroom and my son waited for me at the reception desk which had several very thick books listing the names of charter members and supporters. My son, knowing that I was a charter member, started looking for and then found my name, which he showed me when I returned. For me, seeing my name as one of the many who have supported the museum was a wonderful experience. I wasn’t just there to see the art. In my small way, I was part of the her-story that made it possible for that art to be there. It was a very powerful feeling.
Hearing Judy Chicago was a dream come true for me. Her work has been enormously important to me, giving me context during the years that I worked as an artist, allowing me to reclaim women’s artistic history and and sense of rootedness. During her lecture, Chicago made several points about Kahlo’s work that I think are applicable far beyond the discussion of Kahlo’s work:
- Describing women’s work as reactive rather than proactive denies women’s agency.
- It is important to look at women in their own context, not as part of the male context.
And finally, in my tryptych of vantage points, I had the delightful opportunity to visit with the wonderful staff at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University. The Center’s Director, Laura Micham graciously set out a table of some of the treasures that have been given to their care–Robin Morgan’s archives, a copy of the New York Times with a picture of Alix Kates Shulman, papers from the local chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and so much more. Precious, rarely seen pieces of our her-story, there for me to see, to touch on a table in their beautiful reading room.
I’m not sure that I can adequately describe my reaction to this cornucopia of women’s heritage on which my eyes feasted and my fingers rested. It was a sharp contrast to the feeling of dis-ease that I experienced at the Capitol where I felt almost physically disenfranchised by the official telling of his-story that is supposed to be our story. One of the first things that popped into my head was what if what I was seeing in this beautiful library was considered a crucial part of our story that must be told as vigorously as that of the founding fathers, what if we listened to the mothers too? Here, I was surrounded by women and a deep feeling of connection, of foundation, of belonging.
Which brings me to this: there is a terrible price to be paid for the systemic misogynist invisibilizing, trivializing and misrepresentation of women’s lives.
We see it in the eyes of our children who will inherit the results of our perpetuated misrepresentations when fraternity pledges glorify rape,
On Wednesday night, Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges marched through Yale’s Old Campus — where most first-year female students are housed — chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal!” The fraternity pledges were marched blindfolded while barking like soldiers … with marching orders of anal rape. They also threw in, “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women.”
We see it when Virginia Thomas asks Anita Hill to apologize to her husband the Supreme Court Justice for calling him out for sexual harassment as if the perpetrator can somehow magically become the victim and the real victim’s extraordinary courage could possibly be considered wrong. And we see it when candidates like Todd Lally in Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District can blatantly say that they don’t think women are discriminated against and still be taken seriously as a candidate to represent the people, more than half of whom are female.
We see it when the Washington Post reports that Tim Proffitt may not be arrested for stomping on Lauren Halle’s head at a Rand Paul rally,
It looks as if this may not result in an arrest. Based on the footage of the incident, cops are treating the case for the time being as a fourth degree assault case, which puts this in the realm of domestic violence scuffles and barfights, she tells me. She says they’re treating this as a “misdemeanor, not a felony.”
And yet guys like Lally who sees equality where there is none and guys like Paul who attract hooligans like Proffitt who thinks that the woman whose head he stepped on should apologize to him claim they can represent “the people”. The very bad news is that they stand a very good chance of getting elected on Tuesday. And the young men at Yale will likely go on to be leaders in government and industry.
As I was writing this, I happened to see Ann Jones’ piece in The Nation on the use of women soldiers to communicate with Afghan women, the description would be laughable in its absurdity if it weren’t horribly true. Jones points to the abusive expectations placed on women in the U.S. military and a deeply misogynist arrogance and ignorance systemic in U.S. military policy towards Afghan women. This too is part of the toxic damage wreaked by his-story on her-story. And somehow that is supposed to be okay, just part of the political process that our national narrative supports. But it isn’t okay. Rather, it is part of the toxic legacy of misogyny which played out again at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear which styled itself as a meeting at the commons for all yet all but excluded women from the podium.
Come Wednesday morning, when the electoral ruckus begins to settle, we need to take a deep look at the story we are telling, the plot is long overdue for revision.