Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle: Famous for Being Frumpy

Susan Boyle, the singing Scottish spinster, has already been blogged and twittered unto death, so I won’t describe the video that everyone in cyberspace has already seen. I can’t forbear adding my chatter to her already viral celebrity—for which I apologize—but I haven’t seen anyone say yet what I think most needs to be said about the phenomenon of her celebrity: she’s famous for being frumpy!

No other quality but looking like she just stepped out of a Monty Python skit would have inspired the media moguls who manipulate the youth culture/market to set up a woman of her age and class for instant Internet celebrity. A lot of people made a lot of money off of that mobile phone salesman with the bad teeth who sang opera, and they wanted to make a sequel that would be even more marvelous, implausible, and profitable because their new character is female and no longer young. Susan Boyle isn’t famous for her truly beautiful voice; she’s not famous for being “Our living lesson that when life provides a stage, sing your heart out, and prepare to be blessed!” (Tom Morris, “one of America's most active public philosophers,” tweet & blog); she’s absolutely not famous for being “a genuine populist phenomenon” (Jane Hamsher of; she’s not famous “because she showed the underdog in each of us that we can win” (“award-winning TV writer Steve Young”); and she’s certainly not famous because “Watching an older person---especially an older person who doesn't seem very hip---prove she still has time to emerge from her cocoon is exciting because it reminds us that we can still sort through our own problems” (Mark Blankenship, Pop Culture Critic). And heaven help us, she’s the exact opposite of being famous for being “an up-yours to the cocky youth culture that often writes us off,” as none other than Letty Cottin Pogrebin of Ms. Magazine blogged--"us" referring to “women of a certain age.” (All the blogs cited in this post can be found on the Huffington Post). How could so many intelligent people be taken in by such a transparently contrived spectacle, when, as Mr. Blankenship himself sees, “this narrative is just as manipulative as anything else on reality television”?

Susan Boyle does have a lovely voice, but so do many women of all ages. Hundreds of trained but struggling opera singers no longer in the first flush of youth crowd New York City alone. Why should she have been singled out for stardom from among the hosts of the undistinguished-yet-talented? Dennis Palumbo asks, what if it had turned out that Susan Boyle couldn’t sing? (The moral he draws, very correctly, is that in that case we should’ve embraced her humanity and “inner beauty” anyway—yet it’s perfectly obvious that we wouldn’t have). Tamar Abrams gets right to the heart of the problem with the Susan Boyle phenomenon, which “is that recognition of her talent is directly proportionate to her lack of good looks and youth.” Yes indeed—which is why I ask the opposite question to Dennis Palumbo’s: not what if Boyle had turned out to be untalented, but what if she had treated her audience to the same talent, at the same advanced age, but without those classically Monty Python drag-dowdy looks?

Well, it’s clear she never would even have been allowed on the show without that, her finest asset, because its producers must know that without evoking Monty Python, she’d never had inspired any extreme response, positive or negative. Let’s imagine for the sake of thought experiment that a pretty Susan Boyle had somehow been allowed to strut her hour upon the stage of “reality,” despite failing to reinforce the youth culture’s negative stereotype of the appearance and lifestyle of “women of a certain age” (and, let’s not forget, of a certain class and region too). Had she simply defied those stereotypes—had she walked out there looking just slightly closer to Madonna or Sharon Stone or Demi Moore than to Michael Palin in drag, her voice might have charmed, might even have raised a few eyebrows—but it never would have made her an overnight sensation. Such an appearance would simply have failed to make sense to that audience (and that’s the reason such a creature would never have been admitted as a contestant)—unless by being explained away as another horrid triumph of techno-medical artifice.

And there’s the rub—Madonna and Sharon and Demi are in danger of beginning to fray the edges of the old stereotype of the middle-aged woman, and popular culture isn’t ready for that. We still can’t be allowed to believe that women of the generation of Simon Cowell and “Gen X” Barack Obama might be equally vital, attractive, sexy, and at the peak of their powers. We still need Susan Boyle to represent “nature” in a rigid opposition to the Frankenstein-like scientific artifice we’re constantly reminded ought to repel and horrify us in the deceptive beauty of figures like Madonna, Sharon, and Demi. Even observant Tamar Abrams falls right into the trap of this opposition: “Talent and intelligence and heart are all internal; they don't rely on plastic surgery to sustain them. Looks fade, the years pass and it is a process that is natural and appropriate.” No one seems to notice that forty-odd years of a sedentary lifestyle fueled by the notorious Scottish diet, which includes such delicacies as the “chip butty” (French fries on a hamburger bun) and deep-fried Mars bars—than which no greater artifice has been devised by mankind—all done up at the village hairdresser’s, is a treatment every bit as artificial, if slower, cheaper, and lower-tech, as anything that could be done to enhance the female body in Hollywood.

If women in their 20s and 30s are still caught, as seems astoundingly to be the case, in the old opposition between virgin and whore, those in their 40s and 50s are now caught in the new opposition between Michael Palin in drag and Bride of Frankenstein.

(These two oppositions are of course not unrelated: Susan Boyle's broadcasting her virginity to the world was an essential prop of her drag image as unfeminine and unattractive, indeed hardly female, even, we are forced to conclude, when young. The recent announcements, whether true or not, that she's been offered $1 million to lose her virginity on camera for a porn movie indicate that those who've seen some men make money by publicly humiliating her as a superannuated virgin see the potential for making just as much money by publicly humiliating her as a superannuated whore. Meanwhile the play on both virgin and whore in "brides of Frankenstein" like Madonna is so obvious as to require no comment. But in general brides of Frankenstein tend toward the whorish side of the old equation, seen as oversexed and luring men with their illusory charms, while it's clear that part of the success of Susan Boyle's Michael Palin drag lies in that claim of sexless virginity.)

While her body is purveyed as “natural” for a 47-year-old woman, Susan Boyle's voice is often portrayed as supernatural. It is not being portrayed on the reality show as “internal” to her, or as actually produced by that body. That supernatural voice is in fact ventriloquized by the spectacle itself, by the spectacle of the audience. The main spectacle in the Susan Boyle phenomenon for her vast television and Internet audience is of course not Boyle’s own performance, but the studio audience’s response to it. The camera zooms in on the sneers on the rather ordinary female faces of the studio audience, faces whose appeal consists solely of the three things Susan Boyle lacks: extreme youth, extreme thinness, and extreme eye shadow. Their patronizing but inaudible judgment is then given voice by Boyle’s male contemporary, the slightly OLDER Simon Cowell, whose even more advanced age manages to have the opposite effect to hers, through the mojo of media power and hip masculinity. His voice validates hers, but her body image—and the image of all women in her and Cowell’s age group—is the price of her exceptional vindication. Her appearance, “humble” background, and willingness to be humiliated by this audience lends it the power to reinforce the stereotypes our culture insists a forty-something woman should fulfill by making an exception of her on the basis of a voice that is consistently characterized as disembodied: it is repeatedly described as “the voice of an angel,” or “on loan from the gods,” etc., as though it could not possibly be physically produced by the vocal chords behind that double chin, or supported by the diaphragm behind that thickened waist.

The spectacle of the audience endowing Susan Boyle with renewed life and a super-natural voice, neither of which seem self-generated, makes her serve as the exception that proves the rule that a woman’s life is over by the time she reaches the age of Simon Cowell and our shockingly young president Barack Obama. When it’s not over by that age, there’s something discomfiting and unseemly about her making a spectacle of herself by continuing to look alive; but that discomfort can be overcome by everyone in the whole world watching the smug audience of unaccomplished but young consumers generously grant her the thumbs up once she has been humiliated before them in the gladiatorial arena, and by attributing her powerful voice to something, anything, other than that humiliated body. She might be more talented than the young people in the audience, but at least she reminds us all that without the power they hold over her, her voice would remain as inaudible as the sound of a tree falling in the woods. The “we” of popular youth culture is the angelic higher power that suddenly sings through her.

Because Susan Boyle is famous for being an exception, she’s hardly there to inspire the rest of us to raise up our voices and make our mark on the world. She’s there to remind us that it’s “natural” and “appropriate” to look like Michael Palin in drag once we’re over forty, and that if we just relax, have another deep-fried Mars bar, and let our inner beauty shine through, we'll be embraced, because the whole culture will be better off for it. Andy Borowitz got it right when he blogged, “Professor David Logsdon, who studies the rare occurrences of ugly people in the media at the University of Minnesota's School of Communications, warns that the isolated example of Ms. Boyle may give ugly people around the world too much hope. ‘The fact is, only one in a million ugly people will ever get on TV,’ said Professor Logsdon. ‘Most of them will wind up in academia.’” So true. Academia, as I first noticed when I was an under-twenty undergrad, is our culture's convenient holding tank for all the over-thirty and other ugly Cassandras who are too prone to raising their voices, where they will sound, to those out in the "real world"--or is it the "reality world," now? just like trees falling in the forest, or voices crying in the wilderness.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

God’s Playbook for Palin: The Book of Esther

One of Sarah Palin’s first acts as governor was to seek advice from the spiritual guide of her youth, Pastor Paul E. Riley, on how to model her new leadership role on the Bible. As The New York Times reported on September 5, “She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership,” Mr. Riley said. He suggested Esther: “‘when Esther is called to serve, God grants her a strength she never knew she had.’ Mr. Riley said he thought Ms. Palin had lived out the advice as governor, and would now do so again as the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee.”

In that case, we all owe it to ourselves to consult the Word of God without further delay on what He has in store for us through His self-designated servant, Sarah Palin.

The Book of Esther tells the story of the first beauty queen, who is coached to cover up her background, cover her face with cosmetics, and learn how to appeal to powerful men, all as part of a deliberate political plot to replace an uppity, threateningly powerful woman who has just been convicted of a Perceived Whine. Once Esther has thus come from nowhere to gain sudden influence over the male ruler of the world’s greatest empire literally by winning a beauty contest, her elder male adviser continues to coach her on how to use that influence over her new sugar daddy to massacre the perceived enemies of Israel throughout all the nations lying between India and Ethiopia.

Anyone who hasn’t actually read the Book of Esther recently might think I’ve got to be making this stuff up. If you don’t believe me, read it and weep—or have a festival, depending on your feelings about massacres—which is what the book concludes by ordering “the Jews…their descendants, and all who should join them, to do” (Esther 9:27, New English Bible). The decreed celebration is of course the festival of Purim, ordained in remembrance of the Jews’ having escaped a planned Persian Holocaust by getting a royal permit for a pre-emptive strike “to destroy, slay, and exterminate the whole strength of any people or province which might attack them, women and children too,” (8:11), and then actually “killing seventy-five thousand of those who hated them” (9:16).

Purim is indeed still kept in remembrance of this escape from persecution, but probably not sufficiently anymore in remembrance of the massacre that was perpetrated. The Book of Esther is all about the importance of writing things down so that they can be remembered accurately. We are told repeatedly exactly how and by whom everything that is done or said in the story was written down and transmitted. The order for the perennial festival is written down and sent through all the provinces in a letter by Mordecai, Esther’s cousin/adoptive father/beauty pageant coach/political advisor/spiritual guide. The Great King of Persia, having been told directly by his wife Esther that Mordecai is responsible for saving his life from a palace coup, and having even personally witnessed the recording of this loyal act in the royal chronicle (2:22-23), can only remember that Mordecai served him so faithfully when this chronicle is later read to him during a sleepless night (6:1). Even as this book ordains the remembrance of deliverance through a festival, then, it also emphasizes the likelihood of forgetting some of the most important facts of history unless one returns to its written record. In fact, one web site calling itself “Judaism 101” states that “the primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther,” yet in summarizing the story it completely whites out any reference to the killing of anyone except the single individual responsible for the foiled plot to exterminate the Jews. []

So, lest we should all fail to learn from the history offered by the Book of Esther by repeating it instead of reading it, and lest we should fail to understand what Sarah Palin and her father figures/beauty pageant coaches/political advisers/spiritual guides are about by failing to study their playbook, let’s look a little more closely at a few of the key elements she has already repeated—and then at those she apparently hopes to repeat.

Noticing the extent to which Sarah Palin has already deliberately modeled herself on Esther can help us understand the apparently paradoxical or cynical choice of a woman for a position of such prominence by precisely those who seemed, during Hillary Clinton’s campaign, to dread more than anything the idea of a woman in the White House. Many have wondered whether Republican strategists might be thinking that all those disaffected Hillary voters will be attracted to another female politician who affects to relate to workers—but how could even they believe that many Hillary supporters could be wooed by Palin's anti-choice, anti-environmental, anti-social welfare discourse? No, they’re not appealing to disaffected Clinton voters—they’re offering an alternate model of the proper relationship of femininity to political power.

Palin is to Clinton as Esther is to Vashti, the dangerously powerful woman Esther rises from obscurity to replace. Esther’s story begins when Vashti, married to the most powerful man in the capital, has become too big for her britches—or rather seems to want to wear his. Vashti refuses to respond to a summons issued by her husband at the end of a week-long bender to come and display her beautiful body to his drinking buddies (1:10-12). Her defiance leads these guys to fear the effects of such a disobedient example among their oppressed womenfolk throughout the empire: “Every woman will come to know what the queen has done, and this will make them treat their husbands with contempt” (1:17)….and there will be endless disrespect and insolence!” (1:18). So they decide to hold a beauty pageant to replace Vashti, “in order that each man might be master in his own house” (1:22).

Esther, a poor orphaned nobody, wins this beauty contest not just because of her youth and good looks, but specifically, the book emphasizes, because of her pliancy—her ability to be a quick study, in the hands of powerful males, on how to win over even more powerful males. First she has to win the “special favor” of the chief eunuch in charge of the king’s harem, who “readily provide[s] her with her cosmetics” and personally coaches her on how to please the king when her turn comes. And in her dealings with both king and eunuch, she carefully follows Mordecai’s advice not to reveal much about her background, lest it be seen as a disqualification (2:9-15).

Once Esther has successfully replaced Vashti in her close connection to the most powerful man in the land, the nature of the opposition between the two women is made clear in a telling symmetry: where Vashti refused to appear before the king when summoned, Esther hesitates to appear before him without having been summoned. She is prevailed on to act as an advocate for her persecuted people, but she doesn’t know how to do so when her husband hasn’t called for her in a month (we begin to understand why, unlike Palin, she is childless), and approaching the Great King without summons is punishable by death. Her exquisitely feminine management of her delicate situation in the balance of power—coached all along by her male mentor, of course—is the pinnacle of her achievement. In the more detailed Greek version (“The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther Which Are Found Neither in the Hebrew Nor in the Syriac”) the becomingly feminine modesty with which she manages this boldfaced violation of the king’s law is rendered vividly enough to make it plausible that the same king who struck down his last beautiful wife for one refusal to obey a frivolous drunken command now grants Esther her every wish in response to her deliberate defiance of his written law.

The wish thus granted—again, a wish for which Esther literally takes dictation from her male mentor—is the aforementioned triumph celebrated at Purim. As the Priest of the Israelites sings in Händel’s oratorio, Esther (1718):

Methinks I hear the fathers’ groans;
Our babes are dashed against the stones.
I hear the infant’s shriller screams,
Stabbed at the mother’s breast.
Blood stains the murderer’s vest,
And through the city flows in streams.

These verses (possibly written by Alexander Pope) are meant to describe the fears of the Israelites when they hear the edict against them—the escape from which is remembered at Purim—for in the story the horrors they describe do not actually happen to the Israelites, but rather to 75,000 of the people they feared might potentially have done it to them, including their “women and children too.” Another thing we can learn from reading the Book of Esther is that the memory and the fear of victimization have always led too easily to the creation of yet more innocent victims through vengeance. Even when there has been real and dire victimization feeding such fears, from the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to 9/11, surely after all these millennia the human race could learn a better way than just the endless perpetuation of fear and violence.

In our own time and in our own great empire, our own leaders have issued an edict that has again made those bloody-minded, fearful verses a reality, right now, in more than one of the nations lying between India and Ethiopia. As in the Book of Esther, Palin and her male handlers believe, or in any case want us to believe, that such brutality is a fulfillment of God’s will. No—actually I just misspoke, or miswrote—betraying even my own susceptibility to the discourse of Christians who, like Palin and her advisers, claim to "believe in a literal translation of the Bible" (NYT 9/5/2008). Emphasis on "translation"—it would be more accurate to say that they want everyone to believe that their translation or interpretation of the Bible is "literal." In this case, Palin and her handlers, but NOT the Book of Esther—at least when interpreted literally—want us to believe that such brutality is a fulfillment of God's will. "Judaism 101" mentions that "the book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the Bible that does not contain the name of G-d." Literally, then, nothing that happens in it is attributed to His plan. "Purim" means "lots," as in "drawing lots," which was how the date of the massacre was determined; but that time the Jewish people had luck on their side.

Looking more literally at what Sarah Palin herself has said about slaughter and God's plan, it also becomes less clear how firmly even she believes in any connection between the two. Referring to the imminent deployment of her eldest son among the troops being sent to Iraq, she declared in her address to the Wasilla Assembly of God Church: “Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God.” This fragment has been often quoted already, but in fact she didn’t stop there. The sentence continues: “that’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan, and that that plan is God’s plan.” Palin the loyal partisan started off her remark by calling the Bush administration’s mission in Iraq “a task that is from God,” but I wonder if the Governor even realized that the mother in her seemed to have hijacked that statement before it reached its conclusion. It’s hard to parse Palin’s speech grammatically, but what she actually said in that sentence, whether she meant to or not, is that it’s not obvious that there is any plan at all behind our invasion of Iraq, so we can only pray that there is actually a plan, and we must pray also “that that plan is God’s plan.” Hmmm. Is Palin implying that there might be some inscrutable superhuman plan behind this apparently senseless bloodbath, but that even so the possibility remains that it’s one that isn’t God’s plan? Could she be referring obliquely to That Other Man with a Plan—you know, the one who’s supposed to be always plotting to ruin God’s plans? Me—whenever methinks I see blood flowing through any city in streams, and hear fathers’ groans and infants’ screams—I tend to worry that if such mayhem could reveal any plan at all, it couldn’t be God’s, anyway.

Whoever’s plan it may be—if there is a plan—surely we’ve already been following it too docilely for plenty long enough by now.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Femininity Test: Nude Olympics, Witch Trials, and Soccer Moms on Death Row

Why did the Chinese spend more than a year building a special laboratory to test the sex of “suspicious-looking” (1) female Olympic athletes (our national debt at work!), which they may well find no occasion to use? Everyone who’s read the papers recently knows that no female athlete impersonator has ever been found out this way (the one known example in history, forced by the Nazis to do the high jump in drag, won no medal and was subjected to no test). Everyone knows by the same token that the practice of Olympic sex testing over the last forty years has proved nothing except that nobody knows how to define what a female is. And yet, even if the experts who now stand ready to inspect any female suspected of being not strictly female end up twiddling nothing but their own thumbs in the coming weeks, they and our national interest payments will have done their work well.

The new lab is meant to stand for a far more sophisticated understanding of femininity than the “nude parade” that passed for a sex test for all female athletes when testing was first instituted in the mid-1960s. But let’s first go all the way back to when the separation of athletes by sex began. As many know, the original Olympic games featured nude male contestants. The reasons for the nudity are debated, but one thing is a logical certainty: such a custom would have helped enforce the ancient Olympian ban on women athletes, who had participated in earlier Greek games and festivals but who were henceforth explicitly banned from the Olympics and restricted to a minor satellite event for virgin girls, at which they competed against each other dressed Amazon style, in male garb with one new breast bared. Virgins were also the only non-males allowed even as spectators at the ancient Olympics, which mainly shows that virgins were not really considered women. They were instead a kind of third sex, as the word vir-gyn, or “man-woman,” still hints. Since they were not women, they could be tolerated within the Olympian precincts sacred to Zeus and Herakles (both characterized as divine misogynists) without polluting them. Nevertheless virgins were not men either, so they had to compete separately. Since they were non-adults as well as non-males, there may well have been a clearer distinction between their performance and that of grown men than there is today between “male” and “female” athletes.

As for the performance of grown men, let’s be fair here: the ancient nude parade also served, of course, to keep men within the strict cultural definitions of gender boundaries. Everybody then knew that the darkest day of Herakles (Hercules, or “Herc” as he has been known more recently), the legendary first Olympic champion, was that time when the gods forced him to expiate a sin by doing some time wearing women’s clothing and doing women’s work. Contestants not only had to swear an oath that they were male, Greek, and free (not slaves—all three of these categories were in the process of being defined through the very ritual of the ancient Olympic games); once sworn in, they then had to look, swagger and strut the part.

The nudity rule, whatever its now obscure ancient rationale, thus served as the first Olympic sex test, and like the one instituted in the mid-1960s, it consisted entirely of a “nude parade,” allowing for general visual inspection (2). The only article of clothing permitted the ancient Olympic athlete was the kynodesme, literally the “dog leash,” a leather strap that tied up the penis in such a way that it could neither achieve obvious erection, nor rub up accidentally against a wrestling opponent, nor flop around in a footrace. Imagine if you were that exceptional gifted male athlete whose “dog,” for one reason or another, didn’t require, or didn’t quite fit, or didn’t become, the “leash.” Even though free, Greek, and male, you probably would be no more likely to submit to such public exposure than the soccer mom we are about to discuss, and would keep yourself and your dog well under wraps.

For no self-respecting ancient Greek woman (as opposed to man or virgin) would have submitted to such humiliation as the nudity parade, and if any had, the rules provided for her to be hurled off of a cliff on nearby Mt. Typaion. Even though it seems that no one ever was, and the sole woman spectator said to have been caught in drag was excepted, spared for the sake of her menfolk—her father, husband, brother and son having all been Olympic champions, and her transgression having been committed solely for the sake of supporting her son—this exception proves that the rule existed not to be enforced, but just “in case.” It served its purpose simply by ensuring that there would never in fact be a “case,” without having to be enforced, even once.

Indeed that one legendary case that resulted in leniency perfectly demonstrates the rule’s purpose: while ensuring that neither slaves, foreigners, nor those lacking the confidence to parade their dogs on the leash would stand up to be counted as men, it equally ensured that Greek women stayed feminine and wouldn’t turn into Amazons (one of the earliest definitions of a non-Greek). The Amazon tendencies of a non-male person could be charming or at least tolerable in a virgin child baring one budding breast, but once she got bigger, married, and belonged to a man, she had better learn quickly to do the opposite of walking the dog, and make sure she looked, walked, and behaved like a Woman at all times (which was not so different from the dress and conduct required to this day in the most conservative middle eastern cultures). A woman like the legendary exception, who married and bore heroes, and indeed risked her own death only to cheer them on in their manly exploits, is no exception at all, but rather just the kind of real woman the ancient rule was meant to produce: a soccer mom on death row, humbly begging for her life.

Today’s Olympic sex testing is still the kind of gender rule that does its work without even having to be enforced. Yet some modern female Olympians have indeed been singled out for “testing,” and in this respect the modern system rather resembles the witch trials that swept Europe sometime between the abolition of the ancient Olympics under the Roman Empire and the institution of the modern games just at the moment when the world was about to enter the latest century of world war and genocide. Whereas the ancient Olympic nudity parade exposed no female or imperfectly male bodies, yet controlled them all through the mere threat of exposure (and violent death), the latest Olympic sex testing, like early modern witch trials, selects only those individuals at whom the finger of public suspicion has been pointed—quite often, just as in the witch trials, by other women, women who in their own estimation fit the mold better (3). Yet such selective testing inevitably has a profound effect even on those left untouched—though not unscathed. Both kinds of trials are said to be performed out of concern for women, to “protect” the innocent—the real females—from the otherwise irreparable harm that could be caused to their reputations by such accusation or even innuendo. It’s no coincidence that the very man responsible for putting an end to the nude parade for all female Olympians, calling it “an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice"--Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission--was also quoted in the New York Times as defending the continuance of occasional testing. “Sometimes, fingers are pointed at particular female athletes, and in order to protect them," he reasoned, "we have to be able to investigate it and clarify” (4). Thus the new Olympic sex testing, like the old-fashioned witch trial, “protects” all women from turning witch—or Amazon—by controlling their minds and behavior through fear of what they are forced to watch inflicted on those relatively few individuals who can now be perceived as having somehow done something to lay themselves open to suspicion.

The very methods used in Olympic sex testing are shockingly similar to the classic methods of early modern witch trials, to wit:

 visual and manual inspection of the genitals, just as in the search for the witch’s mark;

 the insertion of needles beneath the skin to detect signs not externally visible (whether to extract blood to analyze DNA markers or hormones—or, as in the past, to probe for those deeper, hidden witch’s marks);

 finally, should physical examinations fail to produce the needed proof, the modern athlete, like the early modern witch, can be “put to the question”: whether we call that questioning “interrogation,” “inquisition,” or “psychological testing.”

The New York Times recently published a nice op-ed piece by Jennifer Finney Boylan, who, after pointing out that gender can never be neatly contained in a binary system, makes an appeal to the heart. “The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart. How do we test for the gender of the heart, then?” Boylan says it's obvious: the gender of the heart should become clear as soon as we look at how one feels inside and how one lives one’s life (5). Ah, but the heart, the hidden, invisible, unknowable heart, is just what witch trials were designed to test. If you drowned in the dunking pool—well then everyone finally knew you had a virtuous and womanly heart, not an evil one seduced by Satan. The way one lives one’s life day to day is just what the modern trials, too, are meant to mold and control. How can one be a woman in one’s heart? When the heart quakes with fear at the public humiliation of sex testing, when the heart rehearses in sympathy the feeling of rape made public by the bravest of those athletes already subjected to it--that’s when one knows in one’s heart that one is really a woman.

So here are a few examples of what it’s like, thanks to the new Chinese laboratory and the International Olympic Committee that ordained it, to be a woman in one’s heart:

“Mary Peters, Britain’s gold medal-winning pentathlete at the 1972 Munich Olympics, described the sex tests as ‘the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known… The doctors proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance, amounted to a grope’” (6).

“What happened to me was like being raped,” revealed Maria Jose Martinez Patino, the first woman who challenged the results of a genetic sex test successfully—but only after losing three years of her competitive prime to fighting her exclusion from athletic competition, before being reinstated in 1988. “I’m sure it’s the same sense of incredible shame and violation,” she added. “The only difference is that, in my case, the whole world was watching” (7).

And of course Santhi Soundarajan, the Indian runner stripped of her Asian Games silver medal in 2006 after a sex test decreed she had “abnormal chromosomes” (8), has survived a suicide attempt only to continue fighting in the manner of Martinez Patino, while she, too, continues to watch her competitive years and her confidence wear away.

To know what it is to be a woman in one’s heart, you don’t have to be one of these world-class athletes picked out for the modern equivalent of a witch trial. All you have to do is walk down a street alone—preferably at night, but even that is not essential.

1. Times Online, photo caption:

2. The shift in focus from male to female nudity, without any corresponding shift in the binary hierarchy of gender, does correspond with an interesting shift in the cultural fascination with the naked body as emblem of mainstream beauty and desire, from primarily male to primarily female. To be a real man in ancient Greece it didn’t much matter whom you desired, so long as you dominated him and her; the modern highly ambivalent fetishization of the naked female body is about defining proper masculinity through a certain kind of (still dominating) heterosexual desire.

3. As for example, in the case of Edinanci Silva at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney: see Emine Saner, “The Gender Trap,” The Guardian, Wednesday July 30 2008.

4. Katie Thomas, New York Times, July 30, 2008.

5. Jennifer Finney Boylan, NYT Op Ed page, August 3, 2008.

6. Posted by Milly on 29 July 2008 at

7. Alison Carlson, Women’s Sports and Fitness, 1991; quoted by Laura A. Wackwitz in “Verifying The Myth: Olympic Sex Testing And the Category ‘Woman’’’; Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 553 – 560, 2003 Copyright D 2003 Elsevier Ltd.

8. Boylan op ed, op. cit.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Chickbusters: What’s So Compelling about Sex and the City

The new Sex and the City movie isn’t just a blockbuster chick flick—it’s a chickbuster. Why do so many women identify with the characters even if they can’t afford the clothes? We’re all compelled by the same cultural hazing.

We flock to this movie thinking it’ll be a fun celebration of all things chick—the clothes, the shoes, and especially the sisterhood, always there to protect you from those noncommittal, unfaithful, unappreciative men—or at least to nurse you back to health and mirth after the heartbreaks they inevitably dish out. But as Carrie says of the jewelry auction the foursome attends at the beginning, “I thought this [movie] was going to be fun, but it’s kinda sad.”

The film’s structural principle is the fearful symmetry with which each one of the friends is humiliated in turn by the rest, for failing to fulfill the gender ideal required by her clothing. The sisterhood blocks the desired fulfillment of heterosexual coupling in every case, until it can administer sufficient hazing to ensure that the gender norms required for the success of such coupling will be observed.

The first and grandest humiliation is, of course, Carrie’s abandonment at the altar. This seems to be perpetrated by Mr. Big, and to have more to do with stereotypically masculine commitment phobia than with women’s fashions. It takes only a little attention to detail, however, to notice that it’s Charlotte and Miranda, not Mr. Big, who really see to it that Carrie is left all decked out in bridal couture with no place to go—except, of course, to Mexico, to take them on her intended honeymoon, where the sorority hazing continues. Just as Carrie cannot have her wedding, Miranda cannot go back to Steve, and Charlotte cannot have her so long desired pregnancy, until they, too, have been humiliated by the sisterhood of the traveling gender police for violating the decorum dictated by their clothing. And untameable Samantha gets the city but no sex.

First, Samantha savages Miranda over the pubic hairs protruding from her bikini line, as if these constituted a personal affront. Miranda’s reply spells out the subtext of this assault: “okay so it’s all my fault, I’m the one who’s not attending to sex in my marriage, so I got what I deserved, right?” Steve’s infidelity is just punishment for her selfish neglect of intimate waxing while raising her child and pursuing her high-powered career.

Now it’s fascinatingly telling that Samantha should be the one to administer precisely the bikini-line humiliation, since the TV series made so much of the fact that what Samantha’s own man Smith finds sexy is actually a “full bush.” It’s really Samantha herself, then, by insisting that she “would never have that…situation,” who is thereby selfishly failing to attend to pleasing her man.

By contrast, before the disastrous wedding, Carrie seems at last happy with hers—she refuses to dish any details about her sex life except to say, with an expression like that of the cat that ate the canary, that “when Big colors, he rarely stays inside the lines.” Miranda also has failed to stay inside the lines, and it’s clear that this movie is really about punishing that crime, in both sexes.

Staying inside the lines is also the problem when Charlotte poos in her designer trousers. The Montezuma’s Revenge that Charlotte’s tried so hard to avoid is the joke that finally brings back Carrie’s ability to laugh—“when something’s really, really funny,” as Samantha predicted and Carrie reminds us. A friend’s dysentery and humiliation is “really, really funny”? Yes, because it’s the laughter itself, not the illness, which achieves the goal of chick hazing. Charlotte’s crime is to have tried too hard all along to have what she wants—and that is this film’s ultimate crime, even though what this woman wants is precisely to stay inside the lines. Charlotte’s always tried too hard to control her own body, to stay fit, to avoid drinking the Mexican water, to become a mother. Her friends have to have a good laugh at the expense of her soiled designer resortwear before she can stop trying so hard—which, she comments later, is the reason she’s rewarded with an unexpected pregnancy.

Samantha, despite her oddly aggressive stance on waxing, also fails to stay properly inside her pants. At a little tummy protruding over her waistband, the gay wedding planner (one of the girls, too) barks, “What’s with the gut?” But she later confesses she had already read his insensitive criticism in the women’s looks: “I didn’t notice [I’d gained weight] until I saw it on your faces.” So the gay man’s remark was just for the benefit of the cinema audience—an extra 15 pounds, clearly, is too great a crime even to be funny to the girls (“I say this with love, but how could you not notice? Carrie rebukes her later with the deepest concern). Samantha’s just punishment is to spend Valentine's Day lying with food spread out on her naked body while her partner ignores her. Even though she explains she’s gained the weight because she’s “eating everything except [her lusty next-door neighbor’s] d**k,” she never gets to eat that either, even after she ends her relationship because she can’t bear the curb on her unabated hungering for other men. Staying inside the lines is “all about the other person,” as Samantha complains of the state of being in a committed relationship, and she is portrayed as too resolutely selfish, too interested in getting out of her pants just like the men in this film do, for it to allow us to see her hunger rewarded with any satisfaction.

Carrie, on the other hand, is rewarded with the classic happy ending, but only after suffering the Biggest humiliation of all: “I AM HUMILIATED” is all she can say while pounding Big with her bridal bouquet. She still doesn’t get, at that moment, the lesson she has yet to learn through this hazing: that she too has committed her friends’ crime of selfishness. She has strayed outside the lines. It was the sisterhood that brought her to this pass by squeezing her in the cultural double bind between the harsh economic realities of women’s lack of equal access to the means of living, on the one hand, and the fantasy of princess femininity, on the other. Now the friends must come together one last time to ensure that Carrie be prevented from marrying until she can be properly hazed into giving up the egotism involved in both the princess fantasy and the fantasy of self-reliance, which have distracted her from giving more selfless consideration to her man’s vulnerabilities.

Why do I say it’s the sisterhood that brings about Carrie’s humiliation, rather than classic masculine commitment phobia? First, it’s Miranda who warns Carrie to be smarter about securing legal rights to property—a message also reinforced by the sad, not fun, jewelry auction at which Samantha selfishly bids up Smith on the ring she wants to give herself. That results in Carrie’s and Big’s decision to get married. When Carrie’s happy to have a small wedding in a thrift-shop, no-label dress, Charlotte and the gay wedding planner censor that idea. Then it’s her boss, Enid the fashion editor, who orders her to pose in bridal couture for Vogue. Finally, it’s Vivienne Westwood who thrusts upon Carrie the dress in which she looked so pretty at the Vogue shoot. And the dress itself becomes the ultimate female character, taking on a life of its own—and a will that overpowers Carrie’s own. It forces Carrie to blow up the size of her wedding (“It’s the dress!” she replies to Big’s growing doubts—the outsized dress requires an outsized occasion). And it’s the dress that blows up that occasion in turn, turning Carrie into an abandoned man in drag.

At the photo shoot they make Sarah Jessica Parker look absolutely beautiful in the Westwood gown, long hair flowing in romantic ringlets and soft pink lipstick that makes her look like a young bride as she twirls in it like my 4-year-old niece in her princess costume—even though, Enid has pointed out, she’s close to crossing another line—she’s “the oldest age at which one can wear a bridal gown without the unintended Diane Arbus subtext.” At her own wedding, at the same age, in the same dress, she positively screams Diane Arbus. We know as soon as we see her in the dress a second time that there’s something dreadfully wrong, even before Big fails to show up. The severely swept-back hairdo, the harsh, strong colors of the dead bird in teal contrasting with the magenta lipstick that shows off all the lines around her mouth—and doesn’t quite stay inside the lines!—are as unflatteringly age-emphasizing as the fact that the bodice on the dress, which was becomingly fitted for the fashion shoot, now stands out from Carrie’s boyish chest like a pointy breastplate rather than a feminine bodice.

Gender Gestapo to the rescue: The film itself makes much of the fact that Miranda tells Mr. Big, already suffering from his perennial doubts, that “you two are crazy to get married.” There’s less emphasis on the fact that it’s Charlotte who finally prevents Carrie from coming together with the apologetic Big, and even though he shows up in time to save the wedding, even though Carrie has already climbed out of the limo to meet him, it’s Charlotte who grabs her and hides her face from him—just as the dress, or its veil accessory, hid her face earlier when he was waiting in the car, beseeching, ‘Come on baby, just turn around so I can see you.’ It’s Charlotte again who shouts NO repeatedly at Big as she packs her girlfriend back into the car, “like a cream puff through a keyhole,” in the words of the wedding planner, words that perfectly describe the film’s job of stuffing its female characters back inside the lines.

Miranda first tries to confess her having scared Big away from the wedding while wearing a scary witch’s hat and compulsively pulling a combination of witch props and feminine hygiene products off the drugstore shelves, just after commenting, “Witch or sexy kitten—those are the only two costumes for women.” The conclusion of the Sex and the City movie offers two other costumes in place of those: modest bride (Carrie in her thrift-shop suit) or modest mother (Charlotte with her astonishingly covered-up, colorful beachball-like maternity wardrobe). Both are suitably nurturing of others—particularly of the men who are always—with the film’s total approval—busting outside the lines and out of their pants, begging for everyone to just be themselves, to let it all hang out. When Steve begs Miranda to come back to their marriage, there’s a huge penis right between their faces in the mural on the wall. The first thing Steve had said when she walked out on him was “It’s still me,” and indeed that pantsless penis hanging on the wall is what got him into trouble and is also the essential “me,” the truth he confessed about himself, King Lear’s “unaccommodated man,” begging to be accommodated by his woman. The first thing Carrie said when Big expressed his fears about playing the gender roles, “this whole bride and groom thing,” was, “Remember it’s just you and me doing this, nobody else.” With her bridal drag costume covering her face, however, he’s as little willing to recognize that it’s still her as Miranda is to recognize the errant Steve. Carrie and Miranda both need the Gender Gestapo to help them find the right costume (as Miranda concludes in the drugstore scene, covering her face with the scariest mask in the place, “Maybe I should just wear this and a briefcase and go as myself”). Chickbusted, Carrie finally becomes “herself” by becoming more open and sensitive to the needs of the man who’s too Big to stay inside the lines, and suitably, becomingly, contains herself inside the modest lines of her thrift-shop wedding suit.

Only the Cinderella Manolos remind us that even fairy-tale princesses have always been hazed.