Feminism constantly tells women we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies, our desires, our gender, our career goals – of anything really. We can do and be whatever we want and nothing should hold us back. It sounds good in theory, but like many things humans do it can be taken to extremes.
Take the Women’s March from a few weeks ago as an example. If you want to march around with what one blogger I follow delicately called a pink taco on your head I won’t stop you. But those of us who don’t do things like that aren’t any less “women” than you are, nor are we less interested in being treated with dignity, respect, and equality. In fact, that’s a big reason we express our notions of feminism (and femininity) in different ways.
Today, I’m going to take society’s claim that there’s no need to feel shame about the kind of woman you are to heart and say I’m not ashamed of modesty. Depending on your background this word may have provoked a strong reaction. Perhaps you think modesty is a repressive, old-fashioned list of rules telling women how not to dress and act. Or maybe you think modesty sounds safe – a way to hide from attention you don’t want any more. But modestly is about so much more than a set of rules for covering yourself up. It’s more powerful and – dare I say it? – sexy than we often think.
Let’s start with a working definition of modesty: Modesty is concealing what you do not want everyone to know or see so that you can reveal yourself only to someone you trust. It’s typically associated with the idea of sex and how much skin you show, but it has to do with other things as well. For example, you might also exercise modesty by not calling undue attention to yourself or by reserving certain parts of your personality for people you know well. Read more →
I was going to post something else today, but I just don’t feel I can schedule a normal post the day after a terrorist attack here in my own country. On Sunday morning, a man who “made a pledge of allegiance to so-called Islamic State while speaking” with the police killed 49 people and injured 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida (quotes and stats from BBC News).
People will be going back and forth for weeks discussing why this happened and all the motives and reasons that went into it, but what it boils down to is this: a man with evil in his heart killed people. Whatever our thoughts on the religion of the attacker or the sexual orientation of his victims, this was a tragedy that should break our hearts.
I’m late to the topic of Target and Transgenderism, but at least that gives me the benefit of seeing how the Christian boycott and other reactions are playing out. To date, the AFA boycott pledge has 1,301,411 signers and American Thinker estimates the boycott has directly cost Target upwards of $9 million (though Target’s CEO denies this).
Describing the boycott as “Christian” isn’t entirely accurate, though. There’s been plenty of mixed reactions within the faith as well, ranging from extreme to apathetic to somewhere in between. We have a Bible-waving woman walking through Target yelling, “Are you gonna let the devil rape your children?” and a straight, conservative preacher’s wife still shopping at Target. There’s no consensus even here.
While I don’t like the idea of a man walking into my bathroom, I think the whole transgendered bathroom debate is distracting from a larger issue. Society treats transgenderism as a lifestyle choice, but it’s not. It’s a mental disorder, and pretending this is a civil rights issue rather than a psychological one robs people of the help and support they need. Read more →
Anyone else still watching NBC’s Grimm? I’m only one episode behind on the current season, but I’m seriously thinking of giving it up entirely. What was once an interesting foray into the dark origins of fairy tales has become a tangle of dysfunctional relationships and plot lines so ridiculous that Rosalee just spent a whole episode voicing my own frustrations with “how/why is this happening?”
More upsetting than the devolving story line, though, is how they writers have been handling the question of rape. Even if you’re not watching Grimm, this discussion matters because the way our entertainment presents issues like sexual violence both reflects and influences prevailing culture.
Love In The Time Of Cookies
It all started way back in season one with the character Adalind. She’s a Hexenbeist (basically a witch). She’s a main antagonist in this first season, and uses her powers to force Hank to see her as a romantic option. He’s basically roofied via magical chocolate chip cookie, but it wasn’t addressed in the show as rape and I doubt the writers even thought of it that way.
This brings us to the first disturbing idea that Grimm keeps coming back to, perpetuating the myth that adult men can’t be victims of rape. Hank wasn’t a victim — he was just a guy who accidentally had sex with someone he didn’t want to. No big deal (never mind that she drugged him and nearly killed him). We wouldn’t overlook this if the characters’ genders were reversed, so why the double-standard?
English and Welsh law didn’t recognize male rape as a crime until 1994. The United States was even farther behind — the FBI’s definition of rape didn’t include male victims until early 2012. I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that the statistics I could find related to male rape were UK-based. Crime reports for 2014 in England & Wales record 3,580 sexual assaults against men. Survivors UK (a male-only support group) estimates that only 2-3% of assaults are actually reported (compared to 10-12% for women). And yet society doesn’t treat it as a problem — Survivors UK had their funding cut completely last year, and most rape hotlines won’t even talk to men. No wonder Hank didn’t want to claim his coerced relationship with Adalind was rape.
It’s Okay If She’s A Witch
Adalind’s actions with Hank are played-off as unwanted sexual aggression rather than an attack, but apparently it’s enough to justify writing her comeuppance as an assault scene. Since the blood of a Grimm can strip a Hexenbeist of her powers, Nick attacks her, pins her to the ground, climbs on top of her, and kisses her so she’ll bite his lip. There’s really no way not to interpret this imagery as sexual. Charity has written an excellent article titled “A Grimm Look at Writers’ Impact on Rape Culture” that addresses this scene in-depth, as well as the after-math that continues comparing Adalind to a rape victim.
The disturbing part about this scene isn’t so much that it’s played as a sexual assault, but rather that no one has a problem with that. This perpetuates the myth that sexually aggressive women are asking for (or even deserve) sexual assault. Nick is the good guy, the hero, and that didn’t change for most viewers after he attacked Adalind. But other people’s bad actions shouldn’t justify “good” people committing unconscionable acts.
Baby Makes It Better
Skip ahead to the end of season three. Adalind has her Hexenbeist powers back, and she hatches a plan to take Nick’s powers away. Much like ingesting a Grimm’s blood can take away Hexenbeist powers, sleeping with a Hexenbeist takes away a Grimm’s abilities to detect Wessen. Adalind uses magic to disguise herself as Nick’s love interest, Juliette, and he sleeps with her. While Adalind doesn’t violently assault him, here’s no denying Nick was coerced into having sex with someone he would have turned down if given a choice. Doesn’t that make it rape?
Now in season 5, Nick is living with Adalind and the child she conceived as a result of her impersonating Juliette. Can you imagine this in reverse? No one asks a woman to move in with a man she wouldn’t have consented to have sex with just because the resulting child needs a father. If someone did write that situation, you can bet there’d be other characters in the show discouraging her from living with her rapist. In Nick and Adalind’s case, however, the farthest any character will go is describing it as “weird.” The writers don’t see their past relationship as rape (see first myth) and, if the number of Nick/Adalind shippers online is any indication, neither do most fans.
I was going to have a “myth” listed for each section, but it doesn’t really work here — no one actually thinks you should move-in with your rapist if there’s a child! It’s insane. And yet, I saw someone online arguing that Nick and Adalind’s relationship is a relatable and realistic portrayal of modern adults in a co-parenting situation after an unexpected pregnancy. I suppose this is what happens when you live in a culture that’s adopted an anything goes (except abstinence) attitude toward sex. The more taboos we tear down, the easier it is to skirt around the ones that remain.
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read a book called A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. One of the first things she tackles in this book is the “polarized debate about sex,” particularly between the conservatives and the feminists.
She challenges conservatives to “take the claims of feminists seriously,” because you can dismiss however many studies and stories you like as “exaggeration” but the fact remains that “a lot of young women are very unhappy …. I want conservatives to really listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.”
To the feminists, Shalit writes, “I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” We’ve gotten rid of that just about as much as possible, and things have gotten worse rather than better. Perhaps men aren’t the enemy.
But just a little over two months ago Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a speech about feminism where her vision for gender equality sounded remarkably similar to ideas Wendy Shalit arrives at while defending the power of modesty. Are we starting to find common ground, and is there hope for a peaceful resolution to “the war between the sexes”?
A Trip to the 18th Century
It might seem odd to take a 3-century detour when talking about issues in modern culture. But when I started reading Francis Burney’s novels Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) as part of an independent study my junior year of college, I was struck by how the gender issues facing those heroines were so remarkably like what women in my church regularly complain about. Where are the “real men?” we ask, looking around and seeing adult men who act like overgrown boys and have little interest in committing to marriage. We typically blame feminism, for telling boys that it was wrong to be “masculine” and to stop oppressing girls by taking care of them.
A contemporary of Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is often considered one of the first feminist writings. When you actually read her book, however, it becomes clear that she is arguing for arguing for a reexamination, not a dismissal, of the traditional roles between men and women. She believes men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but that argument doesn’t mean they don’t both have distinct roles to fill.
Both these writers were responding to a moment called “sentimentality,” which encouraged men to indulge their emotions and abandon their traditional roles of protectors and providers. The result was something like what we see today — when men are no longer encouraged to protect or respect women, more and more women are victimized. That’s where we made our mistake, both in the 18th and the 20th/21st centuries. We thought men would treat women better if we told them to stop being manly, when in fact the opposite is true.
When Emma Watson introduced her talk about gender equality and the #HeForShe campaign, she first addressed issues people have with the word “feminism.”
the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.
One of the key points of Watson’s speech is that both men and women must be working together if we are ever to achieve a gender equality that benefits and protects both men and women.
How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. …
If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.
When we turn issues of gender into a “battle of the sexes” instead of a friendly discussion or a cause to work on together, both men and women lose the battle. You can’t build peaceful relations on a foundation of strife.
Wendy Shalit discusses essentially the same issue, though she comes from the perspective of restoring part of the traditional gender roles (I suspect Burney and Wollstonecraft would both approve). Rather than pushing for an increasingly “nonsexist” approach to raising boys (in this example), she argues for “a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman.”
Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes …. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyway — only when they do, the emerge in their crudest, most untutored form (p.153).
She also goes back to a previous century to illustrate her arguments, all the way to 1630 and 1631 — the years Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman were published. Shalit’s reading of these texts is that there was a “link between male obligation and female modesty” where men attained “perfection” by treating women with respect (p.99-102). In this century, men were not compelled to respect women by an outside authority — they were taught that this was the only way for real men to behave.
The argument from external authority labels a man as evil if he date-rapes or sexually harasses a woman. From the standpoint of modesty, he is behaving abominably, but more crucially, he is really missing the whole point. He hasn’t understood what it means to be a man (p.104).
The feminists who see patriarchy as oppressive balk at this idea, but Shalit assures them, “I doubt that if men are taught to relate courteously to women, women would be suddenly thrown out of all the professions, as some contend. Maybe, on the contrary, it would be much easier for the sexes to work together.” Isn’t this, at its core, what Emma Watson’s brand of feminism is asking for? men and women who can work together toward common goals with mutual respect. Isn’t that something we all want?
You might have noticed a lack of blog post last Monday. I’d been planning to write something about a book I recently read called A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit, but came down with pneumonia. The only reason there were posts on the past two Saturdays is that they were already written (it seems like whenever a Bible study comes together really well so I have an extra Sabbath post ready “just in case,” something comes up that gives me a reason to use it).
It’s been nearly two weeks now and I still don’t feel fully recovered (much better, though!). So instead of a thoughtful book review, I want to talk to you about a song that’s been stuck in my head. Or rather, a specific version of the song.
You’re no doubt familiar with the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” You might even have heard Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé’s new cover already, but if you haven’t seen the video yet please take a few seconds to at least glance at it, since that’s a big part of what I want to talk about.
Apparently they’ve tried to turn this song into a cute family-friendly version for the holidays. If you close your eyes, though, it still sounds like a man trying to seduce a woman. But then you open your eyes and see a cute little pre-adolescent kids acting out the roles. In the words of Jubal Early, does that seem right to you?
In the original score, written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, the two singing parts are called “wolf” and “mouse,” with a male voice usually singing “wolf” and a female voice usually singing “mouse” (thought not always — did you know Joseph Gordon Levit could sing?). Actually, it turns out we can talk about Wendy Shalit’s book after all, since she mentions “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in her modesty book.
Now this song is very stereotypical because certainly not all men are hungry wolves and not all women reticent mice. Indeed, I’ve known quite a few hungry woman and mousey men. However, the simple fact remains that a young woman in 1948 had a hundred and one reasons to say no to sex, if she wanted to say no, and those reasons were credible. The story we are told today is that all these reasons, such as a father waiting up for you, were oppressive to women. And yet in their absense we can appreciate how an earlier generation of girls was made powerful by them. (A Return to Modestly, p.55)
If she’d seen this music video, though, I’m not sure Miss Shalit would have put her discussion of it under the heading “Girls Who Can’t Say No” as a contrast between today’s culture and that of 1948 (the year Loesser sold the rights to MGM). I think she might have moved the discussion to one of the many passages in her book where she talks how much we as a culture sexualize our children. For one thing, she draws a parallel between assigning sex-education classes to younger and younger students and increasing levels of student-on-student sexual violence in schools.
The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of the New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is “no different from talking about an elbow,” they they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in a certain kind of sexual violence. (A Return to Modestly, p.19)
Now, I’m not saying this cute little music video is going to lead to increased levels of sexual assault among children. Rather, it bothers me as part of a trend that portrays young children in more and more sexualized ways. Most people I know would hope their 10- or 11-year-olds didn’t understand what’s going on in this song — they wouldn’t be encouraging them to sing it. And if this little boy was older, I’m not sure which interpretation of the song this performance would make me lean towards. Does “mouse” want to stay but feels she should leave, and “wolf” is persuading her to do what she wants? Or is “mouse” really trying to get away, and “wolf” is blocking her escape? Depends on how you sing the song, and how you feel about the line “What’s in this drink?” that was cut from the video, but not the version on Idina Menzel’s CD.
Am I over-thinking this? Perhaps. But it saddens me how many people think this is just a cute little video and don’t seem to see the potential implications of two children singing what is a rather adult song. Sure they’re adorable and talented, but was it a good idea for the adults who were in charge of creating this music video to use them like this? I really don’t think so.