This first post is pretty timely, it seems. You see, prizewinning and bestselling British author Hilary Mantel recently gave a talk entitled “Royal Bodies” for the London Review of Books’ winter lecture series. It’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read on famous women and their bodies and how we view them, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It’s also turning out to be the talk that launched a thousand rhetorical ships: of course every British paper had an opinion, most of them pretty well to be expected (The Daily Mail’s coverage could be summarized, as usual, as WE ARE HORRIFIED BY WHAT WE ASSUME WAS SAID); even the Prime Minster waded into the fray, missing the point rather spectacularly. Twitter has been ablaze with the question of was-it-ironic-or-wasn’t-it (hint: yes), and NPR highlighted the controversy during their main news broadcasts today.
All that to say, a lot of people are thinking about big issues right now — women and how freely we comment on their looks, fame and beauty and objectification and otherness and what exactly these bodies of ours mean. Those are important topics, and I guess I’m about to tackle some of them.
But I think I need to issue a few denials before I forge ahead, and maybe a couple of affirmations. So here goes.
I believe men and women are different, and that any effort to flatten out gender distinctions is going to end in… absurdity. But I also believe that there are any number of ways to act and be feminine or masculine, not just one (more on this later).
I’m no Marxist; I think it takes a lot of blindly clinging to one’s assumptions in the face of evidence to the contrary to look at human history and deduce that hierarchy is the problem that must be overcome in order for people to thrive. Some hierarchies are awesome and some of them are terrible, but the existence of abusive, exploitative power structures doesn’t invalidate the hierarchy as A Thing. And honestly, does anyone over the age of 35 who has ever read a history book still believe that a human society completely without hierarchy is even possible on any kind of scale or for any length of time? So no, I’m not going to be arguing that women need to rise up and overthrow some mythological worldwide Illuminati patriarchy so that society can progress toward its next evolutionary incarnation.
I don’t believe that “society” as some abstract entity has an agenda to “keep women in their place.” I don’t think that what this country needs, necessarily, is more women in ________ industry or field. I do think that looking at a circumstance — say, the fact that women are underrepresented in the sciences — and failing (or refusing) to consider that the reasons for that circumstance might be incredibly complex and even, perhaps, tied to the innate strengths and weaknesses of the genders, is just head-smackingly stupid. I think it’s lazy-minded, thoughtless, callous, and just plain rude, on the other hand, to dismiss all such disparities as merely representative of gender differences rather than societally-influenced.
I don’t think “feminism” as a worldview has any real solutions to the problems of society. But I think traditionalism, for most of us in the Evangelical camp, poses a far greater danger. It’s a prettier poison for many of us, and a subtler one. We need to be able to hear past the talking points and bumper-sticker slogans and strawmen of the feminist vs. traditionalist shouting match and get down to what the Bible actually teaches about women and their value, about objectification, about bodies. And I am convinced that we’ll have an easier time locating Biblical Christianity in the syncretistic miasma of modern traditionalist religion if we spend some time looking at feminism’s critiques of traditionalism.
So there you have it, I suppose: a bit of an introduction to the Big Scary Topic of feminism.
In the coming weeks or however long I feel like writing about this because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want, GOSH, I’ll be looking at such topics as Plato, Augustine, and the body; big ugly traditionalism and its little ugly cronies; objectification and othering; and, Lord willing, really scary topics like sexual identity, orientation, and even (gulp) rape and sexual abuse — and how feminism and Christianity intersect at those points. Fasten your seatbelts.