The Female Dominant in Sex and Society

How does one see a woman in a position of power? As a mother, using her age, experience and the fact that her genitalia acted as a slip n’ slide for her children to exert some semblance of control over the family, possibly nagging a humbled spouse? As a businesswoman whose breakage of the glass ceiling can only be shared by a small handful of equally successful, ladder-climbing women, as they now fill the chairs behind luxurious desks made of the finest oak? As a shrill, outspoken, deprecating tyrant with authority so mighty it swells her head to the extreme (that really mean woman in The Devil Wears Prada. No, no not Anne Hathaway’s character. That…you know who I’m talking about.)? As a muscle-bound, hard-working, masculinized picture of female strength acting as a surrogate when the men are away?

 

Rosie the Riveter, keeping the industrial machine running.

 

You probably have a few issues with me, the biggest ones most likely being my use of superfluous questions and my incredibly misogynistic, jingoistic line of thinking. I assure you, ladies and gentlemen alike, that that is not my true perception or belief on women in power, women in authority roles or women dominating society. That is, however, representative of what many people think of when that first question (it’s buried somewhere there among the question marks and commas) is presented to them. Ideologically even women in authority roles become ostracized and diminished, left to the enclosed domestic sphere or else placed amid the glass plateau with little support. Iconically, they are sequestered to an essentially masculinized role, femininity and womanhood pushed to the background, or presented as villainous and harping figures (Meryl Streep! There you go!). And the reason for these binaries, these binaries within the binaries of woman against man, female against male, is because we in Western society live under a patriarchal structure of governance and culture.

In other words, mother is only acting that way because father is either not around, meaning she must fill an authoritative vacuum he leaves, or because he is not masculine enough to take authority of his children. Straight outta the black-and-white boob tube of the 1950s, yes, and straight outta the patriarchal mindset that has been in place for countless generations among many societies and cultures, wherein the man, the masculine, the everything this blog hasn’t really talked about, is the pinnacle of power. Any woman that attempts to come close to that is either reaping away her femininity or else acting simply as a placeholder, like Rosie the Riveter or Queen Victoria of England.

 

Complex iconography! Mixed messages! Sexually confused symbols! The end of modern day civilization as we know it!

 

Of course, this was not always the case when it came to female empowerment. worldwide. In some indigenous cultures, like the Salish people of what is now Canada, women were in positions of control and authority when it came to the family, relationships and sex. Author and poet Lee Maracle describes the traditions of her ancestors that continued to the present day, as it was “the women who chose the partners and the Elder women who negotiated the marriage” (Maracle 4). Maracle continues to describe how Salish women would sexually dominate men and use ‘weasel medicine,’ colloquially translated to sexual trysts and seductions, to influence the actions and decisions of the men in their lives (Maracle 6). In modern day, Western, white-guy-writing-a-blog-about-Native-women society, this sort of behaviour would be seen as lecherous, lewd, and scandalously shaming. But the use of sex for benefits, for advantages and for influence and control was a part of the Salish way of life. The present cannot cast too harsh a shade over women who were trying to do right, as Maracle writes, by their families, or who were trying to maintain authority in a world that would quickly become dominated by the phallus.

Of course, maybe it’s too much of a blanket statement to say that using sex and sexuality for gain would be frowned upon to perpetuate female empowerment….hm…..

Also, if my Grandma’s reading this, I am so sorry for that picture the video shows. Goddamn I am sorry.

Now that that aside is out of the way, sexuality with regards to female empowerment, feminine prowess, and dominance remains a staple in Western culture. This is, unfortunately, to both the good and ill for men and women alike. Women who use their sex for profit, for gain, to recreate the events of Moll Flanders with a modern vibe, are slandered as ‘whores,’ ‘golddiggers’ and other, increasingly less appropriate four to five letter words. At the same time, women in positions of authority, or those who are labelled dominant, have their sex and sexuality come under scrutiny when more often than not (read: absolutely zipped doo dah never) it plays no role in their forward and upward authoritative advancement. Some researchers have dedicated themselves to discovering that dominant women have less sex, while other state that dominant women are more likely to give birth to male offspring. The stranglehold of patriarchy, and the continued demeaning of women in positions of power continues.

Works Cited:

Maracle, Lee. The First Wives Club Salish Style. Online resource.

 

 

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Oh, Mother

“I don’t think we can help being something for somebody else” – Sara Humphreys

The concept of childhood and motherhood are, frankly, huge. Like socially-engineered, culturally propagated and generationally redefined whoppers served with a side of psychoanalytical fries, these two subjects of discussion fill textbooks and tomes to the breaking point. It is the latter which will be focused on for the purposes of this blog posting (though I will not object to someone starting up Tracing the (Childish) Candid Camera and following up on the former).

Of course some, like psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, tackle both topics: his theories on child-mother interaction have been paramount in new musings on parenthood, including concepts like the ‘good enough mother,’ one who does not need to encompass perfection, instead allowing children to experience anxiety and challenges. Winnicott’s other theories can be found here, if you know the names of other psychologists concurrent to Winnicott, or here for a more general overview.

“More play, less perfection!” – Donald Winnicott. Slight paraphrase.

The ideas developed and built upon by Winnicott established the groundwork for new views on motherhood which ebbed away from the biological, the ‘symbiotic relationship’ and physical interdependence that had typified the mother-child bond for generations. The above picture of the baby clinging tightly to his mother (possibly young Jesus though I can’t quite tell without the little beard and halo) was the ideal form of motherhood propagated from the earliest recorded times, from the writings of the Bible to the tapestries of the Medieval age. Winnicott instead turned to the necessary psychological divide between the two, infant and nurturer: “We are concerned with the very great psychological differences between…the mother’s identification with the infant and…the infant’s dependence on the mother; the latter does not involve identification, identification being a complex state of affairs” (Winnicott 60).

In order for a manageable and identifiable relationship to develop between the mother and her child the physicality and connectivity could exist, according to Winnicott, but it had to be superseded and eventually supplanted by a separation. Alison Bechdel surmised this separation quite succinctly in her graphic novel Are You My Mother? For two entities to exist and, in essence, form a proper relationship, they had to be separate; the umbilical cord had to be cut, the child removed from the mother, the mother allowed to stumble and fail.

While Winnicott’s theories strengthened in the twentieth century, the new millennium and the rise of media has squashed his hope of defining the ‘good enough mother’ and, above all, the mother separate from her child. Throughout her narrative, Bechdel demonstrated how this was perpetuated through the imperfect mother (though her own mother was, at various times in her life, coldly and excessively separate). But though Bechdel is able to embrace and accept Winnicott’s theorem, others commentators on mother-child relationships are less accepting of this required distinction between the two. Us Weekly, you know that magazine/site/jibber-jabber thing, has an entire portion of its webpage devoted devoted to celebrity mothers and their children. The mothers, from B- and C-listers to struggling musicians, are only promoted and presented in conjunction with their child. Their sole identification, in effect, becomes the motherly and maternal role, intimately and viscerally entangling them with their children.

Cut the cord.   

 

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Winnicott, Donald. “Primary Maternal Preoccupation.” In The Maternal Lineage: Identification, Desire and Transgenerational Issues. Ed. Paola Mariotti. Routledge, 2012. 59-66.

Bechdel’s Parthenon

Allow me to make an honest observation: Greek mythology is messed up, convolutedly complex and, from the modern day perspective looking backwards, filled with stories of moral indecency, perversions of humanity and quite literal monstrous relationships. Everyone from mad scientists (such as Icarus’ well meaning pa Daedalus) to the thunderous gods themselves( like Zeus) would partake in experiments blurring the lines and definitions of personhood. The result is the fascination and focus of many who pore over these tomes: monsters who have lost all connection with the humans who would inevitably bed, wound or slay them.

Like the minotaur. Half-human, half-bovine, no bull.

Alison Bechdel, author of the award-winning graphic novel Fun Home, can be counted amongst those who are drawn to the myths and legends of these Grecian beasts and their esoteric creators. Her biographical work, which details life growing up with a burgeoning sexual identity stymied under a tyrannically aggressive father, is littered with references to monsters, drawing upon their disconnection from humanity for both sympathetic and antagonistic purposes. The cyclops Polyphemus, blinded by the arrogant and single-minded Odysseus, is reflected in Alison’s girlfriend Joan’s similar incident (just with less brain-eating and sheepish camouflage) (oh, and read pages 214 and 215), while Alison’s father Bruce becomes equitable to the youth-stalking Minotaur, trawling its labyrinthine realm violently and threateningly. While the imagery of Polyphemus’/Joan’s *ahem* cave and Bruce’s hunting of *ahem* young men is predominantly underlined in the book in defining both their characters and their relationships with Alison, less focused upon is a similar reference to Greek myths made almost offhandedly by Bechdel:

Specifically that top left panel, wherein Alison states she was ‘the Spartan to my father’s Athenian.’ Though in a book where a loaf of bread on the kitchen counter foreshadows a grisly demise, nothing should be taken as offhanded. However, in this series of panels and subsequently throughout Fun Home, the Spartan-Athenian divide is used as a metaphor for qualities differentiating between Alison and Bruce: the masculine, impulsive Spartans and the feminine, educated Athenians are contrasted in the father/daughter duo. There is more to this statement, though, then is presented by Bechdel in the single panel posted above as the Athenians and their patron goddess Athena are representative of far more than the modern day stereotyped feminine composure (i.e. delicate, observant and non aggressive). Using this metaphor in conjunction with the others on the page, Butch to his Nelly in particular, masks the true extent of what Athena and Athenian femininity encompass.

As stated by Paul Diel in his book Symbolism in Greek Mythology: Human Desire and Its Transformations, Athena is “the goddess of spiritual combativity…wisdom and truth. Wisdom, combative love of the truth are the conditions which must be fulfilled in order to attain self-knowledge, and thereby harmony” (76). Athena presents one side of war, the side of morality in combat, that is removed from bloodlust, rage and anger. She symbolizes intellect over aggression, the need for a harmonic balance between action and passivity in reflection, and it is these traits which define her very name. Bruce, so described as an Athenian by Bechdel, is lacking; he falls victim to his anger (Bechdel 71-73) and though he spouts knowledge, as a well-read teacher of English, there is little wisdom or harmony in his actions, particularly engaging in sexual acts with his students (Bechdel 79, 174-175). There is no self-knowledge or harmony to be found by Bruce, who attempts to hide his immoral, sexual trysts from his family while forcing his views of delicate femininity on his unwilling daughter.

Great Goddess of Gold! It’s Athena!

Continually highlighted in Fun Home is Alison’s recognition of her father’s ‘feminine’ behaviour and traits, from his adoration of flowers to his love of poetry. Placed in the background of the narrative, like faded characteristic wallpaper in the pristinely delicate Victorian room that is her father’s psyche, Bechdel includes mentions of Bruce’s interest in handiwork and yard work, though these become inconsequential and ignored within the sexualized, homoerotic context from which they are presented (Bechdel 94-95,110). Ironically, this downplaying of Bruce’s masculinized ventures further places him at odds with Athenian concepts of identity. Athena is a blending of both masculine and feminine qualities, as so defined by both ancient Grecian and modern day observers and not, as Bruce symbolizes, the dominance of one gendered identity over the other (with Fun Home pushing his femininity to the forefront, minus the Minotauran rage).

The blog Mythpile, which along with its fantastic name has some excellent and academically inclined comments on legendary tales, concluded that Athena is comparable to the modern day business woman: “denying femininity…denying that traits like intelligence, wit, crafts, technical skill, non-sexual camaraderie are naturally part of a woman’s repertoire.The prominence, or lack thereof, of Bruce’s femininity throughout Fun Home, his insistence on inspiring and nurturing the femininity of Alison, and his paradigms on female behaviour sets him against Athena and in turn the Athenian title granted to him by Bechdel.

Works Cited:

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. Boston: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.

Brundige, Ellen N. “The Goddess Athena: Feminist or Misogynist?” Mythpile. Web. 29 October 2010.

Diel, Paul. Symbolism in Greek Mythology: Human Desire and its Transformations. USA: Taylor & Francis, 1980. e-book.

What’s this all about?

About this blog: This site is an academic blog acting as the final project for Professor Sara Humphreys’ Gender, Sexuality and Literature course at Trent University (ENGL 3701H, Oshawa Campus). This blog and its writings will be focused on the history of sex and sexuality; specifically, historical representations of femininity through iconography will be examined, contrasted with readings such as Moll Flanders, Fun Home and Cloud 9. Utilizing visuals, symbols, artwork and other forms of feminine representation, this blog seeks to uncover how past societal and cultural views on women have been either echoed or ignored in the modern day. Though the title of this blog is derived from Stephen Jay Gould’s quote, “If we wish to trace the history of ideas, iconography becomes a candid camera trained upon the scholar’s mind,” I will be looking to go in a slightly different direction. While iconography is the candid camera tracing the history of ideas, this blog will be tracing iconography itself. Tracing the tracer, as it were. Tracing the feminine tracer, to be specific. Make sense? Here’s hoping.

About the writer of this blog: Now that the academia verbosity is out of the way…..hello. I’m an English-History double major student in my fourth and final year at Trent University, Oshawa Campus (and proud of it!). I’ll be using this blog as a sounding board for some of my favourite topics, including historical and cultural themes that stretch from the distant past to yesterday or there abouts, as well as the use of pop culture and pop cultural icons to express significantly important ideals. This topic is a bit of a change from my last areas of focus, including drugs in Britain, the 99% Movement, and how Moses was a cool guy. But, hey, it’ll be fun.