Category Archives: Feminism

Blog entries that explore topics related to feminism

Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.

Zounds Like

Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.

Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.

Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.

The Way

Part of the problem is that I’ve never been fortunate enough to learn Chinese. You see, scholars of religion are often insistent on reading scriptures in their original languages. It has been a long time since I’ve picked up the Daodejing, one of the formative scriptures of Daoism, and I was struck by a number of things. First (and I have the confirmation of Sinologists on this), the Daodejing is difficult to understand. This isn’t just a translation issue. Nor is it an issue of Chinese thinking. All world scriptures are difficult to understand. One of the major problems with the Bible is that it has been translated into English for so long that many assume the language concerns are negligible. They’re not. The Bible has many obscure parts. Also it’s worth noting that the Daodejing has been translated nearly as much as, if not more than, the Bible. It is a very influential text, in part, I’m sure, because it’s not easy to understand.

Paradox isn’t within the comfort zone of many western religions. We like our belief structure to be (mostly) rational and believable. In fact, to start an argument just point out the fact that the Bible has contradictions. (It does, for the record.) The point being that a westerner will want to believe it is consistent and coherent throughout. If they can’t have that in English then they’ll say it’s inerrant in the original languages (it’s not). Religions shouldn’t make your brain hurt. Paradoxes, however, require deep thought. They can’t be read quickly to be stored away as factual information. They do, however, constitute a large part of life. Look at Washington and meditate. Daoism, the religion that generally follows the teachings of Lao Tzu (the putative author of the Daodejing), finds truth in contemplating opposites which are both simultaneously true. And not true. Interestingly, many of the sayings in the Daodejing are similar to ideas attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Dao is often translated “way.” One of the striking things about Edmund Ryden’s translation is his choice to use the feminine pronoun for “the way.” This is motivated, as I read it, out of concern to do justice to the presentation of the dao in the Daodejing itself. While the dao is not god, nor personal, it is powerful. The recognition of feminine power is clear in many aspects of the Daodejing. That’s not to say that the culture wasn’t patriarchal, but merely that it recognized balance—the famous yin and yang—as being inherent in the way the universe works. If such an idea could truly take hold the world might be a better place even today.

Thy Fandom Come

It’s not hard to feel that you’re from another planet. If you were born in the sixties and had kind of a rough transition to this whole internet thing, you know what I mean. Still, I want to be part of it—it’s kind of like New York City, only bigger. And faster. The commute doesn’t take nearly as long, now that dial-up’s a thing of the past. So I bought someone who was into fandom Sam Muggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Geek Girls. This particular fandom, well, fan, gave me the book to read. I’m a feminist, so I don’t have any issues with reading a book intended for girls. What became clear to me, however, is that I don’t understand the internet nearly as well as I thought I did, and that girls find they’re oppressed there too. What is it with men and control?

It is an ethical issue. I don’t blame people in the past for not thinking like we do, but today there’s no excuse whatsoever for considering somebody a lesser person because of their gender. Women and girls have just as much right to “guy things” like geekdom as do males of the species. Fandom is all about fun. Enjoying the fantasy of living, for a little while, in other worlds. From the way many men treat women it’s no wonder that they feel that need just as much as my own self-identified gender. Religion, unfortunately, bears much of the blame for this. In the largest religious bodies in the world women are still excluded from leadership roles. Religion is kind of like fandom in that way, I suppose. It can be all about exclusion. We exclude others to make ourselves feel special. Why not celebrate difference and find a place for everyone?

It’s difficult to read The Fangirl’s Guide as a man simply because you’re constantly reminded (and not intentionally, because it’s written for girls) at how inhospitable men have made much of the world for their female earthling compatriots. I was reminded at several points in this book of how films like Wonder Woman and the recent Ghostbusters stand out in their sympathetic portrayal of women heroes. And equally how men find reasons to criticize them. Then I consider the White House and shudder. When a nation elects an open and avowed patriarchalist as president we all could use a fantasy world in which to hide. This little book didn’t make me into a fangirl, but I do hope it makes me a better man.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Bull

Bulls have long been symbols. If I write “that’s bull” your mind will likely fill in the missing implied word. In ancient times the king of the gods, El, was known as “bull El”—probably for a very different reason than the veiled scatological reference above. Bulls were powerful and, to those in settled, agrarian societies, necessary for life. Of course, they can turn on you and kill you with little thought. Even in our high-tech, urbanite world, we keep our bulls at hand. “Charging Bull,” a golden calf if there ever was one, is a famous Wall Street statue erected to the glory of mammon and greed. On May 7, to celebrate International Women’s Day, a statue called “Fearless Girl” was placed in front of “Charging Bull.” Our symbols require some reevaluation. In a kind of Trump-up, another artist placed a statue of a dog lifting its leg on the girl, according to the Washington Post.

We creative types can be sensitive about our work. Apart from writing I’ve dabbled in drawing, painting, and sculpting, although few have seen the results. I know that the space around an artwork is part of the art. I’ve posted before about Grounds for Sculpture, one of my favorite places in New Jersey. The idea of a sculpture park is that the context of the image is important. Statues show up fairly frequently in New York City. The ever-changing art along the pedestrianized part of Broadway in Midtown keeps the walk to work interesting. Interacting with art is performance. At the same time, the respectful viewer knows, artists are making a statement. Placing a girl before a charging bull says so very much.

“Fearless Girl,” unlike the great lummox she faces, is temporary. Nevertheless, the statement she makes is loud and clear. Wall Street might more aptly be named Ball Street for the amount of testosterone that surges through the place. Men erected a system to keep women out of positions of power. And even when a small symbol of female resistance is placed, some man has to have a pug pee on her. I wonder what our society’s become. We’re hardly agrarian any more, yet we still feel “bullish” about things. When’s the last time anyone used “girlish” as a compliment in a business context? “Fearless Girl” will be allowed to stand until February. The pug is temporarily gone, but will be back. When the girl goes the pug will follow. All that will be left in Bowling Green Park will be bull.

Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.