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Virgins & Whores

[whitespace] illustration
Winston Smith

A brief look at the history
of women's inner war

By Sarah Phelan

WHEN ELTON JOHN TOOK "Candle in the Wind," his classic tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and Dianafied it, he did more than just revamp a musical eulogy. By substituting Diana's name for Marilyn's, he drew an unmistakable parallel between the people's princess and Hollywood's favorite sex goddess. Such a comparison would have seemed downright heretical 16 years earlier when a virginal Di married her prince against a fairy-tale backdrop of clattering hooves and cathedral bells.

That, however, was before the princess highlighted her hair, flashed us a pearly smile and upstaged the rest of the dour-faced royals with her eyebrow-raising fashions; before the tabloids started speculating about the state of the royal union; and before Diana talked with shocking candor about boyfriends, bulimia and battles with the palace.

With the War of the Waleses openly declared, Charles' propaganda machine rolled in, rapidly dethroning "Shy Di," the doe-eyed innocent and recrowning her as "Sly Di," the power-hungry and manipulative queen of hearts. The negative publicity only added to her popularity, but the price of that adulation was high--even as she lay dying in a tunnel in Paris, the cameras were there, jaw-like, snapping relentlessly. Yes, Elton was right. By the time he performed live at her funeral--an event broadcast to millions worldwide--Diana had indeed been made over a la Monroe.

What made both Marilyn and Diana so magnetically attractive? Was it just a voyeuristic fascination with the lives of the rich and famous, coupled with an insatiable appetite for racy photos of beautiful blondes? Or was it an identification at a deeper level with the dilemmas each woman faced? For despite their jet
setting lifestyles and golden-girl exteriors, each of these idols was caught up in a desperate struggle with conflicting self-images. And that was a battle to which every woman who has ever looked in the mirror can relate.

Thirty-five years after her death, Marilyn's sultry come-hither look still beckons to us on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps. Yet, in as far as Hollywood packaged her, Marilyn was a mere shadow of the original Aphrodite, that awesome love goddess who was both black and golden, ugly and beautiful, an unapologetic destroyer as well as a nurturing creator. Indeed, Marilyn's squeaky-voiced sex kitten was more like a lobotomized Aphrodite and, as such, an accurate reflection of how women were perceived in the '50s--silly, voluptuous and eager to please.

To Die For

MARILYN WAS MORE than just a pretty face, yet she never gave up her dumb blonde role for fear her public wouldn't love a mature Monroe. We'll probably never know whether or not she killed herself deliberately, but her suicide at 36 seems plausible inasmuch as Hollywood in the early '60s had no use for aging sex symbols.

The last photographs taken of Marilyn show her beautiful body sprawled across the bed, dead from a fatal combination of drugs and alcohol. Sobering images, these pictures silently suggest that maybe the most desirable woman in the world didn't have it all. If death seemed preferable to life, if being remembered as young was better than experiencing all the cycles of life--from maiden to crone--then she had become a victim of her own child/woman image.

Three-and-a-half decades later, our fascination with sex goddesses hasn't lessened, though our definition of what is beautiful has changed. Well-buffed women are in, as are stick-thin super models. Against these Amazonian or anorexic extremes, Marilyn would have definitely measured on the flabbier, plumper side. Would she have given up chocolate and pumped iron to conform to this harder, thinner norm? Possibly, given her propensity to please, or maybe she would have become bulimic like Diana.

Diana's diet began the day Charles--rather uncharmingly--grabbed a handful of flesh around her waist and remarked that she seemed to be getting rather chubby. This was before they were even married, but instead of telling him to get lost, Diana obligingly dropped 20 pounds in an effort to please her prince. All to no avail. When the naive princess finally realized that she was trapped in an arranged marriage, she managed a brittle smile in public but in private was suicidal.

News of her bulimia drew contempt from Charles and the Queen--who both rather callously viewed it as a royal waste of food--but was greeted by silent compassion from women who realized, consciously or otherwise, that bulimia isn't just about staying thin.

Even though Diana appeared to be rebuilding her life after her divorce, there was to be no happy ending to her story. In the days following her death--also at age 36--supermarkets scrambled to pull copies of tabloids that a week before had her cast as a nymphomaniac. This guilt-ridden reaction reflected efforts worldwide to reinstate the late Diana as a pure princess, whose chief concerns were her children and charitable causes.

If it were the passing away of purity that people were mourning, then the death of Mother Teresa a week later should surely have eclipsed ongoing coverage of Diana's funeral. Instead, the reverse was true. Clearly a wise but wrinkled old saint was no match for Britain's royal glamour queen. For during her lifetime Diana confessed to her affairs, spoke honestly about her eating disorder and demonstrated her love for children and the sick--all while having a good time. A paradoxical princess, she came to symbolize every woman's struggle with her inner virgin and whore.

Split Personality

WHETHER BECKONING from billboards, prancing across the silver screen or peering out from magazine covers, virgins and whores are everywhere. Based on religious icons, they have long since slipped their secular shackles, dived into the mainstream and gone global. Decked out in bridal dresses, squeezed into vampish gowns and manipulated by the hidden persuaders who know that sex sells, these sliver-deep stereotypes of female sexuality have penetrated our subconscious where they continue to define and redefine our attitudes toward women.

The problem with virgins and whores is that we've lost sight of their roots and come to believe that they are the two natural faces of femininity, that women cannot be sexual without being evil, too. However, it's worth remembering that it wasn't until about the eighth or ninth century BCE that sex, sin and femininity became negatively linked in people's minds. Up until that time, the divine pantheon was bursting with well-rounded, powerful female figures: Ishtar, Anat and Cybele--their names roll off the tongue like thunder, echoing their once-powerful past. Then, about 2000 years BCE, they began to vanish, taking with them an unashamed love and celebration of fertility and female sexuality.

Here and there an odd goddess survived--long enough, at least, for early Christians to stamp out their cults, but among the Israelites the goddesses vanished completely to be replaced by Yahweh, the Almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth and all things in them. Within such a male-only religion, the feminine procreative role had of necessity to be pushed into a very uncomfortable and inferior back seat. But how?

Enter Adam and Eve starring in a misogynist creation myth in which Eve is first scapegoated for ruining Paradise, then "punished" with childbirth, thereby flip-flopping the positive and highly revered power of birth into an extremely negative value. Once this story was included in the Judaic Scriptures, it took on a sacred appearance, as if women's inferior position had actually been sanctioned by Almighty God Himself.

By the time Christians inherited Yahweh, things were already looking bad for women, but the worst was yet to come when a certain St. Augustine, himself an ex-womanizer, reinterpreted the Genesis myth in the fourth century. No saint himself while growing up, Augustine gave Eve's sin a sexual twist that in turn was to make all female sexuality sinful in nature. And though his views were probably a result of his own tortured sexual encounters rather than of any divine insights, they were to have negative and long-lasting ramifications for women throughout the world.

Up until this Augustine got his hands on her, Eve's crime had been the craving of forbidden knowledge, but now it shifted to sexual temptation. In Augustine's opinion, once Eve seduced Adam in the Garden, no man on earth was safe in the face of female seduction. Suddenly women weren't just overly curious spare ribs but ones that came with a whopping side dose of sour sauce--namely the insidious power of female sexuality. The only way to avoid such temptation, according to the men running the show at the time, was to exclude women from all power arenas and lock them up at home.

Sixteen centuries later, that same depressing scenario is being reenacted in Afghanistan, where purist authorities of the Taliban are enforcing their extremist interpretation of Islam with its stern commandment that women be locked away in a modern purdah. And even in the most sexually liberated and egalitarian societies, many women still believe that it must have been something they wore, said or did that made a man assault or beat them.

Winston Smith

Women and Power Tools

DURING THE FIRST THREE centuries CE, as Christianity went from fringe cult to mainstream religion, there was heated debate and factionalism over which books and writings to include in the final authorized version of the New Testament. Among the early Christians whose writings got the editorial chop were the Gnostics--hardly surprising since some of their texts described what was considered as a shockingly feminine aspect of God, advocated equal status in the church for women and named Mary Magdalene as Christ's best-loved and most spiritually advanced disciple.

As the church grew and power was to be had, any revelations that hinted at Christ's egalitarianism toward women were unwelcome, since they might scare off potential male converts. Even though the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene both served important apostolic functions in Christ's story, women were now barred from leadership roles within the burgeoning church. It became clear that both the Virgin and the Magdalene would have to be packaged into a form acceptable to a male-dominated society, one that assimilated Augustine's idea that female plus sexual equaled sinful, yet honored both women's close relationship to the Messiah.

Though the Virgin and the Magdalene have inspired cults and legends worldwide, little was actually recorded about either woman in the Bible. This near anonymity doubtless contributed to their popularity down through the centuries. Faceless and as malleable as wet clay, they could be shaped into whatever vessel was required.

And what was required was a legend that would trivialize both women's roles in Christ's life, and thereby reinforce male superiority, both in heaven and on earth.

This demotion of the two Marys was accomplished by the Catholic Church with a one-two punch: first, asexualize the Virgin, and thus short-circuit any connection between her and the fertility goddesses of old. Next, sexualize the Magdalene, thereby trivializing her and undermining her importance as Christ's most favored and enlightened companion.

Any woman who subsequently looked to these two female models of Christian virtue for direction couldn't fail to get the message that sexuality in women is a sinful affair, but that there are two ways out. At best, remain a virgin, At worst, repent your sins and become celibate in a better-late-than-never approach. Consequently, ideal womanhood was split into virgins and repentant whores, while married mothers occupied a somewhat tenuous ground, since sex, though deemed evil, was still necessary for the survival of the human race.

Author Marina Warner in Alone of All Her Sex shows how central casting--in the form of popes, kings and other potentates--has thrown Mary into a wide variety of roles across the centuries, each in keeping with changing sociopolitical structures. To date she has filled in as Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother and Intercessor. And currently, Pope John Paul II is considering making her Co-redemptrix--quite the promotion for a teenage mom. These legends of the Virgin Mary were based on little factual evidence yet have condemned women to perpetual inferiority ever since, for who can hope to be both a virgin and a mother?

Unlike the goddesses of the past, Mary is not a celebration of bawdy independence, absolute power and female fecundity but a symbol of submission, modesty and purity--those aspects of "divine" femininity deemed acceptable within a patriarchal culture. And in her role of self-effacing perpetual virgin and waifish child-bride, Mary is the original prototype for the self-negating behavior of anorexic and bulimic girls.

On the cusp of the third millennium, the Mother of God has morphed into an apocalyptic, nagging mother who appears--primarily to peasant children--in Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje to warn of war and global catastrophe if humankind doesn't shape up.

Venus in a Sackcloth

THE ONLY WOMAN identified by name as Mary Magdalene in the Bible was possessed by seven devils, not hundreds of men. Yet throughout history, the Magdalene has been depicted as a repentant whore, as if her truth were less important in the Church's eyes than her legend.

Forget about the Magdalene's reality as a woman of independent means, because as a symbol of sin and redemption she had far greater potential to lure sinners and converts into the church--especially when they saw the erotically charged paintings of her half-naked body splashed across the chapel walls.

Kneeling before the cross or sprawled at Christ's feet, unguent jar by her side, Mary Magdalene submissively dries her master's tootsies with her luxuriant tresses. See how her hair floods over her shoulders, then parts miraculously like the Red Sea right above her cleavage. But wait! Surely that low-cut bodice is a little too tantalizing for a church going congregation? Or maybe she is a necessary titillation in Jesus' story, an otherwise almost sexless script.

Even into the present as the tattooed temptress of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Mary Magdalene remains--despite all the evidence to the contrary--our most endearing archetype of redemption. But her metamorphosis from a mentally possessed into a man-obsessed female, along with the Virgin's mutation into an asexualized doormat, robbed women of two very potentially powerful and progressive female role models in the past.

So where to now, St. Peter?

Even if we recognize that it's time for a freer, fuller vision of womanhood, it's not so easy to redefine our overwhelmingly negative archetypes of femininity. Carl Jung took the first step by reinterpreting Eve's actions as positive and necessary for the growth of the human spirit.

Indeed, Eve should probably visit her neighborhood shrink and divest herself of the heavy burden of guilt she's been schlepping around for the last 2,000 years.

Since Eve can't sue Augustine for slander, she'll have to settle for figuring out that she was none other than the Original Consciousness-Raiser--and be damn well proud of it.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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