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Venus Envy: When women expose their bodies, are they invoking their phallic potential?

Courtney as Metaphor

When did breasts become so damned scary?

By Richard Goldstein

Sure, it was a publicity stunt. When Courtney Love gave David Letterman a peek at her chest on March 17, and later did the same and more for some guy outside Wendy's, she certainly had the sales of her latest album in mind. But I'm willing to cut Courtney a lot of slack. No woman in music today gets closer to Janis Joplin when it comes to channeling the primal. I got about as close to Janis as a rock writer could, and in those days you could get pretty close. I saw her neediness and confusion, and I watched as she was allowed to slip away. Her death from an overdose was a major reason why I stopped writing about music in the early '70s--but that's another piece.

I'll leave it for dude nation to rate Courtney's rack. Instead, I want to focus on breast baring as an act of power. It has a rich history in Western culture, one that merits mentioning at a time when female flashing has become a line of demarcation in the culture wars.

I'm not thinking of those naked majas and nurturing Madonnas that grace the realm of art. When you enter a museum, bare boobs are all around you. This hallowed setting sanctions the root reverie of heterosexuality that involves possession, domestication and control of the female body. That's why the male nude is usually standing while the female nude is passively posed.

But there's another, more active role for women in art. By the time Eugène Delacroix got around to painting Liberty Leading the People in 1830, the bare-breasted woman warrior was a signature of civic strength. Blame it on the Romans and their goddess Justicia (aka "Dike," if you want to get Greek about it). Her nude figure stands in the lobby of the Justice Department. When John Ashcroft had it draped so that he could hold his press conferences in "decency," he attested to the enduring power of women who expose themselves--and the anxiety they provoke in the religious right.

You don't have to tell that to Karen Finley, the performance artist who poured chocolate over her naked body and stuffed food up her butt while incanting a poetry of pain and rage. Perhaps you remember how the pussy-chasing gents of Congress reacted to this gesture in the '80s. I still vividly recall the first time I saw Finley perform, and the reaction of men in the audience. This was a club crowd, and they threw lit matches at her. It was a supreme gesture of male terror and revulsion. So it isn't just the right that fears a naked woman what won't lie still.

Because female exhibitionism carries this aura of violation, it unleashes all the demons of gender. That's why breast baring has been utilized by generations of rebellious women. Last October, a group of Russian women went topless to protest the cost of electricity when the PskovEnergo company raised its rates. Last month, a group of women in Daytona Beach, Fla., marched topless to protest their rights as biker chicks to be bare. A group of 94 West Marin women took off all of their clothes last year to protest what was then merely the impending war in Iraq.

Ecuadorean female prisoners stripped to protest having been held without trial, winning hasty attention from the national prison director and a promise of court intervention. And in 2002, a group of Nigerian village women stopped the Chevron corporation from continued building of pipeline structures in their villages by simply threatening to disrobe.

In America, Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, was the Karen Finley of her time, never more so than when she let her drape drop before a stunned audience. So, in a sense, was Sojourner Truth, the freed slave who became a powerful preacher--and one of the first activists to link the oppression of slaves and women. She was so imposing that she was often accused of being a man. In order to stop such slander, she exposed her breasts before a crowd in Indiana. It was one of the most important moments in American history, though you'll never see it on a commemorative stamp.

Flash forward to the Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson stepped into the sexual maelstrom by allowing Justin Timberlake to rip her possibly pre-torn top. Consider the penalty the partners in this faux apache dance incurred and you'll see the meaning of breast baring in a conservative time. Janet is cast in the slut role and punished accordingly, while Justin sails along on the unspoken assumption that boys will be boys where the bodice is concerned. In this rapine charade, Justin butches up his icon, and a wan apology is all the shame his sin requires. But the bad girl can't say she's sorry. She must suffer the contempt of those who relish watching her disgrace in slo-mo on every channel.

But entertainers like Courtney are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement accelerates their downward spiral. That's what happened to Janis, and for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion against this sacrificial rite. It's a gesture of agency. Check out the manual of psychological disorders and you'll see that exhibitionism is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it, they lay claim to the phallus.

There's something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by Courtney's desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal man's defense against the phallic potential of women. Don't try to repress it--that's for Republicans. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring Break, I'll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately, the joke is on desire.


Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of 'The Village Voice.'

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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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