The Talk, Part 4 of 10,000–In Which There Are More than Two Ways to Be a Woman

Dear Lily June,

The very definition of a “double-edged sword” is a weapon that can cut both ways–possibly injuring the one who wields it as much as the target it’s turned against. Think of King Midas, whose ability to turn everything to gold meant that he could not eat–each grape, steak or plate of humus was instantly turned luminous, but inedible. (It’s said that he starved to death.) Mythology holds that he turned his own beloved daughter into a statue, and thus his vain wish come true was also its own punishment. In some ways, this is true of being a woman–in the sexual world, a female identity is often a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, adopting a traditional feminine gender role has its benefits. Though society is changing (slowly, but surely), a woman is still, by and large, expected to be pursued rather than to be the pursuer. But what takes the pressure off in one direction (less fear of rejection by the one asked out) puts more on in the other: This means a woman is expected to pursue being pursued. She is, in certain places and even today, expected to function as a kind of accessory that, once a man “chooses” her, completes his outfit of victory. I’m reminded of the words of Sylvia Plath in “The Applicant”:

“Naked as paper to start / But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver, / In fifty, gold. / A living doll, everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk.”

A woman who rejects this vision of womanhood–the “living doll” bred to sew and cook for her partner–who does the sexual hunting rather than being the hunted is often degraded, being called a “slut” or “whore.” On the other hand, a woman who eschews sexual pursuit altogether, deciding to save her body until she feels absolutely ready (if ever) to engage in intercourse is mocked (or was in my day, so get ready to dust the cobwebs off this one) as a “prude.” Lily, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

Essentially, as a woman, you’re given the option of being one of two Madonnas. Option one is to be impossible virginal and pure.
Option 2–The Other Madonna–is impossibly sensual and attractive. Choose wisely, Lily, or better yet, wisely refuse to choose.

How far back does this dichotomy extend? Even the Bible presents two distinct possibilities: The (Virgin) Mary or Mary (the Prostitute) Magdalene. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychologist and the presumed father of psychoanalysis, in attempting to analyze the sexual frustrations of his era in 1912, referred to a “Madonna-whore complex,” in which men who looked at women often either saw a saintly matron or a debased prostitute. (Hence the joke that a Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but mean “your mother.”)

Freud also said that this caused a kind of “psychic impotence” for men, in that they could only respond affectionately to the “Madonnas” and passionately to the “whores.” In his words,

“Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.”

Rita Hayworth, a famous actress from the 1940’s, described this predicament from the woman’s perspective. Referring to Gilda, the titular and highly seductive femme fetale from a 1946 noir film, Hayworth said bitterly of her sex life,

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

For perspective, Lily, here is the character of Gilda that men lay down with.
This is the woman, Rita (whose real name was Margarita Carmen Cansino), who men woke back up with.

As late as 1997, American author and third-wave feminist Naomi Wolf argued that this complex–sometimes referred to as the Virgin-Whore dichotomy–is still a pervasive way of thinking about the roles of women. Assuming this terrible sociological stereotype still exists by the time you come of age, what does that mean for you as a woman?

One, that you should know your logical fallacies, so you know how to avoid them. The virgin-whore dichotomy is a classic example of a “false dilemma,” an argument that avoids the complexities along an entire spectrum of possibility. In other words, a woman has far more choices available to her than the promiscuous vixen or the procreative saint. The old “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” line of thinking denies the third option that you’re sympathetic to both sides. Or the fourth option that you don’t give a rat’s butt about either.

Two, that you should not, as a woman, be solely defined by how you serve a man. You’re neither just the person who bears them babies, nor the woman who bares her flesh. The feminist Gloria Steinem is famous, amongst other things, for her oft repeated line,

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

In other words, a woman does not require a man to be a human! I also always liked the joke for this, that an English teacher wrote the words “Woman without her man is nothing” on the board and asked her students to punctuate the “sentence.” The male students wrote,

“Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The female students wrote,

“Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Of course, both miss the point, because neither requires the other to be who they are. For one thing, you might decide you like women instead of men, and that’s fine, so long as you no more define yourself by who you are to a female partner than you would by who you are to a male one. For another thing, you might decide you want to transition into being a male, and that’s also fine, as long as you resist the urge, then, to just decide that a male is defined as the opposite of a female.

The idea of their even being an “opposite sex” is so outdated and limiting, Lily. Women aren’t the “hot” to men’s “cold” nor the “black” to men’s “white.” A woman can be as warm and gray as she wants to be (and so can a man).

Three, in fact, you shouldn’t define yourself in terms of anyone else, regardless of gender. Though I cherish the role, I’m more than only your mother, just as you’re more than only my child. Those roles may influence the ways we interact with each other, but they shouldn’t limit how we see ourselves. (Because baby, unless it’s medically necessary, I sure don’t want to be diapering you into your thirties!)

Four, that malevolent sexism exists even now. No one should impose upon you the label of “slut” or assign you to do the “walk of shame” just because you are in control of your own sexual body and its desires.

Five, likewise, that benevolent sexism exists, too. It may seem more complimentary to be compared with the Virgin Mary, but it can be exhausting to serve as the heroine of a maternal fantasy. As Ani DiFranco sings,

“I know men are delicate origami creatures who need women to unfold them and hold them when they cry. But I am tired of being your savior. And I am tired of telling you why.”

Finally, that it’s okay, right, and just to stand up to these pervasive myths and detrimental ideologies. It doesn’t make you a “FemiNazi” or a “man-basher” to believe that you deserve to be treated as a fully fleshed out person in your own right and with your own rights. I always liked Marie Shear’s definition that Feminism is

“..the radical notion that women are people.”

And, Lily–with a man or with a woman or without both or with both or as a woman or as a man, you’re as much a person as they come. Be who you are, whosoever you choose that to be. And dull down that sword–on both edges–so you can use it as a club with which to beat over the head any who would try to limit you!


 Picture Credits:

11 thoughts on “The Talk, Part 4 of 10,000–In Which There Are More than Two Ways to Be a Woman

  1. BunKaryudo says:

    It’s interesting to read about the situation from your perspective. (Under this bag on my head, I’m a man). I think you are right to insist on women (and I’d say men too) being free to be themselves and not be straight-jacketed by the conventional view.

    I much prefer this approach to the one I typically see when reading about his kind of subject. I’ve read so many articles over the years that take one of the billion ways we humans divide ourselves up (gender, race, age, handed ness, shoe size, etc.) and then boil everything down to X are like this and Y are like that. Often the things they are talking about are not even truly binary. (The young are…. The old are…)

    There is so much variation within each group. There are many women who think and behave in a way more typically ascribed to men. There are many men who think and behave in ways typically ascribed to women. And there are a ton of people of both genders who don’t behave all that much like either stereotype. (I’m not talking about sexual orientation here. That’s a different thing.) The idea that I was any kind of pursuer in my relationship with my wife, for example, is charmingly naive. I’m doubt I’m the type to impress any woman by swinging manfully from tree to tree and beating my chest.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the post and it made me think, which is as much as you can ask any post to do.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. musingsbymegha says:

    Insightful, well researched and evocative as ever! This is a topic many women can identify with. You touched upon some very interesting points that will stay with me for a long long time – The virgin-whore dichotomy, the 2 types of madonnas and the pertinent quotes from various sources.
    A thought provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ColourMeMineBeauty says:

    I like your take on things, but times are changing. Even if it is slowly, we are changing the world for the better of our future daughters. In movies and literature young women grow up with a ‘I-need-a-man-for-my-happy-ever-after’ or that Marriage is the ultimate dream for a woman to have. The double standards are the most annoying thing to me, and I wonder if that will ever change.

    I do not agree with this quote “Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.” Because there is no perfect way to love. There are many kinds of love, and it just seemed like a very black and white way to look at love and desire. Anyway, great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. originaltitle says:

    Fantastic post! Can’t believe I missed it in my Reader before. I agree there are so many facets to being a woman and it’s strange that we have to say that! I can’t say it enough: these are such great lessons you’re teaching your daughter!! I enjoy reading them and filing them away as things I can tell my daughter too.

    Random factoid: The idea that Mary Magdelene was a prostitute was actually a falsity perpetuated by one of the Pope Gregory the Great way back when because it served a purpose for his particular homily (they call it the creation of the “composite Magdalene”, but in actuality there is nothing that links Mary the anonymous prostitute & Mary of Bethany to being Mary Magdalene or any references to Magdalene being a notable sinner or engaging in prostitution. The Vatican has since corrected this, but in the minds of many, sadly, Mary Magdalene is still considered a prostitute. The Eastern Rite never considered Magdalene a prostitute and considered her a disciple. Just a little interesting fodder for trivia one day haha. Here’s a wiki link, I couldn’t remember the actual Catholic source I read on this matter as it was awhile ago (I did not originally learn this from Wikipedia, I promise):

    The fact this misunderstanding happened is kind of a testament to your post. Because as you say there are so many facets to womanhood, to reduce it to that dichotomy was unfair to her and I kind of don’t think Gregory was that Great for doing it. Basically, what Gregory did is say, “All these Marys are not interesting enough on their own for my homily, so I’ll just combine them all together to serve my purpose.” This very much disturbs me. They were each unique and interesting enough to be written about in the first place, yet that wasn’t “sensational” enough so you get this combo Mary instead. You can’t just lump women together like that.

    Great post, thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. originaltitle says:

        You’re not alone so no worries, I doubt anyone would have noticed haha. I just came across it when I was researching the chapel dedicated to the time after the crucifixion when Jesus visited MMagdalene in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem when I was touring people around.

        Liked by 1 person

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