(Trigger and/or blasphemy warning: I talk about the Bible in this post.)
When I read the Grimm’s tales, I realized, “Huh. This is part of the seeds for the Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth trope.” In the tales, if there is a pretty daughter and an ugly (usually step-) daughter, then the pretty one will also be demure (i.e. quiet), kind, and loyal. The ugly daughter will be selfish, loud, and mean-spirited.
They were framed by centuries of stories!
Let’s break that down a tad, shall we?
Here’s what these tales are weaving together:
- Kindness goes with beauty; meanness goes with ugliness.
- Silence goes with beauty; speech goes with ugliness.
- Kindness and silence are then correlated, as are speech and meanness.
- So, by extension: In order to be a loyal, true, and ultimately successful person, you must be silent, kind, and beautiful. If you are ugly, selfish, or loud, then you are the villain and will be punished.
There’s something going on that’s deeper than Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth going on here. There’s some dynamic with speech and silence that I hadn’t really noticed until I was reading Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde.
She points out the multiple instances in Medieval art and literature where women having a voice or speaking their mind is connected to them being somehow…not women. It’s not even that these images chastise women for speaking, it’s more of a symbolic correlation that in order to be properly female you have to be quiet and obedient. As Warner notes, “The figure of Obedience was traditionally represented by the iconic representation of Silence […] When the object of desire raised her voice, her desirability decreased; speaking implied unruliness, disobedience.”
Franciscan Allegory of Obedience, circa 1330. Silence is the central figure with their finger to their lips. To me, it looks like a female figure; crones get excitingly weird in Christian historical imagery.
In the New Testament, there are some frighteningly specific injunctions against women’s voices. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Tim 2:11-15) has this to say about women’s behavior in church:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Marina Warner points out that he’s saying women can be redeemed for the apparent sin of speaking or teaching by having babies. Ladies, if you’ve screwed up already by telling your stories, then no worries, just be fecund and pop out babies, and all will be forgiven. As long as you’re also modest. And if you should become a widow, it had better not be at a young age, because young widows’ “sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (1 Tim 5.11-13)(emphasis mine)
To give context, Paul does actually think younger widows should remarry and bear children. He goes on a great deal in his letter to Timothy about “real widows” as being deserving of support from society. As opposed to what kind of widow, I’m not sure. To Christian society at the time the Bible was written, women’s speech was terrifying, and any woman in a position to use her voice or tell her story was socially outcast. This included unmarried women, old women, and widows who took no other husband, all groups traditionally associated with witchcraft.
So, this is all ancient history, yes?
Aside from modern Christians who still insist on an all-male clergy, there’s still some societal level of discomfort with women’s voices. I’m not just talking about Christianity or trying to pidgeon-hole Christians. I’m talking widespread Western cultural fear of women’s voices (Gynologophobia?), especially if they’re saying something “feminist” or something that threatens traditional positions of power.
Consider the case of Anita Sarkeesian. A writer and vlogger at her website Feminist Frequency, Sarkeesian made a series of videos about film called “Tropes v Women,” where she explicated film tropes about women such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Straw Feminist, and the Mystical Pregnancy. She made a Kickstarter, asking for $6,000 to fund a similar series of videos exploring tropes about women in video games. Somehow, the internet exploded at this. Her social media was inundated with harassment including threats of death and rape; her Wikipedia site was hacked with pornographic images. Consequently, her Kickstarter raised over $150,000, which says that not everyone was against her. Just some really vocal people and a “cybermob” of trolls raising a constant noisy alarm were against her. Again, speech and silence do their weirdo power-tango.
In case it’s not abundantly clear, let me spell it out: The mere suggestion of a woman raising her voice to shed light on problematic aspects of a male-dominated arena was enough to cause rampant, gibbering panic and hatred. I have heard geeks of all genders try to downplay the whole debacle off as a silly one-off thing that got too much attention. I hear some voices crying out She Spews Only Lies! I hear some voices say, I Don’t Like Her “Brand” of Feminism Because It Attacks Things I Like. I hear a lot of whispers of But They’re Just Games.
Personally, I think her case serves as a coal-mine canary. The amount of trolling, internet hate, and intimidation Sarkeesian got corresponds only to how much poisonous gas, if I may extend the coal-mine metaphor, is in the surroundings. There are plenty of ways to deal with poisonous hot air. Some people like to light a match and watch it burn. Some people like to dig alternate pathways and let the gas seep off on its own. In any case, the more we keep digging here, the more things will clear up.
By the way, Sarkeesian did finally make her video about the Damsel in Distress, and it’s pretty good. It was a almost underwhelming, actually…I found myself thinking “THIS is what they were all afraid of?”
But hey, from Biblical times until now, nothing is more frightening to the machinations of society than a woman’s voice. Here’s to the pretty heroine actually getting to speak her piece. Here’s to the ugly stepsister not being condemned to only sound and fury (signifying nothing, as the Bard reminds us).
I want to put a brief qualifier on here lest I seem to be hating on men or not acknowledging the even greater struggles of folks who fall outside of dualistic gender categories.
I think it is important for everyone to tell their stories: our stories are what makes us human, the vital connective tissue of our species. Only some of our species, however, has been systematically silenced. (And it’s not just women.) I want to keep prodding at why until some of that nasty patriarchal gas seeps off.