He took me down to Minos, who wrapped his tail
Eight times around his rigid back,
Then, in a snit, gnawed the tip of it and said,
‘Put this one in the fire for deceitful schemers!’
Which is why I’m here and, as you can see,
Lost and dressed in this, going about in bitterness.
When he’d finished what he sad to say,
The flame, in anguish, ran off,
Twitching and flicking its pointed tip.
-Canto XXVII, Mary Jo Bang translation
At first when he and Virgil reach the bolgia of false counselors, Dante is confused because he doesn’t really see anyone. Or rather, he sees only countless flames. Virgil explains that there is a human soul inside of each flame, each “wrapped in blanket that burns it.” (Canto XXVI, Mary Jo Bang translation) The spirits talk directly out of the flames. Spirits Dante talks to include Odysseus and Diomedes, who are there because of the Trojan horse incident, among other things. In general, the people in this bolgia are guilty of subterfuge and tricking other people into schemes. I can only imagine that pyramid schemers, Ponzi schemers, and Scientologists would land here as well.
Search terms: evil scheme, false counselor, bad advice, counselor, adviser
So “false counselor” was way to specific a term for my stock photo searches to understand, although I did get some photos of false eyelashes. And when I typed in “evil scheme” I got pretty much an entire page of the SCHEMING HANDS that have been documented earlier in the circle of fraud:
SCHEMING HANDS. Literally an entire page of this.
So I figured I’d at least try to get into some new territory with the stock photos, that being counselors and advisers. In general “adviser” meant money or real estate, and “counselor” meant feelings. Frankly, most of the advising images were very…standard slick stock photo images. They did have a surprisingly well-balanced representation of races, genders, and ages.
On the other hand, a disproportionate number of the “counselors” who looked like they were dealing with feelings (as opposed to an academic counselor) were women. I mean…there was this guy:
I am not sure I would trust this man with matters of mental health. Then again, wearing a Mister Rogers Meets Bill Cosby sweater does not necessarily mean anything aside from a love for bright colors?!
And there was this gross misunderstanding of the Freudian analysis method:
The point is that the patient isn’t suppose to give the psychologist “WTF” looks, gosh.
But mostly it was FEELS:
fig. 1: FEELS
As for “bad advice,” there wasn’t a ton interesting going on, aside from that “advice” seemed to be conflated with “gossip.”
“We’re being secretly controlled by the Patriarchy, Marsha. Don’t tell.”
My favorite image, and I believe the winner of this round, is the following false counselor/guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, knowwhatImean:
It’s called “SIT DOWN DISCUSSION.” Perhaps the discussion is about his female lackey’s lack of business casual? “Jeans are not appropriate for the workplace, Susan.”
NEXT UP: Schismatics
SPOILERS: “SCHISM” is a great word to remember when you have no vowels in Scrabble.
This guy wins the Most Relevant to Dante Award for the canto.
Circle Eight: Fraud
Bolgia Five: The Grafters
Confession: This is my absolute favorite part of hell. Why, you ask?
There is a demon whose name, literally translated, is “Badass.”
This bolgia consists of a boiling lake of pitch filled with corrupt politicians, lawyers, and probably used car salesmen. When I think of hell, I think of this and cackle.
This section contains my favorite quote in the entire Inferno:
And their leader made a trumpet of his ass.”
-final line of Canto XXI, Pinsky translation
This phrase is emblazoned in my brain forever. It’s the demon leader’s signal to his followers as they are leading Dante and Virgil through the bolgia. Demon fart jokes aside, this canto is notable because Dante and Virgil interact with this band of wacky demons called the Malebranche, who are the most talkative of the…uh…employees of hell so far. The Malebranche seem like pretty typical demon fare, as in wings and pitchforks. Pitchforks in this case is a very literal term, because the Malebranche seem to spend most of their time shoving the various grafters (a catch-all term for those who cheated others out of money and power) back down into the lake of boiling pitch whenever they attempt to escape. Dante and Virgil spend two entire cantos in this bolgia. They spend the first canto hiding from the demons, then negotiating with them for safe passage. During the next canto, they make it through, and talk to a sinner on their way who tells them a little more about who’s in the lake of pitch with him. But frankly, it’s not the sinners that stick with me from this section, it’s the demons.
I really like the Malebranche. They’ve got personality, and verve, and they all have names. There are twelve named Malebranche, which are often left in Italian but are pretty hilarious when idiomatically translated into English. The Italian names roll nicely off the tongue: Malacoda, Cagnazzo, Scarmiglione… but there’s something kind of awesome about a troupe of demons named Badass, Nasty Dog, and Troublemaker… I really just want a Wacky Adventures of the Malebranche spinoff series. Or perhaps a Sister Mary Ann Fuckoff vs The Malebranche series…hmm….
Let’s talk about translation ever so briefly. I’ve been using the Alan Mandlebaum translation, which is a 20th century standard, and conveniently available online. There are a bazillion translations of Dante, everything from literal to poetic to modern. My favorite is the poetic and lovely translation by Robert Pinsky; however, I am super-excited for a new translation of the Inferno that I just got. It’s a modern, colloquial translation by Mary Jo Bang. She does some, for lack of a better term, localization of references and names, making some things more relevant to the 21st century. For example, she translates the Malebranche’s names as things that are strongly suggested by the Italian but are more relevant to modern history, such as Qaddafi (in Italian Libiccoco) and Killer Clown (Alichino, a clown character in commedia puppet shows). Mary Jo Bang translates my favorite bit at end of Canto XXI as “each [demon] used his tongue to signal their leader with a raspberry; He, in turn, responded with a toot from his bugle-butt.” Epic. The text has great notes, too, and I am excited to read it an use it as a resource for the rest of our trip through Stock Photo Hell.
Speaking of, Stock Photos!
Search terms: corrupt politician, demon with pitchfork, lawyer, corrupt lawyer
Frankly, a lot of the “corrupt politician” stuff was boring and similar to the “corruption” stock photos from Bolgia Four. So I’m going to skip it and instead focus on two things.
One: a brief discussion of Demon With Pitchfork.
I was actually pleasantly surprised at Commedia Mask Guy, who appeared at the beginning of this post. He’s very Malebranchian.
I actually unironically like this mask.
And she gets to wear it, too! Although with less clothing.
The rest of the results were cheesy vector images of demons with pitchforks, terrible CGI images of demons with pitchforks, and of course sexy lady demons with pitchforks. Because we can’t not have that in Stock Photo Land.
It’s a bad CGI sexy lady demon. Worst of both worlds.
There was also this nun with an axe, whom I can only assume heads the Social Justice committee at the Convent of Jesus Tapdancing Christ, a.k.a. home of Sister Mary Ann Fuckoff.
Two: I have discovered another Secret Trope of Stock Photos (see also: women laughing alone eating salad). I found this one when searching “lawyer.” Stock Photo Land certainly does have both male and female lawyers, they sure do! There were some shots of just one female lawyers, which were pretty much what you’d expect.
I AM THE LAW
I don’t trust this law book, though. I mean, the title is in Algiers. ALGIERS WHO USES THAT #fontsnob
But, at least at Shutterstock, in a business deal that involves three or more people, there will be a token woman who is at the meeting but not necessarily active, maybe watching or listening. I call this trope “women watching men shake hands“:
GOOD GODS IT NEVER ENDSSS
Jeezy creezy. I need a lake of boiling pitch, stat. And it’s the stock photographers that are getting dumped in it.
I got lots of demons and also Thor for some reason when searching for wrath. Fire demons aren’t til the 8th circle. Psshaw.
Circle Five: The Wrathful and Sullen
When it has reached the foot of those malign gray slopes, the melancholy stream descends, forming a swamp that bears the name of Styx. And I, who was intent on watching it, could make out muddied people in that slime, all naked and their faces furious. They struck each other not with hands alone, but with their heads and chests and with their feet, and tore each other piecemeal with their teeth.
So there are cantos and circles that are probably more stereotypically hellish: demons, pitchforks, lakes of fire, rivers of blood, etc… but I argue that the swamp of the wrathful and sullen is in fact the most metal of the cantos. Here’s why: The place is more or less a giant mosh pit, where angry metalheads rage upwards and sullen emo kids sink downwards. As Virgil explains, “underneath the water are souls who sigh and make this plain of water bubble.” So, this circle is like if a swamp and a mosh pit combined for an Iron Maiden/My Chemical Romance double bill… for one, both groups totally want to kill each other because they hate the others’ taste, but the emo kids are too sad to do anything and the metalheads are too angry to do anything other than froth and churn to the surface of the pit.
And now you all know my Level Five Dante’s Inferno headcanon. Have some theme music while we explore Stock Photo Land’s version of the wrathful and sullen:
Unsurprisingly, these two concepts get conflated, particularly during any search with “woman” involved. My “sullen woman” searches, in particular, always turned up some wrathful-looking women as well as a lot of sad women touching the sides of their heads. The point remains, though: wrath and sullenness may well be flip sides of the same coin. That’s why they’re in the swamp together.
I was thinking of dividing my results into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but instead I picked a trio a little more suited to the situation:
“emotions-headache-young-woman-screaming-pain” Yes, all of those things are the same thing. Headaches and emotions and screaming, all because of hysteria, I’m sure.
“crazy business worker under explosive stress”
The Four Chambers of Stockphoto Women
The dieter! “Angry fat woman with hammer and scale”
The Sex Object!
The…businesswoman? “Mad Business Housewife” Seriously, what does this mean. What.
The Accidentally Transgressive
“sullen young girl red” Yes, I am also frustrated with the socially prescribed icons of gender performance. Sullen Young Girl, let’s go read some Judith Butler and feel better.
Rachel Pollack once told me a story about a discussion of an ideal weapon for women. Someone suggested poison, someone else suggested the stiletto: sneaky weapons. In the end, though, it was decided that the best weapon for a woman was a hurricane: her wrath become the landscape, her destructive force immense.
Next up: Heresy!
Spoilers: What Stock Photo Land considers heretical alternately is logical and makes no damn sense.
It’s possible that if things had been this well-signed, Dante wouldn’t have gone on that trip at all. (Also, where’s Purgatory?)
Canto Four: Avarice and Prodigality
“I saw multitudes to every side of me; their howls were loud while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push. They struck against each other; at that point, each turned around and, wheeling back those weights, cried out: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?“
Dante had some pretty specific ideas about greed, a concept which is oddly confusing to Americans, if we are to judge ourselves by our stock photos. Dante broke greed regarding money and wealth down into two categories: hoarders and spenders. These were pretty much flip sides of the same coin, he implied. Both are totally obsessed with money, just in opposite capacities. And these souls’ obsession is the very vehicle of their torture in the Inferno. They’re pushing around giant circular weights that may well look like coins, crashing into each other and screaming at each other like a silly, angry ocean. You know how they say “hell is other people”? In this case, it’s other people who are equally obsessed with money, and vehemently disagree about what should be done with it. I could picture Wall Street stock brokers v celebrities a la Lorde’s Royals (“gold teeth/Gray Goose/tripping in the bathroom” etc) in this situation. O, Dante, why must you still be so relevant.
My search terms: Greed, greedy woman, avarice, prodigality (I mean, you never know)
So, “greed” is very much mixed up with gluttony, it would seem. Photos of greed, particularly greedy women, very often involved them eating. Therefore, the most relevant images combines greed for food with greed for money:
Yep. She’s literally eating money.
It’s funny, just plain “greed” or “avarice” searches turned up a lot more pictures of men than women, mostly white men clutching money with ridiculous expressions:
Because while clutching money, it’s very important to have your best poopyface forward. You’re also allowed to look gleeful, but only if you are rolling in bills or swimming in coins like Scrooge McDuck.
And to be fair, quite a bit of the time, the men were also eating money. But somehow when I type in “greedy woman,” I get food as much of the time as money. Seriously, suddenly there’s a ton of this:
“Young fat woman eating sundae”
It’s almost like food and the ability to get pleasure from it is a currency in Stock Photo Women Land. Jeez.
“Fat woman with many doubts”
I hear you, Fat Woman. I have many doubts about this whole situation as well.
“Prodigal,” for the record, turned up a lot of pictures of the prodigal son story from the Bible. Embarrassing confession: I thought for years that “prodigal” meant “lost” because of that story. Nope, “prodigal” means “recklessly wasteful,” which is why when I typed in “prodigality,” I got pictures of moldy food and money going down the drain. I guess “The Return of the Prodigal Son” sounds better than “the return of my asshole brother who spent all of Dad’s money”?
Next up: The Wrathful and Sullen!
Spoilers: It’s arguably the most metal of the circles. \m/
“I am in the third circle, filled with cold, unending, heavy, and accursed rain; its measure and its kind are never changed. Gross hailstones, water grey with filth, and snow, come streaking down across the shadowed air; the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.” (Canto 6)
The third circle of Hell is filled with folks who took great pleasure in eating, drinking, and gluttonous physical pleasure. Therefore, these folks are subjected the the aforementioned constant barrage of sleet, rain, hail, and sort of shitty mud. Dante and Virgil encounter Cerberus, who always hungers. Virgil gets them past it by feeding it dirt, which is noms up greedily. They meet an acquaintance-friend of Dante’s, Ciacco, who has some choice political commentary about Florence. Mostly, though, Dante is just sort of squicked out by the whole place.
My search terms: gluttony, gluttonous woman. Auto-complete on Shutterstock really wants me to be typing “gluten-free,” which I find deliciously ironic.
So, just typing in “gluttony,” a solid 80% of the photos are of women eating, so doing a secondary search for “gluttonous woman” seemed almost unnecessary. I mean, if there’s one thing Stock Photo Women are great at, it’s dieting. It’s one of the Four Chambers of Stock Photo Women, after all. For those of you who may have forgotten, an important part of dieting is loss of control and then regretting your choices. Let me illustrate the process for you, since it’s all there on the first page of results:
Step One: Contemplate an Indiscretion
In order to be a good Stock Photo Woman, you must be simultaneously attracted to and repelled by food.
For bonus points, contemplate your food with your exercise bike, measuring tape, and scale RIGHT NEXT TO YOU.
Step Two: Go Nuts and Eat Hyperbolic Food Indiscriminately
Very important: You must eat a huge pile of food in the messiest way possible in order to show that you’re having a gluttonous binge. For bonus points, fuck up your hair.
Step Three: Regret Your Choices
And who profits from your shame? Why, surely not the companies that sell food like it’s a drug, no. Not weight loss companies, either. Um. *sneeze* I can’t keep it up, y’all; I’m allergic to sarcasm.
Step Four: Go Back to Your Diet of Measuring Tapes
Yes, I meant literally.
You are also permitted to eat small apples and medium-sized clocks.
Uhg, and as a depressing coda, the laundry-doing woman is back. This time, she’s eating a single piece of bologna in front of an open refrigerator and is now described as “obese.”
“Obese black woman goes to fridge to get a late night snack.” Just keep in mind: there is a photo-grapher here who really wants to take pictures of this woman sitting on the floor.
Also, on a bizarre note, when I did type in “gluttonous woman,” in addition to the usual pictures of women contemplating eating dessert items or women shoving their face messily into dessert items, there were a whole ton of pictures of supposedly “plus-sized”/”large” women exercising. They were of course exercising in the manner of Stock Photo Women, which means crunches and non-sweat-inducing exercises with tiny tiny dumbbells. It does beg the question, though: how does this pointless pretty exercising tie in to the gluttony/dieting cycle?
AMERICA WHAT WHAT WHAT ARE YOU DOING LOOK AT YOUR LIFE LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES
Anyway. As Dante goes through Hell, he acts like more and more of an ass until he’s no longer sympathetic to the sinners he meets, and he totally kicks the head of some guy who’s frozen up to his neck in ice in Circle Nine. What a jerk. Which is to say, I can feel the blight approaching, looking at these stock photos. As a return to reality, I feel the need to post something positive at the bottom of this post. So…Remember, ladies, the shitstorm comes from within. Unlike in Stock Photo Land, we don’t need to let food and dieting control our every thought.
Also, in case this concept is foreign to you, here’s the actually sane Health at Every Size: http://www.haescommunity.org/
And here’s a blog all about gender, race, and class in food advertising: http://www.genderfoodculture.com/
There. I feel less icky.
Next up: Avariciousness and Prodigality, a.k.a. Greed!
Spoilers: Food and money become really intertwined concepts when we say “greedy.”
“MAN LOOKING AT WOMANS BREASTS” [sic] This happened to be the “featured image” on the Dreamstime front page when I went to pull the images for this post.
Circle Two: Lust
“And as, in the cold season, starlings’ wings bear them along in broad and crowded ranks, so did the blast bear on the guilty spirits: now down, now up, now here, now there it drives them. There is no hope that ever comforts them, no hope for rest and none for lesser pain. ” (Canto 5)
In Dante’s vision, the Circle of Lust was a giant whirling tornado, where lovers could see each other, but never touch or hear each other. Dante hangs out with a famous adulteress, among others.
Search terms: lust, lustful woman, lusty woman. Dreamstime assures me that a related term to “lustful woman” is “fancy kitchen sinks.” I am not sure if this is supposed to be a metaphor or what.
The stock photo that best illustrates Dante’s circle I got in some completely unrelated search, though. Still, it’s got a businesswoman, sort of, so one of our Four Chambers of Stockphoto Women are represented:
“MAN AND WOMAN WITH MODERN GADGETS”
Get it? ‘Cause they can see each other but not really hear each other or touch each other it’s a metaphor let me over-explain it asdfasdfasdf
Runner-up for being on theme: “MYSERIOUS WOMAN IN FETISH MASK SEDUCING MAN”
She’s seducing him with cunning use of laying completely motionless.
Runner-up for representing the Four Chambers of Stock Photo Women, because all the sites had a bunch of pictures of women eating fruit (I blame Eve):
SO MUCH LUST FOR THIS JUICE RIGHT NOW YOU GUYZE
Runner-up for Oh My God The Racism Why: “A man holding on to his woman with lust on her face.”
no really, whyyyyy
I can’t even. Another photo from the same shoot refers to her as an “American Indian woman.” *pause while my eye twitches* It’s like they’re trying to be politically correct or something. One wonders, at that point, why.
Other notable results:
“Lusty woman” involved a lot of pictures of an active and enthusiastic senior lady who had a lust for life, doing things like gardening, crossword puzzles, and having a young person explain her some modern technology.
It’s cool: she’s a businesswoman. A stripper businesswoman.
Dreamstime in particular seems to be more focused on photos of a variety of races of folks, not all of which are called out by race. “BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ON BED” is black. However, there’s also “TOPLESS BLACK WOMAN WITH AMERICAN NATIONAL FLAG” and for some unthinkable reason “AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN BY BASKET OF DIRTY LAUNDRY.” Which totally has to do with the keywords “lustful woman” because…uh…er… white supremacist patriarchy?
Yeah, I’m gonna go white supremacist patriarchy, because that’s the only connection I can see.
I feel dirty now, and not because of the sexual content. Can I be excused to go scrub out my brain please?
Next up: Gluttony!
Spoilers: Stock photo women have a troubled relationship with food.
Seattle has a lot of cons, many of them very quality and wildly popular. ECCC is becoming a contender for major US comic con alongside NYCC and SDCC. PAX sold out in nine minutes and packed the entire convention center. But this past weekend was the Seattle con that has my heart the most: Geek Girl Con. I have heard (male) friends describe the best part of going to PAX is “being with my people.” And for reals, GeekGirlCon is my people, even more so than any other con.
Pretty sure the guy on the left won the costume contest. On the right is cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch.
How do I describe GeekGirlCon? Do I talk about the gender distribution: maybe 75% women, 25% men? Do I talk about how much more visible queer geeks, geeks of color, and geeks with disability were than at other cons? Do I talk about the high quality of cosplay, the seriously good panels, or the interesting bits that other cons don’t have, like the DIY Science section or the networking section? I dunno, maybe cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch said it best:
I just hope everyone else had as good a time as I did. This con was a game changer for me, and I mean that sincerely. #geekgirlcon
There’s just nothing else like it! Here’s a quick rundown of Interesting Things from the con:
The first panel I went to was about female characters in videogames. The panel was well-chosen: two game designers, Shoshanna Kessock and Kimberly Voll, and two gamers/critics, Anita Sarkeesian and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. They talked about how to make good female characters. (Protip: Agency. Making choices that affect things in a meaningful manner.) They talked about the difference between choose-your-own-gender games and games where there is a female that you must play. They talked about the silly double-standards revolving around emotions: women have too many, men have none or maybe one. Douchey game developers have argued that women have too many, and even that anger (the only male emotion obvs) is just easier to animate than more complex emotional states. Shoshanna Kessock said she’d actually heard an argument against female “must-play” characters that goes like this: “Why would men be able to feel through the avatar of a woman?” I think if we could determine why many men wouldn’t be able to feel through the avatar of a woman, or if those men could figure it out for themselves, then we’d actually be on our way to a more just society. Not just in games and geek culture, but in general. To me, avatars and empathy is an example of the positive power of games.
Later in the day, I went to a panel entitled “Rule 63 Cosplay,” about genderbent cosplay. The presenters were my buddy from childhood (no kidding) and cosplayer extraordinaire, Torrey Stenmark, and turbo-experienced cosplayer Jonnalyhn Wolfcat Prill. They highlighted the difference between crossplay and gender-swapped cosplay. Crossplay is where one dresses as an differently-gendered character attempting to look like that character’s gender.
Jareth, the Goblin King (Torrey Stenmark)
On the other hand, genderswapping is where one dresses as a version of a character that is as if that character had been written a different gender.
Steph Rodgers, Captain America. (Torrey Stenmark)
The radsauce Kelly Sue DeConnick gave a fantastic spotlight presentation where she talked about her upcoming title, Pretty Deadly, and a host of other topics. Kelly Sue is so smart, down-to-earth, and genuine in her presentation. I am consistently impressed by her as a writer and a human being. She talked a lot about Captain Marvel as well. She had a simple, humble moment of apologizing for screwing up by not putting in a black servicewoman into the Banshee Squadron. It’s an idea she’d gotten and discarded because it seemed unrealistic to her at the time. “I have these women with guns that they somehow know how to use fighting aliens in the South Pacific,” she said. She was saddened to later realize that she’d found a black servicewoman somehow *less* realistic. “I screwed up,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.” God damn, I wish more creators and cultural curators could/would do that when they screw up. What a world that would be.
When Trade Secrets! reviewedCaptain Marvel, incidentally, one thing we weren’t so hot on was the time travel aspect to the story–the pacing felt a little weird to us. I now know the heart-wrenching reason why she did a time travel story right off the bat: she really wanted to get to the banshee squadron and some of Carol’s relationship with Helen Cobb, but was also convinced that the story would be cancelled after six issues. So she got what she wanted to write about most done up front. I, for one, am glad that Captain Marvel didn’t get canceled after six issues. I heard several women talking about how they started reading comics because of the title–wow. We need this. Representation matters.
Lastly, let me give you a beautiful gift that Kelly Sue DeConnick gave the audience: The Sexy Lamp Test.
This is a good test of whether or not your (female) characters have agency. It goes like this: “If you have a female character and you could replace her with a sexy lamp and the plot still works, then FUCK YOU.” *Cough* I mean, then re-examine her, give her a real purpose and like maybe a character arc or something, give her some agency, and let her choices matter.
So, GeekGirlCon! There are important conversations about women and race and disability and all kinds of neat things! There’s a lot of rad cosplay! There is actual science! There is a non-creepy vibe! (And yes, you can totally come if you’re a dude. Aside from it being FUN, it’d be a good exercise in what-is-it-like-to-be-female-at-most-other-cons.) It is a magical place. See y’all next year.
(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.
Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:
SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights
illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition
So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.
This is accurate.
In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.
So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.
But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”
So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.
The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”
"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."
Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.
Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.
illustration by Kay Neilsen
Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.
Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.
Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.
Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)
By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.
Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.
There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:
Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.
I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.
Apparently, it’s Things That Bother Me Week. Well, who am I to say no to the opportunity to complain on the Internet. (Complaint is the purpose of the internet, after all. That and porn.)
So. Something that bothers me: Chick Lit.
Chick Lit, to me, literature by women for women that probably has some literary merit, but at the end of day is about Getting A Man. It’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sex in the City, modernized versions of Jane Austen that don’t involve zombies* (e.g. Clueless), and other works of literature where sassy spunky heroines decide that their existence is sad and pointless without a man. Chick Lit is the magical lifestyle that Cosmopolitan is trying to sell to you. Chick Lit is close to a lot of feminist ideals that I treasure (sassy spunky heroines, for example), but then falls on its face and undercuts said ideals. Bridget Jones must lose weight to feel worthwhile. Charlotte isn’t allowed by her friends to stop dating just because she has a more fulfilling relationship with her sex toy than she does with men. I love Elizabeth Bennet to death, but she really couldn’t function without eventually finding Mr. Darcy.
The biggest appeal of Chick Lit, to me, is that most of the heroines are Bad Girls. Cameron Tuttle, author of Bad Girl’s Guide series, says, “Bad girls make it happen. A bad girl knows what she wants and how to get it. She makes her own rules, makes her own way, and makes no apologies. […] A bad girl is you at your best–whoever you are, whatever your style.”
This sounds remarkably like my definition of badass. I’d like to see more Badass Girls. I’m talking girls with a wide range of interests and abilities, for whom romance may be a factor of life, but is not the be-all and end-all of existence. (Who knows, perhaps I’m just sick of stories about marriage.) Now, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a woman who’s willing to kick butt and take names, but that’s not the only type of Bad-Ass Girl I can think of. I’m thinking of women who can hold their own, keep to their ideals, and shape their own destinies as much as possible. To name a few:
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Emilia, Othello by Shakespeare (tragically bad-ass, but still.)
Molly, Neuromancer by William Gibson
Mary, Mind of my Mind by Octavia E. Butler
Morgaine, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Tiffany Aching, The Wee Free Men and series (In general, Terry Pratchett’s writing is filled with Bad-Ass women.)
Many many heroines of young adult literature. Really, most female characters in the fantasy genre tend to be quite Bad Ass…except Bella Swan, who is the most milquetoast human being possible.
And, I’ll admit, of the 1800s British Chick Lit characters, I find Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre to be the least obnoxious. Secretly, though, I think they’ve got nothing on Becky Sharp out of Vanity Fair…
Anyhow. While making that list, I found that it was way easier to come up with Bad-Ass heroines for whom marriage wasn’t an option: the very young or the very old. Also, a lot of young adult literature is filled with exciting strong women. So then what happens to our girls (and boys!) who grow up reading books filled with strong girl characters? As adults, the literature featuring women that gets any kind of publicity is Getting Married Stories with varying levels of Sex and Plot. I guess it begs the question: How much of modern femininity is still defined by the woman’s societal duty to marry and/or pop out babies? Am I just jaded because so many of my high school and college friends’ Facebook pictures are weddings and pregnancies and babies?
I’m curious. What’s your take on Chick Lit? How do you define it? Do you find it appealing? Worthy? Vile? Subconsciously antifeminist? What say you?
*I have not yet actually read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I think I should. Perhaps I would like it better?