Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ritual Humiliation

Ritual Humiliation

A few things that have happened this past week (in rough chronological order):

            *Virginia passed a (somewhat modified) mandatory pre-abortion ultrasound bill (and Pennsylvania is debating an even more Draconian one);
            *I watched some reruns of America’s Top Model;
            *Congress tried to pass ‘the Blunt Bill,’ which would have made health care for women even more dependent on what (mostly male) employers believe to be immoral (or simply don’t want to pay for);
            *Rush Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a slut for trying to address Congress about contraception;
            *The chief Federal judge of Montana, Richard Cebull, mass-emailed (from his office, on federally-paid-for equipment and time) a “joke” about President Obama’s mother’s sexual congress with a dog;
            *Limbaugh demanded that the law student post sex videos on the internet;
            *Sponsors started to cancel their contracts with Limbaugh’s radio program;
            *President Obama called the law student to offer support;
            *I watched reruns of Jersey Shore;
            *Republican presidential candidates finally issued limp statements attempting to distance themselves from Limbaugh;
            *I read about how, in the 1660s, the self-announced (well, actually, the announcer was Nathan of Gaza, but who cares?) messiah Sabbatai Zevi blamed his wife and female demons for sinful nocturnal emissions;
            *This made me think about how late medieval art depicted the deadly sin of lust as a woman (often named ‘Synagoga’) seated backward on a donkey, and how adulteresses and female heretics had their hair shorn and were paraded naked in public;
            *The Federal judge tried apologizing by emailing a mawkish e-greeting card featuring an inter-racial family;
            *I read recent articles about how rape is a ‘tactic’ in various insurrections and ‘proactive suppressions’ around the world;
            *More sponsors canceled their contracts with Limbaugh’s radio program;
            *Rush Limbaugh offered what must be the weakest apology on record;
            * A South Carolina county instituted a ‘sex pledge’ (abstinence before marriage, no sex outside of marriage, no viewing of pornography, an absolute support of every possible gun right [?????]) for all Republican candidates;
            *Even more Limbaugh sponsors cancelled, as well as two media outlets; and
            *I thought of what I could write about Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (a novel I’ve taught about a hundred times and about which I’ve heretofore not had an original idea).

You easily can put these snippets together (even if you ignore idiosyncratic trains of thought and associations).  Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization of Women, has given this discouraging mélange of thoughts and actions the perfect category name:  the ritual humiliation of women.  I would add that similar tactics of calumny have been employed, historically, against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, with the added benefit of feminizing (and thus disempowering) the targets of such abuse.

Ritual humiliation, a transparent and jack-booted power play, tries to reduce women to sexualized bodies, which can then be manipulated, interrogated, ridiculed, slandered, tortured, and occasionally killed.  Similarly, reducing whole peoples to fantasmagoric kinship with (usually fast-reproducing) animals and vermin (for example, look at Mein Kampf; look at 19th-century European explorers’ accounts of Africa; look at the common insult ‘b*tch’) sets the stage for a theater of repression and cruelty. 

In the United States, popular culture is complicit, unintentionally or not. The Jersey Shore women are portrayed as objects of seemingly well-deserved derision plus sleazy, medically enhanced objects of desire (I’m not even going to delve into the duck phone or Snookie’s bunny shoes and alligator pillow).  Aspirants on America’s Top Model are subjected to belittling body slams about their figures, carriage, clothing choices, attitudes, and mean-girlishness (not to mention being decked out as birds or posing, in sexually suggestive ways, with animals). 

Maybe ritual humiliation of women has always been the case (in the Judeo-Christian West, at least).  But there remains the question of why this has been the case and, perhaps more interesting, why there’s a misogynist resurgence right now. 

The Scarlet Letter was published in 1848.  This was the year of the Niagara Conference, a culmination of early nineteenth-century activism for women’s rights in the United States.  Abolitionist sentiment was on the rise.  Rumblings from Europe portended political instability that might spread across the Atlantic, threatening the grand democratic experiment instituted some 70 years earlier.  In other words, the (male-dominated) status quo was under attack.

Hawthorne’s novel elliptically addresses all these issues, and it does so by collapsing them into the figure of a ritually humiliated woman, isolated and seemingly helpless against pressures from political and religious male authorities.  The author also suggests reasons behind the persecution of Hester Prynne, reasons that may apply to what we’re seeing today.

  • Political:  the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor cannot countenance that an officially voiceless female subject refuses to say what he wants to hear when he commands her to speak.  (Read:  the present-day reality that more women vote than men, and that they no longer dutifully follow their husband’s/father’s/bosses’ leads, instills consternation and anger in some male politicians.)

  • Religious:  Dimmesdale, as the shepherd faced with a recalcitrant and seductive sheep, is paralyzed and emasculated – conditions enhanced by his rampant hypocrisy.  (Read:  present-day mainstream religions’ difficulty with women demanding more substantial roles in decision-making, not to mention institutional chaos about homosexuality, not to mention evangelical hard-line reaction to the above two points, makes finding a simple scapegoat [duh, women] an absolute necessity.)

  • Personal:  Chillingworth’s animus is clearly personal, based on sexual rejection, and it manifests itself as threats and incipient violence. Dimmesdale’s response is also clearly personal, but it’s based on sexual connection and manifests itself as guilt and its psychosomatic symptoms.  (Read:  all sorts of sexually-grounded trepidations are constants in the human condition; in our culture, only men have been able successfully to reposition these anxieties, making them the fault of the very people about whom men are anxious.  Do we need to discuss how Viagra and similar erection-enhancing drugs are covered by most insurance plans, including Medicare, while birth-control pills are medications of extreme contention?)

I’ve mentioned before that we can learn from the past as well as being blinded by nostalgia (see DeBlog #1, February 2012).  Here, I salute nineteenth-century American Literature, specifically, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for crafting a succinct, multi-layered parable about women’s ritual humiliation.  Now I’ll sign off and re-read Emily Dickenson (to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) and crawl around my rooms’ perimeters, inspecting intersections of (feminine) wallpaper and (masculine) baseboards.



  1. Excellent post. I just read a Huff Po article on a Scientific American piece that showed men's cognitive abilities are impaired if they think they are being observed by a woman as they complete a simple task. Women's abilities are not impaired whether they think they are being observed by a man or woman. Just one study--but suggestive of all you present above. I do not subscribe to biology as cause--I think brain chemistry may just as well be an effect of historical-cultural factors. Here is the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/women-men-cognitively-impaired-brain-interaction_n_1341700.html?ref=mostpopular

    1. Neat article -- thanks for drawing my attention to it. Sometimes I wish I still subscribed to Scientific American! I agree that biology is not as crucial as historical-cultural factors, but I'm not convinced it's absolutely not a factor (how's that for a clumsy litotes?). Do you think all this explains why men hate asking for directions (or even worse, receiving suggestions for a woman in the car)?