Handmaiden, Whore, Madonna, Crone


I’m going to start today’s post with a photograph. Prepare to be disturbed. You might want to ask children and small furry animals to leave the room.

I warned you. Don't say I didn't warn you.

If you are anything like me (and I am not assuming anybody is anything like me), your first reaction was to laugh at the ludicrous poses, and secondly to kind of shiver and shake your head. I saw this on Facebook, followed by hundreds of comments from women who essentially said “Gross!” or something similar. Yeah. Gross, isn’t it? The picture is at the most offensive , and at its least, disturbing.

A naked, pregnant Demi Moore sparked enormous controversy in 1991.

To me, though, the photo lampoons something more deeply bound to the grain of our culture:the way we see women. In 1991 (this was 21 years ago–wow!) a very pregnant Demi Moore appeared nude on the cover of Vanity Fair (for those of you not familiar with VF‘s contents, it’s an American popular culture magazine). At the time, there was considerable fuss over the nude actress, with people angrily tossing about  terms like “sexual objectification” or (on the other side of the coin) “female empowerment.” I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here’s the photo. You may want to click the thumbnail (or not, depending on how disgusting you find the nude female body).

Leslie Nielsen. He's simply radiant.

So, in 1994, Paramount Pictures released the following photo of Leslie Nielsen, as part of the promotional campaign for the film Naked Gun: 33 1/3: The Final Insult.  The jab so angered celebrated photographer Annie Liebovitz (or possibly her attorneys?), that they took Paramount Pictures to court. She lost the court battle, since parody is constitutionally protected under US Copyright law.

Yet, the parodies have broader societal implications than I think the word “Gross!” can possibly credit them for. How do we view women in our society? The four stereotypes identified by most Women’s Studies courses (at least in literature, and as viewed by the media) are as follows: Handmaiden, Whore, Madonna and Crone. This is based on early twentieth-century work by Sigmund Freud on the subject of human sexuality (which of Freud’s works weren’t, at their core, about sexuality?) I urge you, for just a moment, to think about TV, and the magazines you read, and the movies you watch; even the celebrities you enjoy.  When did you last see the media not drop a woman squarely into one of those four categories? I find it disgusting that the entirety of that paradigm is based on how a woman has (or hasn’t) interacted sexually with a man; see the little chart below:

Handmaiden <--> Never had sex. Too young to have sex with
Whore      <--> Has had sex, freely
Madonna    <--> Had sex (possibly freely), but had to stop
Crone      <--> Had sex. Now too old to have sex with

It’s become an instinctive categorization of women buried so deep in our psyche, that we don’t even notice we’re doing it. When I looked at the “pregnant men” pictures, I noticed that the genitals of the men are noticeably missing, conveniently “tucked in.” I saw Facebook users put it this way: “where’s their junk lol!!” Does this disturbs us? Eight men, emasculated pictorially. Eight men, showing their beer bellies as if they’d had sex, been impregnated by their partner, and left to give birth to… I dunno… little baby six packs?

Yet, in our minds, it’s perfectly acceptable to portray a woman in her “madonna” phase. Or her Whore phase. Look at the 2 pictures below.

As a society, we like this:

Miley Cyrus. She's a distant cousin of mine. Not joking.

But not this.

"I wasn't turned on by you before, but now... Now, I'm *still* not turned on."

Meryl Streep says it far more bluntly, in a 2012 interview with Terry Gross that recently aired: I’m going to paste a large at the bottom of this post, because it was incredibly enlightening. I’ve highlighted passages if you’re just interested in scanning the highlights. She says, essentially, that film producers view women as either  “bleepable” or “not-bleepable.” If you don’t fit in those categories, they have no idea what to do with you.

Is that how we all view women? And is this so precisely how not to view men that we find ourselves almost physically reacting to the parodies above? I belive so. I also believe something’s gotta change in society. Women should not have to put up with an identity based on whether-or-not men have inserted their penises into them.
*****

Excerpt from the Feb 6, 2012 Fresh Air interview with Meryl Streep. You can listen to (or read) the 45 minute long show at http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=146362798

GROSS: So how have the – I mean, one of the thing actresses, I think, worry about, you can be the leading lady in her 20s and 30s. Once you’re in your 40s it’s really harder to get roles. There’s character roles and, you know, the parents roles. I think things are starting to change but have you been satisfied with the [acting] roles for women of your age as you’ve changed ages over the years? Or have you been frustrated with what’s out there?

STREEP: Both. I remember when I turned 40 I was offered within one year three different witch roles.

GROSS: Literally witch?

STREEP: Witches. To play three different witches in three different contexts. But it was almost like the world was saying, or the studios were saying…

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: …we don’t know what to do with you. And I remember, I mean, I’ve repeated this before many times but I remember being shocked to find out that Bette Davis was 40 or 41 when she did “All About Eve” and was playing an over-the-hill, done, out of it, you’re finished actress. And that she was only 50 when she did “Baby Jane” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” and those grotesques of witches.

You could call them witches. So, yeah, I think there was for a long time in the movie business a period of when a woman was attractive and marriageable or something – not marriageable. (Bleep)able I guess is the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You can’t really say that on the radio.

STREEP: No, you can’t say that. OK. Well, you know what I’m saying. So you substitute something better.

GROSS: We could bleep it.

STREEP: OK.

GROSS: It will have been bleeped by the time listeners hear that.

STREEP: OK. So that was it. And then after that they really didn’t know what to do with you until you were the lioness in winter, right? Until you were 70 and then it was OK to, you know, “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Trip to Bountiful” or things like that. But that middle period, what we call the middle, the most vibrant years of a woman’s life, arguably, from 40 to 60 were completely – nobody knew what to do with them.

And that really has changed, completely changed. Not for everybody but for me it has changed. And part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that I wasn’t that word that I just said that you bleeped before. When I was a younger actress that wasn’t the first thing about me.

GROSS: Sexuality was not the first thing, is what you’re saying.

STREEP: Was not the first thing.

GROSS: Sexiness.

STREEP: Yeah. Because when that goes away – cute. I was never cute. So when cute goes away, because that goes away with age.

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3 thoughts on “Handmaiden, Whore, Madonna, Crone”

  1. Essentially what I think I’m hearing you say, Brian, is that we need new archetypes for the empowered feminine. And not just for women, as men have a feminine side as well, and when they are only given these four rather limiting archetypes to express or understand the feminine it limits men just as much as it limits women. As part of the Intimacy Counselor certification program I’m doing right now, the men are reading a book called “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover” which identifies healthy masculine archetypes for them to explore. I’d like to offer that women have similar options: Queen, Amazon, Priestess, Lover. We can identify with one of these roles primarily, a combination of roles, or all four. What we need to do is identify and define what living this archetype would look like/feel like for us. I’ve been looking back into history, mythology and fiction for examples of each of these archetypes to help me vision how they might function. Its been very useful. For example, a Queen like Queen Elizabeth I, Amazon like Xena Warrior Princess, Priestess like Galadriel from LOTR or Morgan La Fey from Mists of Avalon, and Lover like Aphrodite or the Honest Courtesan, Veronica Franco. If we are going to overturn the limiting roles and identities given to women we are going to do it by imagining and then living something different for ourselves.

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  2. I agree with how the media categorizes women to some degree. But I find in my Christian subculture, that none of these fit. Possibly Madonna, but even that doesn’t work, at least not in my denomination. Maybe The Good Wife or Helpmeet or something like that? (Insert gagging reflex here). I mean, hopefully you’re still sexually active within the context of your marriage, but nobody knows for sure 😉

    I really don’t like categorization of anyone. But it is an easy way to group people.

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