I’m grateful for this piece of twaddle Rob Stephenson, “Associate Professor of Global Health at Emory University and an expert in HIV and sexual behavior among gay men” recently published on Huffpost:
It gives me the opportunity to spell out my thoughts about the nonsensical assumption that there possibly could be sexism against men and why the concept of ‘equality’ is an empty scheme.
But before I start out with my arguments: Vagina, vagina, vagina – the word you are looking for is vulva, Mr. Health Professor. Isn’t it delightful you can be a HIV expert and still be dismissive of the proper anatomical terminology?
But since the rest of the piece is written in an exceedingly sloppy manner as well, I should let that slip.
And, to be perfectly clear throughout: I’m highly critical of the concept of transgenderism. So, when I write about men and women here, I mean male persons = persons with penises who benefit from the hierarchal concept of gender and female persons = persons with vulvas and vaginas who are oppressed by men through the hierarchal concept of gender.
I. Who Is Poking Fun At Penises Onscreen?
″Chris Straayer, in his cinema studies text Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies suggests that the phallic shape has more cultural power than images of the actual penis. Comedy often involves creating situations in which traditional social norms and expectations are challenged. By showing men in situations in which their penises are put up for public viewing and fun-poking, movies are deriving fun through challenges to the traditional, cultural representations of the phallus as strong and powerful. These penises are also soft. Movies are literally deflating the penis, and male power, for comedy effect.”
The author fails to fully spell out whom he sees to blame for this depiction of penises. He suggests that the regulations of mainstream media could have to do with it: ″Current MPAA regulations prevent the showing of erect penises in movies, thus leaving filmmakers who want to avoid the box-office death associated with an X-rating only one option for giving give [sic] the penis screen time: humor.”
I refuse to believe that the author envisions a secret organisation of female media tycoons meeting to plot out the hundred best ways to symbolically castrate men onscreen. I assume he rather is aiming for the classical liberal pseudo-feminist stance of ″Patriarchy hurts men, too!”
My interpretation is backed up by the fact that the film business is heavily male-dominated. One look at the Oscars is enough to confirm where the power lies within the industry (1). For a bit more context: http://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film/
In short, the movie mocking of penises comes out of male brains.
The movies also don’t stand alone. If mocking is a form of violence (which the author seems to imply), then it ties in a much larger male culture of penis devaluation:
– Male-only groups like frat boys or soldiers acknowledge each other’s penises in situations where the the penis is challenged (e. g. hazing, teasing/bullying in locker rooms (2)) or aimed at someone else (e. g. in gang rapes). This allows for homosocial behaviour, yet in their mind frees them from the suspicion of homosexuality.
– The mocking and maltreatment of penises and masculinity is a well-loved fetish among men. Hetero men are willing to pay women to do it, and – if we can believe gay porn – gay men are not entirely disinclined either.
– Men invent elaborate religious concepts to justify their pleasure of violating penises. The heated arguments over circumcision in the last year all over Europe make this very obvious. Historically, some religious traditions even demanded full castration, e. g. for galli priests in Kybele veneration (3) or in different brands of christianity e. g. the Skoptsy cult (4). Outside the religious sphere, the castration, circumcision and genital mutilation of men is an entirely male business: Men and boys were mutilated to feed an endless demand for eunuch guardians and courtiers, sex slaves, singers and athletes. Indigenous people in many places of the world (Africa, Australia, Southern America, Polynesia and Melanesia) practiced penile subincision (5).
– Men sometimes attack the penises and therefore the manhood of other men as punishment.
The author also seems to forget that there is a world wide multi-billion industry based on the depiction and glorification of erect penises. Compared to the porn industry, Hollywood can go home:
II. The Material Culture Of Genital Mockery
The author has not done his homework. There is plenty of ″vagina stuff″ out there: http://www.etsy.com/search?q=vagina%20&view_type=gallery&ship_to=ZZ
Over thousand hits for all kinds of ″vagina stuff″. And that’s just Etsy and just one search term. As for ″vagina cupcakes″ (vulva cupcakes, but who will be picky), Google offers me 711.000 hits. A lot of perfectly regular pasta resemble vulvas and vaginas: capunti, cavatelli, cencioni, conchigliette, conchiglie and conchiglioni, gigli, lumache and lumaconi, orecchiette, sorprese and sorprese lisce or torchio (courtesy to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pasta). They may not have been designed for the purpose, but in case they are needed, they’ll do.
On the other hand, the author himself (correctly) says that a lot of the penis stuff is meant for women’s bachelorette parties. Such parties are the place where consumerism, heterosexual marriage and fake ‘sexual liberation’ meet. No matter how much it is dolled up with ″naughty″ glamour, heterosexual marriage is just the same old heterosexual marriage within its patriarchal framework, sexist ideology and bloody, woman-hating history.
Women still do the majority of housework and childcare. Women still are sexual property, even in Europe. Many women actively participate in the oppression of other women:
Recently, not too far away from where I live, a new 7000 square metre brothel invited people to an open day, whereupon families with children flocked in curiosity. The mayor praises the ‘economical benefits’ of having a huge brothel in the village, and blathers about ’36 new and secure jobs’. No protesters to be seen, and obviously the women who took their children to the open day had no problem with the exploitation of other women either.
In the cinemas you get to watch ‘Venus in Furs’ the brand-new sadomasochistic movie by rapist Roman Polanski, with his faithful wife as the female lead. Nobody bats an eye, no protesters to be seen, even the public radio station between their Mahler symphonies and literature readings praises Polanski up and down. I’m sufficiently sure that there will be women buying tickets and by this shovelling money into a child rapist’s pockets.
Meanwhile, I read about a 12-year old girl giving birth after she was raped by the man who now is her stepfather. The mother has been informed by the officials beforehand that the man has been on trial for sexual abuse of a minor twice (he was only nineteen when he was trialed for the first time). The first conviction was withdrawn because of a procedural violation, the second brought him a three years, two months sentence which only recently became legally binding (which is the reason why he is in jail now and was not before). The mother didn’t care. She let him rape her daughter. After the girl started to gain weight and change her behaviour, she fooled the officials who conducted a pregnancy test by giving the urine of the younger sister for testing. She had the 12-year old girl give birth at home without medical assistance. And finally, she married the rapist a few days after the birth of her grandchild/stepchild. Everyone who reads about the case is angry (I read an online comment calling out to ″sew the mother shut″, direct quote), but nobody gives a second thought.
This is one extreme story, but we read similar stories every day. We read about the statistics of male violence against women and children (7). We read again and again that having a boyfriend or a husband makes the risk to be raped, beaten and murdered explode. We read about fathers kidnapping their children and ″fathers’ rights activists″ handing out death threats (e. g. to our women’s minister). We read about women falling into poverty after they take responsibility for their husband’s debts or after being housewives for decades before they are divorced. We read about husbands pimping their wives. Every single day we read about the dangers of heterosexuality. It is impossible to escape it.
Yet, women still get married – something liberal feminists celebrate as a ″choice″. And they not just get married, they even over and over reenact the misogynist spectacle known as white wedding. They have their father hand them over to the bridegroom while they wear white gowns and veils which will be flipped back for the inevitable kiss.
Today, the white gown is associated with virginity, although this is a secondary interpretion. For centuries, European women’s wedding dresses used to double as ″Sunday best″ for the rest of the woman’s life. Even in the 19th century, they were mostly colourful or black (depending on the social background). It was Queen Victoria whose wedding dress made white the favourite wedding colour for upper class women. This fashion trickled down, because it became a sign of wealth and education to have a white dress: It was made only for one occasion, difficult or outright impossible to clean and would be passed on in a neat, bourgeois family line. So, even if I wanted to overlook the secondary virginity metaphor attached to it, it is impossible to ignore the deeply classist meaning of a white gown. Besides, Turkish brides often wear ″western″ white gowns with a blood-red sash, the sash being the virginity symbol – or rather, a defloration symbol.
The veil is a more obvious virginity symbol, and the flipping-back ceremony emphasises this meaning, lending an overtone of ″unwrapping a gift″. For centuries, European married women also kept their heads covered as a sign of their married state. Headcoverings as a matter of general female modesty are still a thing in many religious traditions. The only other convincing reading of the veil I know (e.g. regarding an ancient Roman bride’s orange/yellowish/reddish flammeum or the red bindalli of a Turkish bride) is that the veil is meant to protect the future wife and mother from evil influences. So, at best, the veil is an instrument to secure future fertility, which – for millennia – was the main reason to get married at all (that, and money, of course).
As for the kiss: For centuries, sex on the wedding night, the ‘consummation’ of the marriage used to be public or semi-public. This is equally true for the highest stratum of society (aristocracy and nobility) as for the lowest (rural peasants). Sometimes witnesses were right in the room during sex, sometimes they ″only″ led the newly-weds into the bed and waited outside. This mirrored the social and public function of a marriage and was a form of control over the values of the social group (e. g. when the witnesses waited for the bloody bedding to ensure the bride’s virginity). Even today, the concept of a ‘wedding night’ includes the necessity of sex. When I was twelve, I was talking about weddings with my best friend. Nice catholic school girls we were, so I didn’t find it bewildering that she told me this exact thing: ″You know, I wouldn’t want to get married. If I was married, everyone would know what we [the husband and she] would be doing, and I would be very ashamed.” Today, nice adult Radical Feminist that I am, a quick browsing through really any kind wedding advice in the media boils down to two things: One, how to choose the sufficiently raunchy lingerie for the wedding night, or, two, the groundbreakingly radical idea to postpone the first marital sex because the newlyweds could be too tired to do it right. So, one way or the other, historically speaking or more recently, wedding (night) = sex.
Today we have the notion of privacy, so it isn’t socially accepted to poke around in other people’s bedrooms. (Although, in my country in rural areas, bridal couples better secure their house. Their wedding guests and everyone else in the vincinity will do their best to break into the house, wreck havoc on all their possessions and even try to disturb the wedding night. Weddings are a rough affair here.)
The conventional ″You may kiss the bride″ is nothing but the faint remnant of centuries of (semi-)public marriage consummation which often enough was marital rape.
From a Radical Feminist point of view, penis cookies and penis pasta are just the same symbolic reenactment of the age-old patriarchal heterosexual marriage as is the common Western wedding ritual. No matter how ″ironic″ the noodles, no matter how ″hot″ the marital sex, in the end it will be the woman who cooks noodles for a bunch of drooling toddlers/ungrateful teenagers and spreads her legs for her husband, to prevent straying or divorce.
Men do not celebrate their bachelor parties the same way. They will not be the ones stuck at home. The ″worst″ things that will happen to them is sexual fidelity, a perceived lack of homosocial gathering (″out with the boys″) and to end up paying child support (= paying for a woman without the right to see her naked) – which is the reason why liquor stores, strip clubs and brothels make good money with bachelor parties.
Bachelorette and bachelor parties mimick the pitfalls of marriage in an almost comically accurate way.
III. Are Women Laughing At Penises In Real Life, And Why Do They Do That?
Short answer: Yes. They do make fun of penises. I have spent enough time with hetero women of all ages and many political convictions to confirm their habit to laugh at penises, the men attached to penises and the behaviour of both penises and men. In my experience, nobody mocks penises and penis-bearers more cruelly than older heterosexually married women who subscribe to ″traditional values″.
Men seem to dislike women laughing at them.
Second-wave German feminists fought hard against mild sentences for wife/women killers based on the judges’ empathy for the convicted on the grounds of ″But she made fun of me/belittled my manhood″. Even today this defense crops up now and again: ″And then she laughed at me and I just saw red and couldn’t help myself but to grab the knife and kill her″. Popular culture also jumps on the bandwagon: Rarely a Criminal Minds episode which doesn’t explore in loving detail the humiliation of the killer by his mother, nanny, girlfriend, wife, prostitutes, teacher, uppity customers, women on the street, boss or really any woman he has contact with until the poor dear practically has no choice but to dismember random women in later life.
Margaret Atwood has boiled down this phenomenon to one quote (8):
“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. […] “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. “Undercut their world view.” Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.” (Writing the Male Character (1982) (reprinted in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (page 413) from a Hagey Lecture on February 9, 1982, at the University of Waterloo))
Seen on a larger scale, the oppressed always tell jokes about their oppressors. There are countless jokes Jewish people made about antisemitic stereotypes in general and Hitler and the nazis in particular (9). They are heart-wrenchingly hilarious, and continue to be told.
In a similar fashion, people in the Soviet Union had no qualms to invent Stalin jokes, which also remain in circulation (e. g. some of the famous Radio Yerewan jokes (10)). Such jokes could get you into a concentration camp or the gulag, therefore they were dubbed ″whisper jokes″ (11).
Laughing at and ridiculing the oppressors is the very last resort of the oppressed.
Making fun of the penis is nothing but the reflection of a world in which men wield the ultimate power and use their penises to execute it. But this making fun of penises does not happen in movies; their ridicule comes from another place. It happens among women, in the privacy of all-female circles.
″But understanding why we laugh at penises in popular culture also necessitates questioning why there is no comedic role for the vagina. Writing in Psychology Today, Naveed Saleh reports on the varied negative cultural representations of the vagina, which frame the vagina from vulnerable to dangerous. Saleh notes that there are ways to counter this negativity and the influence it may have on female self-esteem, through the promotion of positive images of the vagina (pointing to O’Keefe’s flower paintings as a way to herald the vagina).”
The flower image is questionable. First of all, ‘flower’ is not exactly the right word, similar to the constant mixing up of vulva and vagina. Strictly speaking, Georgia O’Keefe depicts blossoms (12). I don’t know what she intended with them, as I am not a mind-reader. But the author, Naveed Saleh whom he quotes, and the general public seem to see her pictures as empowering images for vulvas and vaginas.
But this reading strikes me as superficial. As any gardener can tell, blossoms are vulnerable to the extreme. Before even opening their petals, they can wither due to sudden freezing or animals feeding on them or breeding inside of them. When they are open, their sole purpose is to ensure fertility. That’s why they look as pretty as possible for insects – you should see the psychedelic glory of a plain white flower through a bee’s eyes! After a relatively short time blossoms vanish to develop into fruit. From bud to fruit, flowering plants are fundamentally vulnerable throughout. They have strategies (like being poisonous) to protect themselves, but in the end flowering plants are not commonly viewed as the epitome of strength. Compared to other plant species, blossom-bearing plants are delicate and vulnerable regarding environmental influences like soil, light, pollution and species to fertilise them. Before the dandelion can grow in a crack in the concrete, there were countless other, tiny, non-flowering plant species who broke through and created the soil for it.
In general, I fail to see how it is empowering to envision a vulva and a vagina as anything else but a vulva and a vagina. Since the author mentioned the Vagina Monologues, there is a whole piece on a woman who hates her genitals so much she envisions them as ″cozy futons with light cotton comforters, little velvet settees, or pretty things – silk handkerchiefs or quilted pot holders. Whenever a man was inside me, I pictured him inside a mink-lined muffler or a Chinese bowl.”
She then gets to love her genitals because there is this man (of course) who likes to look at them as they are.
We are culturally prone to perceive blossoms as beautiful. So we perceive Georgia O’Keefe’s blossoms as beautiful. When we say that those painted blossoms are offering an empowering perspective on female genitals, we make a mental leap. Vulvas and vaginas are beautiful because they resemble something else we consider to be beautiful. In itself they are not much to look at, but when we make a mental leap to see them as exotic blossoms which in themselves are nothing but paint on a canvas, they suddenly become beautiful. Of course paint on a canvas is easier to market than the reality of flesh, blood, hair, scent, moisture, motion and life.
So, where is the difference between a pretty Chinese bowl and a pretty blossom?
And, to get to the point I want to make: The equation of vulvas and vaginas with flowers lies at the very heart of patriarchy. In fact, the image is ridiculously patriarchal.
Latin gives us the term ‘defloratio’ for the act of the first penetration of a vagina, and the word was a smashing success. The written Latin of Late Antiquity shifted the meaning from literal ″picking flowers″ to the familiar meaning of today. The metaphor lived on through the Middle Ages (e. g. in one of the nastier songs of the Carmina Burana (13)), spawned into several European languages, among them English with its terms ‘defloration’ and ‘deflowering’. Even pop culture makes use of the ancient flower = female genitals metaphor; George R. R. Martin in his deeply misogynistic and disgusting Game of Thrones books uses ‘flowering’ to avoid the terms menarche/menstruation (14).
The metaphor also has deeply violent connotations. Until recently even in Western countries the assumption that first hetero sex will lead to bleeding was unquestioned and in many other places it still is. Several women I know did bleed, and online articles regarding the matter also have their share of posters reporting bleeding, even if they claim they were truly desiring sex (15). At the same time I see claims that bleeding is actually a rare thing, and those women who do bleed just employed the wrong ″technique″ (16).
I don’t have an opinion on anatomical matters to offer here, but I want to point out that both possibilities – bleeding or not – historically had violent implications: No blood could lead and sometimes still leads to shame, violence, social or physical death. On the other hand, bleeding always means injury, no matter how trivial. The practice of child marriage (which should be more accurately named forced marriage and rape of girls) for sure has contributed to the connection of first heterosexual intercourse with bleeding and helped to normalise the idea that women bleed. Women being injured thereby satisfies the patriarchal desire of control and helps doing business via women’s bodies, as marriage at the core is a transaction between the bride’s father and the bridegroom.
From the heterosexual female point of view, the deliberate injury serves as the hallmark of both true love and true sex. The first heterosexual intercourse is not just one heterosexual sex act among others. It is culturally elevated as a sign of true love e. g. in christian marriage ideology’s ″gift of virginity″ or in romance novels with heroines bearing the discomfort of genital injury to show their love for the hero. It also is what the heterosexual mainstream measures sex against: Few Lesbians, I imagine, have never been told that their sex is no sex, in particular in the absence of penetration. At the surface, the ‘queer community’ and ‘sex positivism’ seem to have a less limiting idea of sex. Yet the ubiquitous demand to use sex toys (most of which are designed to penetrate) suggests that their definition is different to the heterosexual mainstream in quantity, not in quality. The base remains the same: patriarchy.
The deliberate injuring of women’s vulvas and vaginas continues all throughout heterosexual women’s lives. Women experience rape, women are exploited through prostitution and women undergo harmful procedures mutilating their genitals (e. g. FGM, but also Western practices like labiaplasty or episiotomy). It may seem cynical, but on a global scale it is valid to assume that a majority of women experience rape (including all forms of marital rape), prostitution and genital mutilation in their lifetime. These and other forms of physical, mental and spiritual violence against women are the main tool to perpetuate male supremacy.
Heterosexuality as a principle and in practice is another tool, and in some regard even more powerful. Women who don’t resist the patriarchal brainwash they have been subjected since their birth, will perpetuate and normalise patriarchy by their life choices: Falling in love with a man, having sex and and then children with a man, raising the next generation of men and contributing into the brainwash of the next generation is accompanied by the aforementioned dangers (genital injury during heterosexual intercourse, different forms of violence). But that’s not all. The very nature of human procreation renders women’s vulvas and vaginas vulnerable in a manner men can’t experience.
I know a woman who after the birth of her child had to have fourty stitches in her genitals due to the extensive damage during the birth; given how small the area in question is, it is obvious how severe the tearing requiring fourty stitches must have been. And this was not treated as something remarkable or out of the norm. Both mother and child were perfectly well otherwise, the birth was comparably easy and a joyous occasion for her. In other places of the world or in another time, though, she probably would have died from an infection.
As long as violence against women is so normal it often is not even framed as violence in the societies they occur and women are injured and die because of the very nature of heterosexuality, it is a big blatant lie to announce vaginas and vulvas are not vulnerable.
Of course penises get injured as well. I already mentioned male-on-male violence, and men do damage to their own penises on a regular basis. Some actions are culturally accepted like e. g. body modification, others are more controversial, e. g. masturbation injuries by the use of unservicable tools like hoovers, or outright unacceptable to most people, e. g. the extreme measure of ″nullification″ (17).
Still, the difference to the vulnerability of vulvas and vaginas is obvious. Women’s genitals are endangered through patriarchy and heterosexuality.
Men’s genital injuries, intentional or accidental, come down to male fetishes.
Female violence against male genitals on the other hand is an extreme taboo. The taboo is so strong that even women who are orally raped very often can’t overcome their shock and use their teeth. When sometimes a woman has suffered so much abuse that she sees no other way to end the abuse but to attack the abuser’s penis, the public outcry is enormous.
One of the most famous cases is Lorena Gallo (then Lorena Bobbitt) defending herself against her then-husband’s battery, rape, psychological abuse and forced abortion. She cut his penis off, but it was re-attached so successfully that John Bobbitt shot porn movies afterwards and had two more wives who also accused him of violence. He was able to change what had started out as an attack into a success story. Patriarchy is so strong that an actual rapist, wife beater and abuser can gain money and fame for his despicable doings (18).
A more recent case is Catherine Kieu who in July 2011 cut off her abusive husband’s penis. She was put to trial in April 2013, whereupon the story hit the media (again). In the Daily Mail I saw a comment calling for her to be executed for the crime – it had over thousand likes and only between 60 and 70 dislikes (don’t remember the exact number, but it was in the 60s). I tried to find it, but all articles on the case seem to have been heavily moderated, with several comments I remember to have been there vanished today (19).
Women like the German feminist Alice Schwarzer (20) or Sharon Osborne who speak out in favour of Lorena Gallo, Catherine Kieu and others who did not put up with male abuse anymore, are met with rage and contempt – and not only by men, but also by other women: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/celebritology/post/the-talk-ladies-under-fire-for-laughing-at-catherine-kieu-story-video/2011/07/18/gIQA3OjkLI_blog.html
The first reader comment is clear evidence which effect this lack of female solidarity has: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/celebritology/post/the-talk-ladies-under-fire-for-laughing-at-catherine-kieu-story-video/2011/07/18/gIQA3OjkLI_comment.html?commentID=washingtonpost.com/ECHO/item/1311217527-313-936
″Great work, Ms. Hughes! I’m very thankful for women like you. Women who aren’t afraid to expose misandry, and who can understand why the type of things the media condones can be very upsetting to males. I’m lucky to be dating a woman who is much the same way. Thanks for your contribution to the men’s movement!”
This is not only an example for women actively contributing to patriarchy, it also proves how deeply ingrained the taboo regarding violence against penises actually is.
Before this background of the penis’ sacrosanct inviolability, the occasional fun-poking on penises in movies can only be read as either male in-group behaviour or, on the other hand, a mocking of all the women who had penises used as weapons against them.
IV. Laughing And Oppression
Perhaps surprisingly, in this last paragraph before my conclusion, I want to explore whether Mr Stephenson’s initial assumption is right: Is it even true vulvas and vaginas are not laughed at?
″In her text, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Emma Rees notes that in our postmodern, porn-obsessed culture, vaginas appear to be everywhere, literally or symbolically but, crucially, they are as silenced as they are objectified. The vagina is so intrinsically linked to female sexuality, which so many societies have sought to control and suppress, that positive images of the vagina may risk breaking this control. But absent from each of these discussions is the notion of laughing at the vagina. In 2007, movie director Judd Apatow announced “I’m gonna get a penis or a vagina in every movie I do from now on… It really makes me laugh in this day and age … that anyone is troubled by seeing any part of the human body.” By reframing the vagina in comedy, can we strip away notions of vulnerability and make female sexuality as palatable in popular culture as male sexuality? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating we stop laughing at penises (they are quite ridiculous), but I do advocate for equal standing in comedy for the vagina. Just as we can deflate social notions of male power through comedic penile moments, perhaps we can destigmatize female sexuality by giving the vagina room to laugh. Or at least to be laughed at.”
I will ignore the nonsensical leap from ″laughing vagina″ to ″laughed-at vagina″: This is just too silly. Has the man never seen a sitcom in his life? I can’t even count how often I have heard ″They are laughing with you, honey, not at you!” on TV. If this distinction is above the author’s grasp, he probably shouldn’t have written anything at all (and again, how did he become a professor?).
The point I want to make here is that vulvas and vaginas already ARE laughed at. In fact vulvas and vaginas in patriarchy are perceived as ugly and laughable since millennia.
In ancient Greek myths, there is a figure named Baubo who is nothing but the personification of female genitalia. She is part of the Demeter/Persephone myth; after Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, her mother Demeter, a fertility goddess, goes looking for her. When she can’t find her daughter, she starts to mourn her, therefore endangering life on earth. Baubo, her old nursemaid, tries to cheer her up with crude jokes, among them exposing her vulva to her. This eventually makes Demeter laugh. Sometimes Baubo is depicted as an old woman, but sometimes (in particular in statuettes) she appears to consist only of a face, genitalia and two legs, a stumpy, only semi-human figure (21).
Of course this myth has been interpretated countless times since its development. Baubo’s vulva has been viewed as apotropaic, driving away evil forces. Baubo herself also has been interpreted as the crone in the triad of maiden (Persephone)-mother (Demeter)-crone (Baubo) by Robert Ranke Graves (22). Even misogynists and racists like ″ethnopsychoanalyst″ Georges Devereux have wiped their dirty fingers on Baubo (23). I have seen Wiccans view Baubo as belonging into their image of sacred sexuality or as Goddess of Laughter (24).
This is a topic for another post, but my opinion is a more complicated one and ties into a bigger question: Inhowfar can we as Radical Feminists find ourselves and make use of ancient myths at all? In this special case I believe it is important that the Demeter myth was formed and made use of inside a patriarchy. It was written down and passed on by men. Men have made up the biggest part of myth interpreters over two millennia.
The common argument in feminist myth interpretation is that there is some residue of the matriarchal origin of the myth still visible in the male-oriented text. Therefore feminists can take the most misogynistic stories and transform them to female-centered myths. I’m leaning towards paganism, so I for sure understand this line of thought. But I’m still not convinced, no matter how long and intense this feminist tradition is, no matter how much I read about it, that this is not just one form of Forer/Barnum effect (25). Myths and fairy tales are comparably simple narratives, it is relatively easy to find everything you are looking for in them.
But as I said, this is a topic for another post, and I want to stick here to the very core of the myth. Exposing her vulva, Baubo makes Demeter laugh. Baubo’s vulva is laugh-able in the most unambiguous sense. Baubo doesn’t even do something with her genitalia beyond exposing them. It is the mere aspect of a vulva that makes even another woman laugh – or so it was conceived by the men who passed the myth on. As if the sight of a vulva would be somewhat revolutionary to woman.
I may be sceptical of detailed myth-interpretation, but I know one thing is indisputable: Motives from myths are hard to get rid of. Baubo hasn’t vanished. The myth of her laughable vulva never died. It still is there, a deep layer of modern Western culture.
And, subsequently, Western culture still loves to laugh at vaginas, mocking them and outright bullying them, because this is the sliding scale: Laughing at someone – mocking at someone – bullying them. Not laughing at them – liking them – make them laugh, as the author seems to think. This makes me think about the smell of female genitalia, something in particular US culture is preoccupied with. To idiots, US vulvas seem to smell like fish. To me, the thought is absurd, and growing up I never encountered it in my own society. The very idea that my genitalia could smell bad was introduced to me long after I started menstruating and came solely out of US sources. But in the last years, this trend of vulva contempt is being imported into Europe. It is omnipresent in all kinds of media: Heck, Eve Ensler has included a woman joking about the tuna smell of vulvas and vaginas:
On the other side of the spectrum, The Bloodhound Gang included the lines ″Well, ten beers, twenty minutes and thirty dollars later/ I’m parkin’ the beef bus in tuna town if you know what I mean./ Got to nail her back at her trailer.” ( at 02:55)
Tuna town being a vagina, of course.
And there is the ever and still popular ″fish″ as an insult for women.
Whether this smell is real – and I strongly believe it is not and more of a culturally shaped misconception – it still offers endless opportunity for mainstream culture to laugh at vulvas and vaginas.
Menstruation itself is mocked on a large scale, liberally enriched with disgust and contempt. Just ask any girl what would happen if she happened to bleed through her pad in school? Something along these lines: ″I once had a guy tell me that if I gave him money, he wouldn’t bring up or make fun of me for an incident that involved me unknowingly period-bleeding through my gym pants during class and everyone saw. I was in 8th grade.” (26)
Menstruation is laughing-stock to such a degree that in patriarchy’s eyes it is the ultimate insult of women’s intelligence and ambition: ″Are you on your period?”
I could add more and more examples about vulvas and vaginas being laughed at and mocked with utmost cruelty: Porn jargon, everday obscenities, the usage of vulva and vagina synonyms as the ultimate insult between men, the mocking of childbirth in Hollywood movies (What a laugh! Hysterical women in stirrups! Screaming their lungs out! So hilarious!). But I don’t even believe this is necessary.
Just ask any woman if she ever has been made to feel ashamed of her vulva and vagina. That should be evidence enough.
V. Equality, Sexism And Liberation, or: The Conclusion
Even after reading the article several times, the author’s point isn’t entirely clear to me. It starts out as whining about the popular depiction of penises, but it ends in a surprising and entirely unconvincing argument that this way of depiction is actually justified – no, really! – and therefore it would be good for female genitals to be mocked in the same manner.
This argument would be much more convincing if it wouldn’t stand at the end of an article that sounds like one big eulogy on the poor, mistreated penis. One sentence of lip service (″Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating we stop laughing at penises (they are quite ridiculous), but I do advocate for equal standing in comedy for the vagina.”) does not change the whole outlay and the subtext of the article.
If the text would have been written by any random person, I would assume that this is the slightly muddled writing of a someone aiming too high and not thinking thoroughly.
But the text was written by an associate professor whose very trade is the dealing with words. So I have to assume that he was very aware of what he wrote and what he wanted to say. His text is a typical ″What about the men?!?” piece camouflaged by academia-inspired cloudy language and based on the liberal notion of ″equality”. Equality is the very last word of the article, intended to stick to the reader’s mind: ″A level genital playing field in comedy is a small, but important, step towards equality.”
So, let’s talk about equality.
Equality means that something the author is not aware of doesn’t exist, i. e. mocking of female genitals. If it doesn’t happen in the author’s world, and all human beings are equal, it therefore doesn’t happen for anyone else, either. Otherwise this other person would not be the same as the author, and that just can’t be right. Equality covers up and blots out all differences in experience and oppression by claiming oppression can be ended by trumpeting the mantra of ″All men are created equal”(27). Language sometimes gives away much more than it intends.
Equality therefore means that women’s experiences (childbirth, heterosexuality, rape) are nullified. Equating the culturally worshipped penis (= the tool of rape, the ultimate patriarchal symbol of all things powerful) with the vulva/vagina doesn’t stop the ongoing infliction of injury, violation and trauma on the latter. Joyfully claiming that female genitals aren’t really vulnerable in the face of a world full of violence against said female genitals doesn’t liberate female genitals. It merely makes it impossible to speak about the vulnerability. This is the exact mechanism of liberal feminists who succeeded to replace ‘victim’ with ‘survivor’. ‘Survivor’ (like ″female genitals are not that vulnerable!”) erases the perpetrators of violence and the violence itself. This ideology took over the patriarchal reading of victimisation = weakness = bad, but it doesn’t do anything to end victimisation.
While the author penned his lines about the non-vulnerability of vulvas and vaginas, countless women had their genitals ripped, torn, raped and cut up. The least he could do was to acknowledge this fact, but he deliberately chose to cover it up in the name of his ideology.
Equality means that the responsibility for symptoms of patriarchy (in this case male-on-male mockery on penises) is heaped on feminists by demanding that they have to fix it: You want to have the same rights as men? Fine, then you have to give men the same rights as women, too! Or else you just promote gender superiority!
But the oppression class (= the ones who withhold rights) is by definition not the oppressed class (= the ones who have their rights withheld from them). Is it imaginable to write an essay that blackface is funny if slightly hurtful, but having black people donning whiteface will help to end racism? Is that any kind of conceivable argument? Is it imaginable that antisemitism can be ended by nazis telling jokes about Jewish people to even out the telling of Hitler jokes by Jewish people and therefore establishing equality? No? Then why would this make any sense in questions of sexism then?
Equality means that a man feels justified to talk about how women’s genitalia should be treated. That’s what the whole article is about. When a male right winger is talking about his visions for female genitals (e. g. in the abortion debate or promoting FGM or in questions of forced heterosexuality and marriage), he gets told by ″equality feminists″ to shut his trap – and rightly so. But as soon as a man takes on a stance liberal feminism approves of (e. g. arguing FOR abortion rights, or for ‘sex positivism’), his opinion is considered to be important; oftentimes even more important than the opinion of a feminist on the matter: Just yesterday I came across a newspaper article on a stereotypical manly man defending his son’s dress-wearing habit (28), as if the argument ″Let kids do what makes them happy, fuck gender″ was so much more valid when it is uttered by a manly man instead of some hairy Lesbian manhater.
The Radical Feminist approach is clear: Women’s genitals and women’s oppression are not something men are entitled to talk about. Men are not entitled to suggest what has to be done with women’s genitals on a personal or cultural level, because this is the exact mindset basic to patriarchy.
Equality means that there must not be a struggle for better life circumstances, because equally bad life circumstances for men and women are good enough. In this regard, promoters of equality meet with men’s rights activists who regularly complain that women don’t work in coal mines. Let’s assume they’d be right (which they aren’t to begin with). It is radical to state that nobody should be working in coal mines at all, since coal mining and coal burning are devastating for the whole planet and every organism who lives on it.
On a metaphorical level, it is women who are down in the coal mines of oppression. Some women have it better than others (e. g. Scandinavian women compared to women in India, Saudi Arabia or the Congo; rich women compared to poor women), some choose to collaborate with men to make their personal situation more comfortable (e. g. heterosexual women who perpetuate their own oppression by upholding the values of this oppression). But women as a class are still down there.
The only way to escape is a radical tearing down of the multi-layered oppression of sexism, racism, classism, heteronormativity and all other forms of patriarchy – true women’s liberation.
SOME OF THE SOURCES CONTAIN GRAPHIC AND POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING MATERIAL. Please be careful with yourself.
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skoptsy More pictures are at the German page — again, TRIGGER WARNING.
(5) TRIGGER WARNING! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penile_subincision
(8) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Atwood — the whole quote (which I shortened for practical reasons) is worth reading in full length.
(9) For examples see e. g. Elena Loewenthal, Ein Hering im Paradies, Eine Enzyklopädie des jüdischen Witzes (Piper Verlag München 2002)
(13) For example in the Song Ich Wars Ein Chint So Wolgetan, which in a mix of German and Latin tells the story of a girl being raped. One of the lines is ″da wollte mich ein ungetan ibi deflorare″. At 00:31 in this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2INIU_X4U0
Translation (mine): ″There a bad man wanted to deflower me″.
The Carmina Burana: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmina_Burana
(15)TRIGGER WARNING FOR THE WHOLE PAGE AND THE POSTS (GRAPHIC CONTENT) http://jezebel.com/5861503/man-posts-evidence-of-brides-lost-virginity-to-facebook-world-retches?comment=44567796#comments or (regarding societal expectations) http://shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com/post/66916695016/women-are-suppose-to-feel-pain-their-first-time
(16) e. g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=9qFojO8WkpA (17) http://gendertrender.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/male-to-eunuch-asexuality-and-gender-nullification/
(20) http://de.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alice_Schwarzer “Sie hat ihren Mann entwaffnet. (…) Eine hat es getan. Jetzt könnte es jede tun. Der Damm ist gebrochen, Gewalt ist für Frauen kein Tabu mehr. Es kann zurückgeschlagen werden. Oder gestochen. Amerikanische Hausfrauen denken beim Anblick eines Küchenmessers nicht mehr nur ans Petersilie-Hacken. (…) Es bleibt den Opfern gar nichts anderes übrig, als selbst zu handeln. Und da muss ja Frauenfreude aufkommen, wenn eine zurückschlägt. Endlich!” – Emma Nr. 2/1994, S. 34f” […]″ My translation: ″She disarmed her husband. (…) One woman did it. Now every woman could do it. The levee is broken. Violence is no longer a taboo to women. Now we can fight back. Or stab. American housewives, when looking at a kitchen knife, don’t just think about cutting parsley anymore. (…) Victims don’t have any other choice but to take action themselves. There has to be joy among women when one woman fights back. At last!”
(24) Just google Baubo Wicca. I get almost 13 000 hits for it.
(26) http://i-once-had-a-guy-tell-me.tumblr.com/post/67898743943/i-once-had-a-guy-tell-me-that-if-i-gave-him-money For huge amounts of information on menstruation and the culture surrounding it see: http://www.mum.org/