14 February 2007

Puppet Pity

I've done my best to avoid our national wallowing in the death of Anna Nicole Smith, but it would be impossible to have avoided it entirely. One theme I've noted, from the wallowers who don't wish to be seen wallowing, is nicely captured in the title of this article, Women as Meat: Reflections on the death of Anna Nicole Smith by Rabbi Marc Gellman. Rabbi Gellman writes that:
Next we must force ourselves to remember that this front-page story is echoed by a thousand untold stories about unknown women who have died or been killed or driven to fatal addictions just because they were pretty. These women died because they were meat on the banquet table of predatory men. Their deaths must not be seen as merely tragic accidents, but as cautionary tales for us all, and particularly for men who are taught to see women as playthings and not as human beings made, as religious folk like me would say, in the image of God.

What's striking about this line of argument is that it does to Anna Nicole Smith exactly what it complains about. It robs her of her humanity. She made a series of decisions, some of which worked out well for her and some of which were disastrous. To say that she was merely meat for powerful men denies her own agency and says that whatever she does is meaningless except for how it effects powerful men.


Duck said...

Good point. Even with the career choices she chose for herself, this ending wasn't in the cards. Many women have been models and Playboy centerfolds without destroying their lives through drugs and toxic relationships.

joe shropshire said...

Oh, you're going to get letters. Twenty or thirty at least just from Peter.

Oroborous said...

I thought that it was really funny that they found Slim-Fast in her fridge, considering that she was a paid spokesperson for Trim Spa, a competing diet aid.

Guess that tells us all that we need to know about the effectiveness of Trim Spa.

Guys die or are driven to fatal addictions all the time by their athletic talents or aspirations.

Hey Skipper said...

This Wall Street Journal has a more balanced take.

Rabbi Gellman seems to completely overlook the power she exercised, almost certainly cynically, over others.

... for men who are taught to see women as playthings and not as human beings made, as religious folk like me would say, in the image of God.

Perhaps I got the teaching wrong, but doesn't the Bible say women were made from men for men?

Peter Burnet said...

Been relaxing with our Foucault, have we? I don't see your point. Gellman isn't saying she isn't ultimately responsible for her actions, but that is not the same thing as saying they were all made independently of what she was taught was important and how others perceived and treated her. Are you suggesting women generally are uninfluenced by what they think men value in a personal relationship? Or that we should pretend they are?


Perhaps I got the teaching wrong...


David said...

Peter: Actually, this is something I believe strongly. Civilization, and western civilization in particular, are not imposed upon women by men. Nor, for that matter, is it true that women use sex to lure men into civilization. Instead, almost all cultures are the result of a consensual process (albeit, not a democratic process) agreed to by the sexes.

One of the problems with the Rawlsian theory of justice is that Rawls was wrong about what people would choose ex ante. It is entirely possible, if given certain facts about strength and technology, that people would choose for women to have what today's women reject as a inferior position in society. Just because a relationship (and I don't here mean sexual relationship) is between "inferior" and "superior" does not mean that it is necessarily non-consensual.

The United States has gone through (to some extent is still going through) to huge revolutions in inferior/superior relationships. One started 150 years ago, involved a bloody war, has torn the country apart both literally and figuratively and still is not done. The other started 30 or 40 years ago and is basically completed, although there are still details to be worked out. It seems to me plain that one was consensual and the other was non-consensual.

So, to bring this back to Anna Nicole Smith, I'm not defending the culture in which she lived. The culture is in many ways degenerate. But I completely reject the idea that she was a mere puppet, responding to the world men have made.

David said...

Skipper: Eve was made from Adam's rib and her role was, at first, defined in terms of her relationship with him. Still, today, we see the argument that the good Christian wife is a faithful helpmate to her husband.

On the other hand, the Bible clearly treats women as independent actors and moral creatures in their own right. They get to talk to G-d and be prophets. They get to act righteously, or sin, and not simply be judged based on how their husband acts.

The Conservative movement is trying to work its way through this at the moment, but is doing a poor job. Individual congregations are given the choice of including the "Matriarchs" in any prayer that lists the Patriarchs (i.e., Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). I have no problem with the listing of Sarah but think that the fundamental political correctness gone awry nature of this trend is betrayed by the inclusion of Leah.

Peter Burnet said...

David: That's fine if all you are saying is that human nature is not so universal or immutable that it can be used to readily define exactly what roles men and women should play vis-a-vis each other, or that there aren't so many exceptions that prove the rule that the rule itself doesn't appears eternally elusive. And I agree it was nothing like the "sex for money/security" trade modern unimaginative materialists love to posit. But your notion of consensus sounds a lot to me like the famous Rousseau social contract that was never actually negotiated. Surely the history of men and women working on this consensus would be a short book.

Also, I think you are over-dramatizing the "huge revolution" if you meant to imply it reversed a fixed order that existed since time immemorial or was in any way akin to the end of slavery. Some things, like career equality in the upper professional/management echelons (which really primarily benefitted a certain class) were seismic changes, but many of the freedoms women won had only been available to men for a generation or so and were more in the nature of catch-up. In some cases, unmarried women had long had them. Even the whole notion of career as a progessively unfolding self-actualization process rather than just work was very recent. The vote for women came about not much more than a generation after the vote for men. Sexual liberation and no fault divorce came about a generation after men in large numbers rejected the tenets of traditional morality and separated sex from the rest of life. Women's financial autonomy came a generation after the notion of personal debt and home mortgages lost their legal/moral diceyness for men. In many ways the whole movement was not so much a throwing off of eternal feminine chains, but a switch from the paramountcy of the family and organic social community as the basic social units to the absolute paramountcy of the individual that was just a few decades behind the men.

For a "huge revolution" it was pretty easy. No war, no martyrs and the opposition was largely pegged as a bunch of misogynist yahoos before it even began. Pretty much everybody, including conservatives, agreed on equality in public life almost right from the start, mainly because most of them couldn't think of any good reason why not. All the second-guessing from Phylis Schafly to Aly McBeal related to how or whether the principle of androgynous legal and social interchangeability would be of any benefit to women in private life and especially as mothers.

David said...

Gee, Peter, I think that the second half of your post does a better job of answering the first half than I could possibly do. That's exactly the consensus mechanism that I'm talking about. I might quibble here and there: I see the vote as a relatively minor right and, in the US, women's suffrage was more conservative in nature than it is currently seen as having been. But, on the whole, women, in increasing numbers, wanted to change the default assumptions about their role in society, and so we did.

The more interesting question is what to make of women in non-western societies who claim to be happy with their lot. I'm thinking here particularly of those Arab women who get trotted out on a regular basis to say how much they love the Chador and their concomitant freedom from western hyper-sexualization. What do you and Rabbi Gellman have to say to that?

For myself, I find it genuinely troubling. Of course, these women are carefully chosen and their are scattered Arab feminists. But what if women in Arab countries do actually prefer their situation to the equality found in the west? Oroborous says that we should ignore their moral code and go in and impose our own. But why can't Arab social mores be consensual, even if not equal?

Hey Skipper said...


Oroborous says that we should ignore their moral code and go in and impose our own.

I don't think he actually said that.

Rather, he was -- successfully -- posing a conundrum.

But why can't Arab social mores be consensual, even if not equal?

I'm not sure you phrased your question carefully enough.

American social mores are not "equal," in any sense of the term.

Rather, American economic mores are largely characterized by equality of opportunity.

I don't think it is possible to consider any majority Muslim country to be consensual.