VAGINAS, NOT REALLY SCARY: Monsters, Twilight and the War on Women

 

If you’ve read Monsters in America, you know that to say I’m not a fan of Twilight is  an understatement. I’ve stayed away from the film versions of the execrable books but avidly watched the fan phenomenon that surrounds them, the utter devotion not so much to characters as to a narrative that soporifically blends conservative values about sexuality and family with vampirism and attractive people.

Given the kind of cultural weight this rather flimsy fiction has been asked to carry, the furor surrounding Kristen Stewart (who stars as Edward Cullen’s stalking target/love interest/wife Bella in the films) makes more sense than might first appear. Fans have expressed outrage, a sense of betrayal and basically gone into mourning over the rather pedestrian news that Stewart, who has been romantically involved with her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson in real life, had a brief affair with Rupert Sanders, her director in the Snow White and The Huntsman.

Celebrity gossipville is not a very interesting place to live but the degree of vitriol directed at Stewart has been remarkable. Take a look here and at this video. And consider that the words “bitch” and “slut” have been used against her pretty freely on Twitter.

I think what we’ve got here is a betrayal of a collective fantasy, the construction of romantic love that’s shaped western expectation of how men and women relate since the high middle ages, running head on into the realities of sex, marriage and generalized human unhappiness. So what.

And yet the decision to see Stewart as whore and temptress, betrayer of innocence, fits in with a monstrous narrative about women that has deep roots in our social and cultural experience. Buried deep in the social structures of human society, misogyny has lived off myths of Eve, myths of sex and power, myths about the nature of marriage and its ultimate importance for the health of human experience.

These ideas found expression in the witch hunts of early modern Europe, early capitalism’s need to relegate women’s work to unskilled labor unworthy of wages and efforts in the late twentieth century, still ongoing, to restrict women’s ability to control their own bodies.

I’ve been using Gail Levin’s Becoming Judy Chicago recently for my current research project. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the iconoclastic second wave feminist artist. Moreover, my summer started with a visit to Brooklyn that included trip to the Brooklyn Museum.  For those of you who know the Brooklyn museum, you probably immediately think of the Judy Chicago exhibit “The Dinner Party.’

This installation concerns more than the history of interesting women. It’s an exposition of sex and power, a middle finger to how patriarchal texts and structures have used women’s own bodies against them, sought to transform them into objects of shame and instruments of their own discipline.

Ironically, I also started the summer spending hours playing EA’s amazing survival/horror/science fiction console game Dead Space 2, watching and analyzing Rosemary’s Baby with the students in my Devil in the West class and getting excited for, seeing, and being slightly let down by Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus.

All of these pop culture artifacts employ images of power and terror, specifically focused on images of the vagina as a suppurating horror in need of control. Dead Space 2 blends all kind of imagery of disease, corruption and bodies that look like the surrealist reflections on the horror of World War I. Many of the creatures look uterine or are almost literal vagina dentate. We see much the same in Prometheus, a prequel after all to a series that gave us both the paradigmatic female action hero in Lt. Ripley and a monstrous mother who wanted to turn human beings into her womb.

All of these images have gelled with our current political and cultural climate to remind me of one thing: men find women’s body mysterious and terrifying when they cannot control them, sources of disease, terror and danger when they can’t restrict them. Much as Margaret Atwood suggests in A Handmaids Tale, sexism sees vaginas that can’t be seeded as vaginas that must be controlled.

We are at a cultural moment in America in which the vagina has become a terrifying monster for many unhappy with the changes of the last forty years. The “War on Women” represents a response to very real structural changes in American society. Limiting access to contraception and abortion are the most prominent features of an agenda that seeks to turn back the clock on the historic gains of American feminism.

These efforts targeting women’s health and sexuality have gone beyond legislative efforts and descended into various kinds of cultural grotesqueries. Most infamously, Rush Limbaugh launched an attack on Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” on his popular conservative radio program. He later suggested that if the women of Georgetown needed birth control, he would purchase aspirin for them to hold between their knees.

In an even more bizarre display, state representative Terry England of Georgia compared women to farm animals. In his speech supporting a bill that would restrict abortions even when the child is stillborn, England noted that that pigs have to deal with this sort of thing all the time.

Monsters are great fun. Monsters can reveal wisdom about our own mortality. But monsters are bad guides for public policy. They have a long and unhappy history when blended with western misogyny and religious notion of woman as “the gate of sin” as several early Church Fathers called them.

The world is filled with screaming nightmares. But come on boys, vaginas are just not that scary.

 

 

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