Saturday, February 23, 2013

Boys Playing with Dolls! Oh No!

The Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood  (CBMW) has come out this week against an episode on Sesame Street called Baby Bear's Baby Doll.  The episode summary reads as follows:

Baby Bear and Curly Bear are playing with dolls, and Telly comes by with his bulldozer. But Baby Bear's embarrassed to be playing with dolls, so he tells Telly that the doll is Curly's.

Playing with a bulldozer, action figures, and a ball all get too rough for Baby Bear, with his doll around and all. Finally, Baby Bear slips and says that the doll is his. Then he runs off, embarrassed.

Gordon explains there's no reason things have to be just for girls or just for boys, and playing with dolls is great practice for Baby Bear when he becomes a daddy. And just as Baby Bear is about to tell Telly the whole truth…he finds Telly playing with the doll!

(For a more detailed synopsis, see Muppet

CBMW sees something insidious in this.  As they put it:

This episode, “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll,” is subtly but directly overturning long-held conceptions of manhood and boyhood. Boys can play with dolls; there’s no reason they can’t do exactly what girls do.

The boundaries between the sexes are fluid. Behind this teaching is of course the view that there really aren’t what we call “gender roles” given us as a fact of our existence. Gender is a construct, to use academic language; it’s the differentiated vision of boys and girls our society has historically bought into, but there’s nothing fixed or unchanging behind it. We’re free in this modern and enlightened age to blur the boundaries, and to raise boys and girls in essentially the same ways, without specific training of any kind for distinct manhood or womanhood.

You can’t make this stuff up. We’re seeing our culture undo itself at the very foundations. [Emphasis added.]

"Undo itself at the very foundations"?  Really?  Is making sure boys do "boy" things and girls do "girl" things part of the essential framework of society?  And is playing with dolls really only a "girl" thing?  CBMW thinks so. According to the article:

I’m not encouraging you to spaz about “Baby Bear’s Baby Doll.” I don’t think the world is ending as a result of this episode. I actually think that this show is silly, and worth laughing at, because the God-encoded truth about sexuality and gender is obvious, and boys playing with dolls is foolish.

In other words, the Sesame Street episode in and of itself is not the problem, but encouraging little boys who want to play with dolls that this is ok, is teaching them foolishness and dangerously "blurring the boundaries."  Our society, according to CBMW, is trying hard to do this, but ultimately it won't work because it's hard-wired into boys not to do "girl" things.

 CBMW does have a point that boys and girls are different.'s article "You Can Give a Boy a Doll but You Can't Make Him Play With It" points out:

[B]oys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: "Boys and girls are different."

They are different, and nothing short of radical and sustained behavior modification could significantly change their elemental play preferences. . . . The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally.

But in spite of this, it does seem that boys, especially very young boys, do like to play with baby dolls, and in a very nurturing way.  My own son, when he was two and three years old, would put a doll on his shoulders and carry it just as his own daddy carried him.  That my experience with him is not uncommon is testified to by moms and preschool teachers on Baby Center:

"As a pre-school teacher I can tell you boys play with dolls. Their parents may not know but they do when they are given free choice of playthings in a school/daycare setting."

"My son is almost two and has cuddled every stuffed animal in this house. He was always nurturing them and loving on them, so I decided to get him a cabbage patch kid that kind of resembled him. It is a male doll and he knows that is his "baby". He will ask for "Baby" when he has left him in another room. He will push his baby around the house in a stroller, wrap it in a baby blanket, and even put him to bed."

"I grew up with five older brothers and every one of them had a doll to play with at one time or another. As they get older their "doll" becomes an "action figure" and they use them to play cowboys or astronaut or soldier."

And of course, this last brings out another issue.  Even older boys in America have actually been playing with dolls for centuries.  There were tin soldiers as long ago as the eighteenth century.  There have been action figures since the late 1950s.  In the mid-1960s Johnny West and Jane West and a host of other male and female dolls were designed for brothers and sisters to be able to play with together. And of course the 1970s saw a surge in comic book and movie figures of all kinds. 

And though boys and girls are different in the way they play with these figures, the article also points out the similarities:

Nearly 30 years ago, Vivian Gussin Paley, a beloved kindergarten teacher at the Chicago Laboratory Schools and winner of a MacArthur "genius" award, published a classic book on children's play entitled Boys & Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. Paley wondered if girls are missing out by not partaking in boys' superhero play, but her observations of the "doll corner" allayed her doubts. Girls, she learned, are interested in their own kind of domination. Boys' imaginative play involves a lot of conflict and imaginary violence; girls' play, on the other hand, seems to be much gentler and more peaceful. But as Paley looked more carefully, she noticed that the girls' fantasies were just as exciting and intense as the boys—though different. There were full of conflict, pesky characters and imaginary power struggles. "Mothers and princesses are as powerful as any superheroes the boys can devise."

This dovetails with my own memories of childhood play.  Our Barbie dolls didn't just go shopping and try on clothes; they drove around in their Malibu van and had adventures.  And we played with many other kinds of human figures, too.  In fact, if one were to focus on the similarities between boys' and girls' imaginative play, rather than always looking at the differences, I think it would be found that boys and girls have a lot in common. 

In any event, I doubt if CBMW has any problem with action figures, even though there was some anxiety about them being appropriate for boys in earlier decades. (I have heard from quite a number of older guys that when they were growing up, their fathers wouldn't let them play with the new action figures such as GI Joe, because they were dolls.  Here's an example that someone posted on an Internet forum).  But hardly anyone today minds boys playing with dolls, as long as they are "action figures."  

So maybe the problem CBMW is having is when little boys care for and nurture baby dolls.  Maybe boys shouldn't play-act infant and child care because unlike girls, boys are never going to grow up to take care of infants of their own.

Oh.  Wait a minute. . . 

Given CMBW's foundational stance that men should aspire to be fathers in order to reflect the very nature of God, it's odd that this group would be so against the idea of little boys playing daddy. What gender confusion, exactly, is supposed to be going on here?   Is it that CBMW doesn't believe boys should play-act in imitation of their daddies?  Or is it that CBMW doesn't believe daddies should hold their babies, diaper them, feed them, put them to bed?  Given its endorsement of a book on manliness that includes these skills as part of fatherhood:

Highlighting skills ranging from treating snake bites to changing diapers, the book argues that “manliness doesn’t need to be reinvented. The art of manliness just needs to be rediscovered”
[Emphasis added.]

-- it appears that this is not the case. 

In short, given CMBW's position that boys should learn to be good fathers, this insistence that permitting boys to play with dolls is part of the culture undoing itself at the very foundations, is self-contradictory even within their own mindset.

And then there's the fact that nowhere in the Bible is any of this actually addressed.  As Marg at a trackback on her New Life blog states:

[CBMW] emphasizes the difference between Adam and Eve when, according to Scripture, the first man actually emphasized the similarities, “The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23.)

Everyone knows that men and women have some differences, but men and women share many more things in common.

There is actually nothing about play-care for a baby doll that contradicts what CBMW itself calls "specific training . . .for distinct manhood."  Except, of course, that traditionally in Western culture, infant care has been denigrated as "women's work," and thus beneath men-- and thus, traditionally, playing with dolls has been considered training for future mommies only, and never for future daddies.  CBMW has said it is against the denigration of women's traditional roles as being inferior to those of men-- but by insisting that a boy caring for a doll as a mother (and traditionally, not a father) cares for an infant is destructive to society, they are in fact supporting that whole mindset. 

What was it Jesus said about teaching instead of God's word, the traditions of men?  (Mark 7:7.)  Would Jesus tell men they shouldn't diaper and feed and comfort their infant sons and daughters-- He who said "Suffer the little children to come to Me"?  He who gave us the example of washing His disciples' feet?   Would He call it "unmanly" for a man to take care of a child's needs?  And if He wouldn't-- would He object to a little child, boy or girl, playacting at the same? 

Let me put my position in a nutshell.  I don't agree with CBMW on gender roles.  I'm an egalitarian.  I think God put daddies and mommies together in charge of their children, to help them grow into full adults.  Grown daddies don't get to be more adult than grown mommies through perpetual authority over the mommies and the kids together.  But as an egalitarian (despite what complementarians claim), I don't think mommies and daddies, boys and girls, are exactly the same, or that the differences shouldn't be celebrated.  However, it does mean I think we need to combat the mentality that a boy playing with a doll is somehow destructive to himself or society.

CMBW believes that the Sesame Street episode was silly.  But I think what's silly is believing that the foundations of society are going to crumble if we tell a little boy it's ok to put his baby-doll daughter to bed. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Blame Beauty and the Beast

I've read about this in several places on the Internet-- that the well-known fairy-tale story "Beauty and the Beast" is nothing more than a justification for women to stay with abusive men.  As the blogger on Not Language But a Map puts it in her narrative about being shown the Disney film version by a college professor:

She laid it out for us fairly neatly, because—and again, I say this as someone who loves this film—the movie Beauty and the Beast is a fairly cut-and-dried abuse-apologist narrative. It is quite literally a movie about a woman who takes a ~wild beast~ and tames him with her love. It is a movie that says, “Here is a man who is literally a beast, and here is a woman who shows him love despite that! And lo, her love changes him. Her love makes him better. Her love saves him. Her love—quite literally—transforms him from the dangerous and abusive personality he is at the beginning of the film into someone else entirely.” In short, it is a movie that says, “If you love your abuser enough, they’ll stop being abusive. You just need to love them more. It’s your job to love them, to fix them, to change them.” Which is, of course, a terrible and dangerous and very pervasive lie.

There was, naturally, backlash from the room. We’d all loved this movie since we were children, and none of us wanted to see it the way she was showing it to us. None of us wanted to have to acknowledge what she was saying, both because it made something we loved feel less worthy of loving and because it made us feel shitty for not having recognized it ourselves. Eventually, one girl raised her hand and said, “Okay, I see what you’re saying, but come on. We’re all adults here; it’s not like anybody is watching this and taking it seriously, or thinking that, like, the Beast is a good boyfriend model or whatever! I mean, for god’s sake, it’s a kid’s movie.”

My professor rounded on her heel, pointed a finger at the girl, and said, “Exactly.” Just like that, the room went silent.

This clip brings to light the normalization and romanticization of partner abuse in Beauty and the Beast. As scholars in the documentary argue, the film teaches girls that a woman should be patient and supportive of her abusive partner in order to help him change his behavior (i.e., transform into a prince). Such messages are harmful when, in reality, women and girls should be encouraged to leave abusive relationships and seek help if their partner is mean, violent, and coercive. After screening the clip, instructors might ask some of the following questions: What are the types of partner abuse we see in this clip? How does Disney sugarcoat the Beast’s abuse as “just a short temper?” How might these messages about the normalization and romanticization of partner abuse be dangerous to children? The clip is a great segue into a broader discussion of how femininity is represented in Disney films. What desirable feminine qualities are associated with princesses (e.g., beauty, helplessness, passivity, etc)?

I can see the point they are making, but I think some of the assumptions they are taking for granted ought to be examined more closely.  Is this really essentially a story about a woman who redeems an abuser with her love?  Is it really a message to the abused that they should put up with abuse? For one thing, the Disney version was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, which I think is a pretty good indication that there might be some fairly deep, important themes going on in it.  And of course there is also the original fairy tale, which originally arose out of the oral folktale tradition and has been retold in many incarnations.  One of my favorite fantasy authors, Robin McKinley, has written two novels which are direct retellings of this story, and many others which are inspired by it.  As she puts it:

I’ve read every version of B&B I can lay hands on, but my Beauty and the Beast is a part of me, like an arm or a leg. Or like the ground a rose-bush is planted in: I can’t do without it, it nourishes me. I used to say—truthfully—that I was jealous of readers who ‘went’ to BEAUTY as an escape from boring ordinary life, because by writing the story I’d exorcised the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST in my head. It grew back. Then I wrote ROSE DAUGHTER. This time there wasn’t any nonsense about exorcism. My Beauty and the Beast is still in the back of my mind or the bottom of my heart, full of roses and romance. If I’m very, very, very, very, very lucky I may get to write it a third time. Or a sixth or a sixtieth. Most of my stories are more or less versions of Beauty and the Beast. In the afterword to ROSE I say that someone has declared that each author has only one story, it’s how they retell it. Yes. Mine is Beauty and the Beast.
[Emphases in original.]

Ms. McKinley obviously feels that there is something very special about this tale, just as a tale.  I have always felt so, too-- and though I can see the concern about the Beast's behavior in the movie, and I think it's a very valid concern, I would hate to see this story censored point-blank from our culture or forbidden to our children.  Maybe there are good reasons why people love this movie and this fairy tale.  Maybe there are reasons why kids love it-- and not just because they're too innocent to see the "real" message. 

Beauty and the Beast, in its essence, is a story against prejudice.  It's a story about looking past the surface of things and seeing the value underneath. And it would be such a pity if people could not apply that very principle to the story itself, and could not look past the apparent justification of domestic violence which is on the surface, to the message which is deeper, and which is the reason, I think, why this story has always resonated so with its audiences.  

Laura Beres of the University of Toronto takes a more nuanced approach to the domestic violence issue in her 1999 paper Beauty and the Beast: the Romanticization of Abuse in Popular Culture.  She does say:

[I]n [stories such as] Beauty and the Beast, the hero is initially controlling and distant, if not blatantly abusive, and has been hurt in his past by a woman, or women, which has contributed to his distant and unloving manner. By being loved by the heroine, he can heal from his past experiences and become the perfect partner for her.

but she also adds :

I think I have been clear, but want to reiterate before examining texts that I am considering the possible meanings which could be taken from these texts by women who are attempting to make sense of their context of living with an abusive partner. I am not assuming that anyone else would take these same meanings.

Perhaps one of the reasons many people tend not to see normalization of domestic violence as a message of the fairy tale or movie unless someone points it out to them, is because this is essentially, fundamentally, not what this story is about.  I think it is a potentially dangerous inference which it is possible to see-- and that, particularly for women and children who have lived with domestic violence as if it were a normal occurrence, this inference ought to be pointed out as not a healthy message to take from the story.  But to see it as the message of this story, and to jettison the story accordingly, could mean missing out on some very positive impacts that the story is capable of imparting.

Here's a portion of one version of the original fairy tale, in which the Beast gives Beauty's father hospitality but turns on him for stealing a rose from the garden, sparing his life in return for Beauty being brought to his castle:

In the beginning, Beauty was frightened of the Beast, and shuddered at the sight of it. Then she found that, in spite of the monster's awful head, her horror of it was gradually fading as time went by. She had one of the finest rooms in the Castle, and sat for hours, embroidering in front of the fire. And the Beast would sit, for hours on end, only a short distance away, silently gazing at her. Then it started to say a few kind words, till in the end, Beauty was amazed to discover that she was actually enjoying its conversation. The days passed, and Beauty and the Beast became good friends. . .

"If you swear that you will return here in seven days time, I'll let you go and visit your father!" Beauty threw herself at the Beast's feet in delight. . .

Beauty was happy at last. However, she had failed to notice that seven days had gone by.

Then one night she woke from a terrible nightmare. She had dreamt that the Beast was dying and calling for her, twisting in agony.

"Come back! Come back to me!" it was pleading. The solem [sic] promise she had made drove her to leave home immediately.

"Hurry! Hurry, good horse!" she said, whipping her steed onwards towards the castle, afraid that she might arrive too late. She rushed up the stairs, calling, but there was no reply. Her heart in her mouth, Beauty ran into the garden and there crouched the Beast, its eyes shut, as though dead. Beauty threw herself at it and hugged it tightly.

"Don't die! Don't die! I'll marry you . . ." At these words, a miracle took place. The Beast's ugly snout turned magically into the face of a handsome young man.

"How I've been longing for this moment!" he said. "I was suffering in silence, and couldn't tell my frightful secret. An evil witch turned me into a monster and only the love of a maiden willing to accept me as I was, could transform me back into my real self. My dearest! I'll be so happy if you'll marry me . . ."

According to the SurLaLune Fairy Tales website, this story is related to the Greek "Cupid and Psyche" myth and to other tales where a young woman who is forced to marry does not recognize the true nature of her husband.  The original idea behind these tales may have been to encourage girls who entered arranged marriages with older men to look beyond appearances and learn to appreciate their husbands for who they were.  This, of course, is hardly an ideal for marriage, and it is a very good thing that women are free today to choose their own partners.  But one thing that seems to be in common in most of these original stories is that the Beast is uniformly gentle with Beauty; that he never offers her violence or abuse either verbally or physically, except to require her to stay with him (which he then relents of).  The idea is not that by choosing to love a vicious creature, Beauty changes him to a gentle one.  Rather, by being willing to see him as gentle and kind as he really is despite his outward appearance, Beauty releases the Beast to become outwardly as beautiful as he has been inwardly all along.  Thus the story is about overcoming prejudice and looking past the surface to see the real human being beneath.

Robin McKinley's versions focus on this aspect, with the twist that both her Beauty characters and her Beast characters need to learn to appreciate the other.  What she calls "my Beauty and the Beast" is thus about how two beings (and sometimes, by implication, two societies) who are strange to one another, learn to see past their differences.

It's true that the Disney version changes the original tale quite a bit.  But I think seeing it as a story where a woman chooses to love an abuser and thus turns him around, misses the points the Disney authors were trying to make.  That they did succeed at some level in making these points is testified to by the Academy Award nomination.  There are actually some very important and valuable themes of this movie which I think audiences picked up on, while they tended to miss the whole "normalization of domestic violence" dynamic.

First-- and it's somewhat ironic that those who wish to champion women seem to miss this-- the Disney story actually begins with a woman pronouncing judgment, and the story is all about the unfolding repercussions of the enchantress's curse.  Isn't it a distortion of the story to ignore that first female catalyst character? The woman at the beginning of the story is the archetypical "wise woman" of the fairy tale tradition. Her judgment is wise and sound, and it is the reason for the whole rest of the plot.

The Beast is cursed. This is extremely important, and if this element is not understood as a crucial part of the story, the message of the story becomes disrupted.  The point is that the Beast is a beast. Literally, a beast-- and he has been turned into a beast as part of a judgment for his sins.  I believe it's very important not to let our modern, rationalistic mindset blind us to the central role that the supernatural plays in this tale.  In a very real sense, the original fairy tale was not about the Beast-- it was about Beauty, and what she learns about the difference between outward perception and the inner nature.  But the Disney version begins by focusing not on Beauty, but on the Beast-- and thus adds a whole new element to the the tale of overcoming prejudice.  In Disney's hands it becomes a tale of judgment, repentance and redemption.

The magic element in this story is the spell of judgment performed by the enchantress at the beginning. She sees that the young man is a beast and turns him into what he really is, in order for him to eventually see himself for who he is, which is necessary for him to take responsibility. If you take the magic element out of this story, it turns into something else-- and that something else is normalization of domestic violence. Putting it in purely human, natural terms means the story is no longer "Beauty and the Beast." It's "Beauty and the abusive man." And as "Beauty and the abusive man" it doesn't and cannot work-- because the essential theme of supernatural judgment, repentance and redemption are lost.

This theme is brought out even more clearly by the addition of Gaston to the movie version.  There was no Gaston-type character in the original fairy tale at all.  But he is there in the Disney version as a foil for the Beast, to help make the point about what the Beast is really all about.  Gaston is everything the Beast is not.  He is outwardly handsome, while the Beast is outwardly ugly.  He is confident and superficially (if arrogantly) charming-- while the Beast is surly and, let's face it, bestial.  And it is Gaston who shows us that the Beast is not actually the real abuser in this version.

The fact is that both the Beast and Gaston act abusively towards Belle.  The Beast imprisons her in a castle, roars at her and attempts to deny her food.  But Gaston stalks her, refuses to accept her plain "no" as a "no," and finally attempts to marry her against her will.  The Beast acts as he does towards Belle because the animal nature has taken him over. Gaston has no such excuse.

Belle, by her presence, shows the Beast what it is to be human again.  I think it's also important to note that Belle does not actually accept the Beast's abusive treatment of her.  She locks herself in her room at first,  and then flees.  When he rescues her, she tells him straight out that he should not have treated her that way.  She does not begin to accept him until he begins to show signs of becoming acceptable.  No woman should ever put up with such treatment from a man. But the Beast is not a man.  He has, through the wise woman's curse, become a beast-- and as a beast, the rules regarding him are different. He needs to see Belle's reaction to his beastly behavior, in order to see himself as the beast he is.  He needs to watch Belle be human, to learn what it means to be human.

In the end, the Beast shows that he has indeed learned how to be human, by turning away from killing Gaston even though it means his own death. Gaston, secure in his supposed humanity, learns nothing, and by his beastly behavior shows that he is spiritually the real beast.

I really can't see the Beast as an abuser who gets redeemed by a true woman's love-- because it's not her love that redeems him. It's his. The Beast redeems himself through learning how to love, arising out of self-awareness, acknowledgment of responsibility, and repentance.  He thus becomes inwardly a person once more: a person who can love and be loved-- and this is what breaks the curse and makes him outwardly the prince that he has finally truly become. 

Anyway, I think children watching the movie, because they still believe in magic, tend to "get" this more easily than adults.  Unless children are raised in violent homes, they really don't need to be told "it's not ok in real life for a man to treat a woman like this." They already know-- but they can't articulate it, so it's easy for experts to come along years later and explain what's wrong with the story that they never saw before. But maybe it's not that they didn't see it because no one told them. Maybe they didn't see it because that really wasn't what the story was about.

I'm not saying we should ignore the potential problem of what this movie could impart, particularly to those already in abusive situations, about domestic violence.  But I am saying that we should see the positive messages that this story-- in both its Disney and fairy-tale versions--- really does have to tell. We should combat the normalization of partner abuse wherever the temptation to see it as normal arises.  But I don't think the real message of this story, in either incarnation, is that domestic violence should be seen as normal or as something women should accept in the hope of changing the abuser.

We live in a world where women do receive messages that they should ignore their own needs, and even their own safety, and just be sweet.  We live in a world where women receive messages that abusers really don't mean it and should be lived with anyway.  We live in a world where abusers blame the abused and claim that they wouldn't act abusive if they were treated better.  And sometimes these messages get transmitted through popular stories, movies and memes.

And all of this stinks.  And it's wrong.  And it ought to be stopped.

But I don't think it's fair to blame Beauty and the Beast.  That's really not what the story, in its essence, is about. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Purity Conversation - My Two Cents

It appears to have started with a blog post called I am Damaged Goods by Sarah Bessey, in which she says:

In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me – as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.
[Emphasis in original.]

And then other bloggers weighed in.  Elizabeth Esther with Virginity, New and Improved!  Rachel Held Evans with Do Christians Idolize Virginity?  Sarah Markley with Two Different Things.  Perfect Number with Purity for the Sake of Purity.  Leanne Penny with Red Yarn, Purity and My Misplaced Worth.  Hopeful Leigh with The Morning After.  And many more. 

The Deeper Story (where Sarah Bessey blogs) even created a link list entitled Impromptu Sex Week, in which her fellow blogger Preston states:

[T]here have been a number of conversations cropping up around the blogosphere about sexuality and church. . . [W]e hope that as these important issues are continued conversation for all of us, we can all further listen and understand one another and our unique perspectives.

So I've decided to join the conversation too. 

I don't think it's a coincidence that this conversation sprang up at around the same time as the Superbowl.  As Perfect Number states in her blog post a few days earlier called Women are Your Reward for Being Awesome!:

It may be true that portraying half of the human population as objects that exist only for men's entertainment, whose only use is in their sexuality, somehow causes people to buy more of whatever you're selling.
But if that's true, something is terribly terribly wrong with our society.

[Emphasis in original]

I think reduction of women to sexuality for the sake of men's entertainment, and reduction of women to purity for the sake of Christian ideals (which is usually unintended by Christian ministries, but happens just the same), are just two sides of the same coin.  Either way, women are reduced.  

As Elizabeth Esther put it in with Virginity, New and Improved!

Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization.  
[Emphasis in original.]
"Reduced" is itself an ironic word.  Women are also reduced by the voices-- Christian and non-Christian alike-- that tell them their age and the size of their bodies are also indicators of their worth.  What it comes down to in Superbowl culture is, "If you're young, thin and sexy, you can become a man's reward and the object of his desire."  And in Christian culture, it's "If you're young, thin and virginal, you can become a man's reward and the object of his desire." 

Hooray.  Just what we women always wanted. 

I was a virgin on my wedding night.  And yes, I bought into the Christian idea that this somehow made me better than other women.  I still think I had a reason to be proud of myself for self-control, just as when I'm dieting I can be proud when I say "no" to the piece of cake.  But in truth, neither of these things gives me greater worth in God's eyes than I already had, just for being worth dying on a cross for

When it comes right down to it, there are good reasons for dieting (I want to be in better health) and there were good reasons for abstinence before marriage (for me, I think what it really came down to is that I'm a private person, and I didn't want to share that most-private part of myself with anyone who had not already committed to love me and live as one with me).  But to be a more pleasing object, to men or to God, is not a good reason

In Maranatha Campus Ministries, the coercive religious group I belonged to when I got married, purity was taken to ridiculous extremes.  This was long before today's purity and courtship movements, but Maranatha had what they called "the dating revelation," which meant that instead of dating, when you began to have feelings for someone in the church (looking anywhere else was out of the question), you went and talked to the pastor (if you were a guy) or to the pastor's wife (if you were a girl), and then the church leaders (we didn't really have elders, since none of us were over 35 and most of us under 30) would pray over the match and "hear from God" as to whether it was His will.

In one way this was better than today's purity/courtship movement, which insists that people should deny and suppress any feelings they have for the opposite sex until after they have been brought together.  Maranatha believed that if the match was from God, so were the feelings.  It was God putting the love in your heart for that other person-- unless, of course, the leaders didn't feel a "witness in their spirits" when they prayed, in which case those feelings were just from the flesh, sister, and you'd better pray and fast till they went away.

Once my husband and I were brought together by the church leaders, we were given the big lecture on staying pure until the wedding day.  This meant not doing anything that might tempt one another.  No kissing (our first kiss was supposed to be at the altar).  No touching (hey, holding hands wasn't exactly wrong, but did you really want to give the devil a foothold?)  Even a neck rub could be a problem, so better just not start. 

And all of this was presented in terms of, "We're not trying to control you; make your own decisions about this.  But these are our guidelines, and we believe we have wisdom in this."  But I remember one couple who got engaged shortly before we did, and decided that they were going to hold hands and kiss (I'm not talking about French kissing, just a peck on the lips) before the wedding day were treated with deep disapproval and held up to us as a negative, shameful example.  But no, there was no control going on here.  Nothing to see.  Just move on.

So my future husband and I, being deeply in love and desperately wanting/needing to learn to relate to one another physically as well as verbally/mentally/spiritually, found some silly ways to get around the rules.

I remember how when we were on the beach or in the woods, we'd take long blades of grass or tall weed stems and tickle one another on the neck and arms, giggling and flirting while we tried to avoid the tickles ourselves while getting in as many as we could on one another.

I remember how on a long drive home from my husband's sister's wedding, I took a piece of cloth and put it over my hand in order to massage his aching neck and shoulders.

I remember how sometimes we'd take a short stick and hold it between us as we walked, instead of holding hands. 

I also remember thinking how odd it was that before we were engaged, we could hug one another as all church members did, but now that we were officially together, we could no longer even do that.  "What do I do if she's crying about something?  I can't comfort her!" my husband once said in desperation to one of his friends who was also engaged.  "I know.  We have to find a sister to do it, or just leave her be," was the reply. 

Looking back on it now, my husband and I are bemused and a little embarrassed.  How could we have had so little faith in ourselves and in the grace of God, that a hug, a neck rub, holding hands or even a kiss would be more than we could handle and would end in steamy windows in the back seat of a car?   Neither of us wanted our first time to be like that-- we both wanted a quiet honeymoon suite to try in peace and privacy the techniques set out in Tim LaHaye's Christian sex manual The Act of Marriage.  (Ironically, this and other sexual-technique materials were required reading in Maranatha's mandatory pre-marital counseling.  I think it was a good idea to give us some advance preparation for that night when the sexual light-switch was somehow supposed to switch from full-off to full-on, but it was hard to read about doing all these things when apart, and then be unable even to touch when we met in person.)

But that's the way it was.  Ideology mattered more than human beings.  A thing called "purity" was more important than a thing called "common sense."  And even though Maranatha enforced these rules on guys and girls alike, it was on the females that shame for non-compliance fell most harshly.

Despite its claim to honor women unlike "the world" that objectifies them, today's purity/courtship culture (just like Maranatha's earlier one) many times objectifies women just as much, and for the same reasons.  Women exist not for themselves, but for others, and particularly for men.  

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."  But the purity teaching says, "The chief end of woman is to glorify man and be enjoyed by him, and it is incumbent upon man to keep her pure for these ends."

And when the Superbowl culture says "The chief end of woman is to glorify man and be enjoyed by him" and only leaves out that last idea that she should be kept pure-- then all I can see is the church upholding the traditions of men rather than the gospel of Christ. 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. . .  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. . . But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.  Romans 8:1-11.

It's good to wait until marriage, if we do it because we're walking in the Spirit.  But walking in condemnation because we didn't wait-- that's also of the flesh.

And reducing women to objects of the flesh in the name of purity?

As far as I can see, that is the most fleshly of all. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Forgotten Women in Church History: Margaret Fell (1614-1702)

Margaret Fell is often called "the mother of Quakerism," and as such, she has not been forgotten by the Society of Friends.  As this site (run by her descendants) notes:

Most historians credit George Fox with founding Quakerism but it was Margaret who contributed her fortune and administered the finances of the young church, publicly defended the religion, visited meetings and took care of correspondence.  In addition to being a missionary, preacher, and teacher, Margaret wrote at least 16 books and 27 pamphlets discussing and defending her religion.

In spite of this, the entry on the history of Quakerism doesn't mention Margaret Fell at all (though it does give her an entry in "Women of World History").  Neither does the online Encyclopedia Britannica's Quakerism entry.  And this historical overview of Quakerism from Ex Libris gives her only a passing mention, and then only in terms of being first the wife of Judge Fell (who actually never became a Quaker himself but is valued instead for the protection his influence gave the Quaker movement) and then later as George Fox's wife.  Margaret Fell's own theological and practical  leadership at the time when Quakerism was defining itself (and in many ways being defined by her teachings) is often downplayed or ignored.

Margaret Fell was born in 1614 in Lancashire, England.  In 1632 she married gentleman Thomas Fell, owner of Swarthmoor Hall, who became a justice of the peace for Lancashire and later a circuit-traveling judge of the court of assizes.  In 1652, while her husband was away on circuit, Lancashire was visited by George Fox, who was then near the beginning of his ministry.  Margaret and her children were convinced by his teachings, and when Judge Fell returned home, he was greeted by neighbors warning him that his family had converted to Fox's version of Christianity.  Judge Fell met with Fox himself and, though never fully embracing the Quaker way, was supportive of his wife's religious views and allowed Swarthmoor Hall to become a meeting place for the movement.

When Judge Fell died in 1658, Margaret inherited Swarthmoor Hall but lost the protection of the Judge's power and influence.  The Quakers meeting in her home began to suffer persecution, and George Fox was arrested and thrown in prison for treason in 1659.  Margaret left Swarthmoor to visit the King of England, securing Fox's release and obtaining a proclamation of freedom for Quakers.  Nevertheless, Parliament enacted a law stating that people who refused to take an oath of loyalty to the crown could be imprisoned.  This law was aimed at Quakers, who believed that taking oaths of any kind was against the teachings of Christ.  Margaret, however, publicly clarified that this belief was in no way an expression of disloyalty.  As Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

[Margaret Fell] was. . . one of the first writers to articulate the Quaker philosophy of peace and non-resistance. In a letter to Charles II, dated 1660, she declares that the Quakers aspire

"to live peaceably with all men, And not to Act any thing against the King nor the peace of the Nation, by any plotts, contrivances, insurrections, or carnall weapons to hurt or destroy either him or the Nation thereby, but to be obedient unto all just & lawfull Commands." (Glines 2003, 280)

Fell emphasizes that although Friends cannot in good conscience take an oath, “in Substance they perform that, which is true Allegiance to the King” (Fell 1710, 29–30).

In 1664 Margaret herself was imprisoned for refusing to take an oath of loyalty, and remained in prison for over four years, during which time she wrote many of her pamphlets and longer works.  In 1668 the king granted her release, even though her estate was forfeited to her son George Fell, who was not a Quaker.  He however, allowed his sisters (who were Quakers) to occupy Swarthmoor Hall, and Quaker meetings continued to be held there. In 1669 Margaret married George Fox, and together they continued building the Society of Friends.  Both spent additional time in prison for their beliefs (though not together), and were also separated from time to time by missionary journeys, but they dedicated the rest of their to the teaching of "Inner Light" from the Holy Spirit.

In 1686 the Act of Toleration signed by James II finally freed Quakers from imprisonment and persecution, and George and Margaret Fox were able to build a meeting house on the Swarthmoor property.  George Fox died in 1691, and Margaret in 1702.  Her last words were "I am at peace." 

The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes Margaret Fell's life as follows:

Together with Fox and William Penn, Fell is now regarded as one of the founders of Quakerism. She helped to sustain the movement through her large correspondence with other Friends on a range of personal and religio-political topics. She travelled widely and spent extended periods in London petitioning the political authorities on behalf of persecuted Quakers (she personally addressed not only Oliver Cromwell but also Charles II and James II). And on at least three occasions, she spent periods in prison for holding Quaker meetings at her house and for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance. Together [she and George Fox] were active organizers of the separate Quaker women's meetings, first officially begun in 1671. . . She was the author (or co-author) of at least 23 works in total, mostly in the form of short pamphlets.

 According to Daughters of the Church by Tucker and Liefeld:

The most enduring legacy that Fell left to the Quakers was her writing.  She was an outstanding apologist for the movement during the early years, and her policy positions became an integral part of Quaker belief.  In 1660, she wrote a "Declaration and an Information" that officially set forth the Quaker position on pacifism.  She also responded in print to critics of Quakerism, seeking to show that the movement was not a bizarre or seditious sect. . . p.230

Tucker and Liefeld also note the enduring legacy of Fell's work to advance the equality of women in ministry:

The writing that is most often associated with her is Women's Speaking Justified by the Scriptures, first published in 1666.  Here again her influence on Quaker belief was enormous.  Fox himself had written against restricting women in ministry a decade earlier, but "he had not fully developed the argument in favor of women preaching; that remained for Margaret Fell to do."
p. 230, quoting in part the Introduction to Women's Speaking Justified.

The website of the Tokyo Branch of the Society of Friends  describes this work as "a quite vigorous defense of women's spiritual equality and justifies women being active in the public ministry. It remains an important work today, when numerous churches continue to restrict the ministry of women. It is a very careful exegesis of scripture, highlighting the difference between women under the Law and women of the New Creation under Christ. Fell is a particularly appropriate person to write this tract, as her life and ministry ably demonstrates how powerfully the Lord can work in public ministry through a woman."

I can think of no better conclusion than to quote from it.

Mark this, you that despise and oppose the Message of the Lord God that he sends by Women; What had become of the Redemption of the whole Body of Mankind, if they had not cause to believe the Message that the Lord Jesus sent by these Women, of and concerning his Resurrection? And if these Women had not thus, out of their Tenderness, and Bowels of Love, who had received Mercy, and Grace, and Forgiveness of Sins, and Vertue, and Healing from him; which many Men also had received the like, if their Hearts had not been so united and knit unto him in Love, that they could not depart as the Men did; but sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the Sepulchre until the time of his Resurrection, and so were ready to carry his Message, as is manifested, else how should his Disciples have known, who were not there?

Oh! Blessed and Glorified be the Glorious Lord; for this may all the whole Body of Mankind say, though the Wisdom of Man that never knew God, is always ready to except against the Weak; but the Weakness of God is stronger than Men, and the Foolishness of God is wiser than Men, 1 Cor. 1 25.