Beyond the Whore/Madonna Complex: A Sense of Self

There's a great new post by Tekanji at Alas, a Blog on modesty vs. raunch culture. Although I find her critique of "modesty" too sweeping, she makes some excellent points about the culture of shame that drives the objectification and fetishization of women. Here is part of her critique of exhibitionistic "raunch culture":
... just as the choice to adopt “modest” dress does not live in a vaccum, neither does the choice to wear “revealing” clothing. There is a lot of pressure on young girls to adopt a particular style of dress. ...

Raunch culture guilts and shames women into putting on a sexual performance for men, whether they want to or not. It sets up a “right” way to express sexuality, and by pushing the notion that men are entitled to sexual gratification, even if it’s just in the form of women wearing low-cut shirts, it ignores the fact that true sexual liberation comes from people being able to make choices about what makes them happy without being guilted and/or shamed into acting a certain way. In that way, it is very much a part of, and a method of perpetuating, a sexually negative culture.

The political Right (as I noted in an earlier post) is sometimes schizophrenic on this. The neoconservative side of the brain waxes eloquent about the oppression of women under the burqa-enforcing yoke of Islam, but the social-conservative side of the brain thinks women ought to stay covered up. But what really matters is our freedom to set our own limits.

In a Purim-related post in 2004, I wrote:
Vashti, the queen of Persia, commits an open act of defiance against the King. After seven days of feasting, King Ahasuerus, in his cups, commands that the his wife the queen be brought before all the men “wearing a royal diadem” – and nothing else, as the traditional interpretation has it. Queen Vashti, furious, refuses this degrading order.

The king is so taken aback that he has to consult his advisers as to what to do next. An official named Memucan opines that Vashti’s insurrection will “make all wives despise their husbands” and that therefore she must be exiled immediately, lest there be “no end of scorn and provocation.” This edict, he continues, should be promulgated “throughout the lands of Persia and Media,” after which the king should take another bride “more worthy” than Vashti, so that “all wives will treat their husbands with respect.” King Ahasuerus does exactly as Memucan instructs.

Let us notice the implications. It is the king’s honor, and not the queen’s, that is of concern here. In fact, simply by insisting on her own dignity and autonomy, the insubordinate queen is a threat to his honor. And finally, the king, as ruler of his country, has an obligation to uphold this patriarchal value system lest it infect the lower classes.

What is the right that was so important to Vashti? Simply put, it is the right to wear clothes. It is the right to define her own boundaries, and to claim her body as her own. It is her right to exist.

It is also the right to present herself to the world in a fashion of her own choosing. Beyond the need to keep warm, beyond our basic instinct for decency, we wear clothes to express ourselves. Getting dressed is the first creative act we do every day. There is something so fundamental about this need that people will risk punishment for it. In contemporary Iran, some women deliberately wear colored socks, or allow a forbidden strand of hair to show, simply to assert their own autonomy in the face of Islamic totalitarianism. ...

I also argue (as does Tekanji) that our right to choose our mode of dress is intimately linked to our gender expression: 'By covering ourselves, we create the possibility of defining our own relationship to gender. Transgendered individuals, like the defiant Iranian women, have often risked harrassment and physical violence in order to dress according to their own identities. Those of us who do not identify with our socially dictated “assigned gender” can identify with that Persian queen: Vashti’s right to wear a dress is my right to wear a dress.' (See also my post on the Kabbalah.)

Go read Tekanji's full post at the link. And don't forget to bookmark Alas, a Blog.

Somewhere between totalitarianism and anarchy there is a world where we are free as individuals to define our own boundaries. It's a world where we can express ourselves - and conceal ourselves - without fear of persecution or exploitation. It is a free world, a world that we can make a reality.