I’ve been intrigued by the question of the psychological differences between men and women since the attempt to deny their existence which was mounted by the feminist eruption of the early ‘60s and ‘70s. I took that attempt seriously for a while, but it soon became clear that the movement had two impossible dogmas: one, that men and women are the same except where women are superior, and two, that men and women are to be treated identically except where it is to the advantage of women that they be treated differently. At that point the feminist movement began to be of more interest to me for what it got wrong and what it inadvertently revealed than for what it consciously asserted; it became a spur to my fascinated consideration of woman as a species, so much like my kind and yet so different.
In pursuing this research I often make my wife the sole spokesman for her entire sex. When I’m wondering aloud and at length about what some female characteristic really means, or why men think or do X but women think or do Y, she doesn’t usually say a great deal. This is constitutional: against stereotype, I’m the more verbal of us, and she isn’t much given to the kind of abstract rationalizing that I do all the time—or if she is, she keeps her conclusions mostly to herself. But she has deep insight and a way of somehow coming up with something brief and pithy when I push her for an answer.
So it was a year or so ago, when, as is now usual around Valentine’s Day, the topic of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was in the news. I had run across a statement that completely baffled me: an actress—I think it was Glenn Close—had said something like “Eve [Ensler] gave us back our souls.” What, I wondered, could she possibly mean? How or why could an extended discussion of one’s genitals seem soul-saving? The same news story in which Close was quoted included similar sentiments from other famous women, mostly or perhaps all actresses. After rattling on about it for a few minutes, I put the question directly to my wife: what makes them say things like this?
There was a little pause, and she answered, “There’s something broken in their woman-ness.”
Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and another round of dealing with the Monologues. There have been the usual controversies about whether the play should be performed at Catholic colleges. I haven’t read it, but if descriptions of it both pro and con are accurate, the answer is obviously “no.” More interesting to me remains the question of why it was written in the first place, and why some women seem to respond to it with such fervor. In a discussion on Amy Welborn’s Open Book a few days ago, I made this statement:
The way it looks to me as a male observer is that a woman is her body in a way that a man is not. A man's body is more like something he operates. I conjecture that the increased exposure and objectification of the female body in our sexualized culture is helping to produce aberrations like these plays.
That was an off-the-cuff comment. To elaborate the thought a bit further, maybe the psychology of the thing is something like this: erotically charged images of beautiful women are impossible to avoid in our culture. It’s not just female beauty that’s forced into our awareness all the time, but female beauty with a definite and direct sexual charge—the woman is first of all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, a sexual object (as the feminist movement used to say, and perhaps still does) in the narrowest sense. Nobody, male or female, really wants to be an object of use by other people. But if it’s true that a woman is more closely identified with her body than a man is, then the anxiety generated by this objectification would be greater for women. The same sort of anxiety is generated by a woman’s participation in sexual activity in which she is treated as an object—which is to say, the kind of activity which has become the sanctioned norm for both sexes since the 1960s.
Women are thus simultaneously more vulnerable than men to the effects of this objectification and the main targets of it. Moreover, the technologically exaggerated sex appeal of the women in advertising and entertainment is both more pure, in the literal sense of having less of anything else in it, and less human than that which any actual woman (including these very models and actresses, if one were to meet them in person) can wield. Even the models and actresses themselves must know that they can’t live up to the images of which they are the raw material. So the real woman is made to feel not only like an object but an inferior object.
Adding to the disorientation is that the whole point of woman’s allure, from the simple biological point of view, is to induce the act which produces a baby. And yet it’s precisely in the context of sexual pleasure that her fertility is despised. It’s no wonder that there might be something broken in a lot of women, and some pretty strange phenomena ensuing.
Perhaps Eve Ensler’s play says some of these things. Perhaps I ought to read it, although I really don’t want to. But here’s something else which I strongly suspect may be true and which I’m pretty sure Ensler does not say: a woman who signed herself simply as “Caroline” agreed with my comment at Open Book, adding that
For women there is no earthly solution to this identification of self and body which makes, in effect, the imperfect body into the imperfect self. What I am getting at is that women are best positioned to enjoy their glorified bodies and their total selves in the hereafter.
If it turns out to be true, this would be another instance of the last—that is, those who suffer most—being first.