"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 10, 2014

Shakespeare And Feminism

It is surprising that with women outstripping men in the high-earning professions of medicine and law; when top executive positions at major multinational corporations such as Merissa Mayer at Yahoo and Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard are increasingly common; when women are serving in the highest ranks of the military; and when for the first time a higher percentage of women are employed than men, there is still an insistent cry for more equality and equal justice for women, and exhortations to demand more.


                                    Merissa Mayer

Emer O’Toole writing in The Guardian (1.10.14) writes that not only is feminism still alive, well, and indispensable for women, she says, but men should move aside, get over it, and don’t bother them.  “We don’t need you”. Feminism would do better to remain pure and uncomplicated without men’s solidarity. 

In displays of faux solidarity, feminist men are persistently drawing parallels to women’s plight, thus diluting the intensity of the message.  Feminist men say that they empathize with women’s vulnerability because men suffer even more from street violence than women.  Men are increasingly under pressure to reform their body image to bourgeois norms. body image, etc.
O’Toole wants no part of it.
“I'm instructed that if I expect men to be allies in the feminist movement, I can't talk about wolf whistles and ass pats when men are at risk of having their teeth kicked in.”
O'Toole is right.  One should always be suspicious of men who say they are feminists – the ones who proudly go to women’s conferences; post articles on the plight of women on their Facebook pages; and always defer to their wives, female colleagues, and competitors in a show of sympathy, empathy, and solidarity.  They are unbelievable because the war between men and women is as hot and brutal as it ever has ever been. Men still cheat on their wives and girlfriends, exploit their feminine emotions, still want to rule the roost, populate the earth with as many of their offspring as possible, and resist any and all female attempts to corral, break, and tame them.

Old-fashioned thinking? Hardly. There are legions of thirty-something women desperate for a man, children, and a home; and thus play right into the hands of savvy guys who can play these time-bound, pressured women like a violin.  Intelligent women.  Creative, innovative women.
Here’s the good news – women can take care of themselves.  They are intelligent, canny, aggressive, and supremely able to beat men at their own game.  While there is no doubt that women were somewhat cossetted in the past, those times are over.  If Hilary can be President, and Merissa Mayer ruling a big chunk of the IT world, then the way is open and clear.  In fact, if most of these thirty-something women would simply get over their residual obsession with men and marriage, they would be far better off.  Without families they could easily jump into the grinder of law partnership, investment banking, or real estate development.  Women are the equals if not betters of men when it comes to naked aggression, ambition, self-interest, and unalloyed drive.
Which brings me to Shakespeare, a champion of strong women. None of his women need any help from men, most run rings around them, and many best them in politics and war.  Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is my favorite. Hungry and ambitious and fiercely desirous of maintaining her power, she stops at nothing, mutilates the daughter of her arch-rival, Titus Andronicus as an act of defiance and revenge, and although she gets her comeuppance (eating her sons in a pie baked by Titus), she is resolutely and forever unbowed.

Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, stops at nothing to promote her son hoping to assure her own power and glory in Rome.  When he goes wobbly, she takes over, emasculates him, and rises to power herself.  Margaret, the wife of the weak, pious, and bookish Henry VI takes to the battlefield to defeat the French and protect her kingdom.  Cleopatra is so much smarter and more able than Antony who is besotted with her and stupefied by her wealth and pageantry.  She gets all she wants from her men, having bedded Julius Caesar, dawdled with the Pompeys, and had children with Mark Antony.  Rather than be bested by Augustus, she commits suicide in her own act of supreme defiance of men.
Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola play with their men, far their intellectual inferiors. Cressida sleeps with whomever she wants, defying social mores and politics, crossing the Trojan-Greek boundary with ease.  Troilus is a simpering, na├»ve fool by comparison.  Goneril and Regan need no one’s help in their quest for wealth and power, let alone their ineffectual husbands Albany and Cornwall.  Lady Macbeth has her husband wound around her little finger until she goes wobbly, but before that she is one of Shakespeare’s most fearful unmanning characters.

All these women understood their inferior social position, but never let it get in the way.  They succeeded within a male-dominated society, despite it, and even because of it.  Although some of these women are purely fictional, others are not.  The powerful queens of England and the women of court depicted by Shakespeare were very real indeed. Katherine of Aragon, the mother of King John, the aforementioned Margaret, wife of Henry VI; and Marguerite of Anjou, Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Burgundy, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York, all powerful players in the War of the Roses, were models for Shakespeare.
Strong, determined women are common in literature.  Hedda Gabler in Ibsen’s play of the same name, was a Nietzschean, amoral hero equal of any of Shakespeare’s women.  Christine and Lavinia Mannon in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, stop at nothing to get what they want.  Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House comes to her feminism slowly, but when she has had enough with her dope husband, she is out the door.  Tennessee Williams’ Mrs. Venable (Suddenly Last Summer) can certainly stand with Tamora, Volumnia, and Dionyza.

                Hedda Gabler
So, I am firmly in the Shakespeare-the-Feminist camp.  Women are quite capable of handling themselves, so watch out.  The constant yakking and hectoring by American feminists is getting very tiresome.  Women have two strategic options to achieve equality if not supremacy.  First, they would have to get over the notion of ‘having it all’ and understand the operational necessity of jettisoning men and children.  Without these albatrosses around their necks, women can achieve Olympian heights.  Second, they would have to accept their femininity and do what powerful women in male-dominated societies have done for centuries – use men, exploit their frail egos and desire for heirs, drive a wedge into any cracks of character or resolve, and end up with the spoils.
I agree with O’Toole in this sense – women can and should do it alone.  The men who express solidarity with feminism are just kidding themselves and are nothing but liberal hangers-on who are looking for some kind of backdoor status.  The men who accept their manhood are rivals and should be treated as such.
If women adopt the first option (all-out warfare), the militant charge should be led by lesbian women who haven’t a scintilla of compassion or desire for men. To them men are at best irrelevant, usually a pain in the ass, but most times simply get in the way.  How can the feminist assault ever succeed with men bumbling around the kitchen or constantly asking them to roll over.  Dykes understand female power, solidarity, commitment, and determination better than their straight sisters ever will.
I remain a bystander in this epic struggle, enjoying the heraldry, pomp, and circumstance.  I am a fan of gender jousting, strategic firefights, fiery speeches, and sabre-rattling.  I admire the new, young feminists who take up the standards from their fallen or departed sisters and engage the enemy. 
When all is said and done, however, I can only sit back and admire Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, or Volumnia – women without a compassionate bone in their bodies.  Single-minded, ruthless, brilliant women who are in a league of their own.

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