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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Colonialist Tendencies in American Sexism (2009)

By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written Sept. 13, 2009
Today I attended a graduate history class on travel narratives in Latin America. We studied how Cortez and others used travel narratives to justify what they were doing politically and economically during their “conquests.” After the class, I drove past a billboard for “Workboots Warehouse” and the photo accompanying the ad showed a woman in “Daisy Duke shorts,” and a small top with most of her torso and chest showing, lying down, raising her leg with apparently a pair of work boots on. I immediately had a line of reasoning connecting this conquering mentality and women. I immediately went to comparing the woman in the ad to the native people who assisted Cortez, unknowingly towards their own demise. I thought of the comparison of Cortez and how he exploited the infighting of neighboring tribes to his own advantage, much as I see happening with women infighting over power *through* the use of men and sexual stereotyping. Honestly, the Spanish Conquest and sexism have a lot in common.
Today in class, we learned that there are certain patterns to literature written by “conquering” explorers about Latin America. And last year I studied the classic literature of (US) American wilderness, which was predominantly written by wealthy white men who made themselves out to be “civilized,” as opposed to the native populations, who they deemed “savage,” “barbaric,” etc., as they surveyed and reported about the Wild West (and traded a gallon of whiskey for 140 buffalo hides...) Both the Spanish Conquistadores and the early American writers were men who most certainly wrote their travel narratives with personal agendas. And while they wrote to create their own identities as adventurers, conquerors, discoverers, etc., they simultaneously defined and described an “other” in their works.
Another pattern of these writers is they compare and contrast in seemingly contradicting terms. The “conquered” are both glamorized and dehumanized by the “conqueror.” The “conquered” are glamorized to show they have worth, even if for later exploitation to justify the “conqueror’s” further funding, and the building up of the “conquered” shows the greater power of the “conqueror.” If a “conquerer” describes taking a grand city of modern architecture, he is considered more powerful than if he takes a group of mud huts, as one of my classmates noted. Conquering something of no determined or claimed worth won’t buy much notoriety. Thus the people and places were praised but then they were simultaneously dehumanized to justify their exploitation by the conqueror. I see this is a pattern of the Conquistadores, it is a pattern with early (US) American travel narrative writers, and it is also a pattern I also see with patriarchy and women in our current day society.
Men have historically defined themselves through literature, art, and other great cultural venues, often in traditions that did not allow women participation, such as men playing all parts including women parts in the old theater, or the idea that women who learn to read and write go barren or mad. Through the ages, men have defined themselves in a patriarchy, and who they fictionalize themselves to be, much as the Spanish Conquistador fictionalized himself and those he “conquered,” and men in patriarchy have also fictionalized the “other;” they have defined women. The patriarchal version of who women *are* is much like the Conquistador description of the native populations in Latin America, where they are described as child like, yet virtuous, yet flawed and requiring intervention and training and protection, from themselves and others, all the while, being ripe for the exploitation from their “protectors” and “liberators.”
So, how is it that after thinking about these patterns of conquering literature that I was triggered immediately by the scantily clad woman on the work boots ad? It made me think of the woman, the model in the ad, and her state of mind. It made me think of all women who sell stereotyped sexuality-in-a-can like that. That type of sexuality that yokes women in this society in a way men are not subjected to, and that type of sexuality that really has little at all to do with sex, and everything to do with power, and women trying, feebly, to get some. I thought about the Native American populations in the U.S., who helped the people who actually led to their demise. Natives who openly shared water sources, food, wisdom, and ways of the land with Spanish and European “conquerors,” information essential to their own survival, only to find out later that these same people they did favors for would enslave and kill off their people, and even them. Marilyn Monroe fits this model and is almost a poster child for women akin to the Native Americans who saved their own conquerors from death. She played the role, she played it well. She led men here and there with it. She did what her male handlers told her to. But in the end, no one was there for her. Her own act was her own demise. She led the men to her home, to pillage whatever she had, until she had nothing. That could truly be argued, and that is truly the connection I feel when I see and hear these things. Perhaps this analysis is too vague for some, maybe for others the comparisons are too loose. But honestly, there is a kernel of truth in what I am saying here, I feel it in my gut.
And when I see things like the “Workboots Warehouse” ad centering basically on a scantily clad woman to sell work boots, it reminds me of Rob Brezsny’s line about canned sexuality like that “reminding me who I am here to serve.” Much as a dictator’s face plastered on every building and wall in a city let’s you know who you are to serve, when I see half-naked women plastered on every billboard around me, I feel the same message, a message of subservience, a message that reminds me of the social order. A message that defines me, inherently, as I am a woman. I am the images of half-naked women selling car tires and beer. Or at least that is what everything from burlesque to the nightly news is telling me. And like those conquered in the past, I am supposed to go along with this image which was actually defined by the other, while defining himself. I am dehumanized, like the “religion-less” Native Americans who resisted Christian missionaries, and subjected to teachings on what womanhood is, what sexuality in the context of men and men’s desires is, I am told I need to be “civilized” in the context of my womanhood. I have stereotypical sex-in-a-can formulated “womanhood” shoved down my throat like Native Americans had Christianity shoved down theirs, and I am resisting with equal force as many of the Native American warriors that did fight back, not willing to give their conquerors water in the hot noonday sun. And I am watching as women who do play along with the men, doing what gets men to reward them, are rewarded, temporarily, on the surface, as many Native Americans, and Latin American native populations alike, were “rewarded” temporarily for their assistance.
I hate having these trains of thought. I am fully aware they are unpopular. The women using the sex-in-a-can formula want me to shut up as they see me as jeopardizing their little handful of power. The men want me to shut up as I am threatening their conquests. I find myself unwilling to just play along with some fake sexuality to fan the ego of some guy I have no reason to kiss the ass of, but for his maleness, exclusively. I am not interested in pretending I am sexually available to men for attention, protection, or favors. Even if I am just pretending on a stage. I see over and over and over on stages, in my own performing “family” even, that the women are assumed to show legs, arms and upper chest, while the men are damned near hermetically sealed in long sleeves and long pants. Again, it reminds me of who I am here to serve. I know it is unpopular to say this stuff out loud. We are to think, but not speak, of such things. But I am now 48 years old, and I have believed this, and felt this my whole life, and I still have these gut feelings that the whole sex-in-a-can formula for women is a failed strategy for actual independence and liberation.

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