Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Horrified: Fear and the Female Body

At a theme park in central Florida there's a restaurant where the tables resemble '57 Chevys, and stars twinkle on a midnight blue ceiling.  Carhops serve diners as clips from classic horror movies flicker on a giant screen covering the far wall. A few years ago, I sat in the dark, eating salty french fries, drinking a chocolate malt, and feeling altogether nostalgic for the romantic drive-ins of a time and place I could never know.  Then I noticed a few scenes kept repeating on the screen--sometimes with different monsters, or red-heads instead of blondes, but the premise was always the same. Either a helpless virgin was being carried off by some blood-thirsty creature, or Earth was under attack by swarms of alien invaders from a planet inhabited entirely by voluptuousness vixens.  It wasn't the same old Eve or Ave, Saint or Sinner dichotomy.  The women in these horror films were either the ravaged victims or the vengeful monsters.  Most of these movies were made between the 1940s and 60s. Rosie may have been off rivitting duty, and June Cleaver was busy in the kitchen, but women were gaining some degree of autonomy. The first wave of feminism may have stalled, but a few new ripples were visible on the surface of a no-longer impervious ocean.  And I couldn't help thinking, as the 50 Foot Woman straddled the freeway and crushed cars between her naked thighs, that all these movies pointed to some overarching fear of women, particularly women's sexuality.

When President Obama was elected, a sense of optimism pervaded among liberals--Hope, Change, and all that. When the economy continued to plummet even further into the worst recession since the Great Depression, it was just partisan business as usual, with both sides pointing fingers, chanting, "Jobs! Economy! Jobs!" As things begin to slowly but surely improve, Republicans don't want to talk about the economy or its recovery.  And they definitely don't want to talk about Osama bin Laden.  Instead, the GOP wants to talk about vaginas, Obama's so called "war on religion," "the sanctity of marriage," and vaginas.  Over the past few months, Republican legislatures around the country have introduced bill after bill after ballot measure designed to wage an all-out culture war on women and turn back the clocks as far as the wheels will go.

Last November, the Personhood Amendment showed up on the ballot in Mississippi.  The amendment, had it passed, was meant to establish fertilization as the beginning of human life.  There was a tremendous amount of support for the measure for months leading up to the election.  Mississippi is a land where state's rights are supreme, and it notoriously doesn't like to be told what to do.  If "outsiders" and "instigators" interfered in voter registration, peopled disappeared. If the federal government tried to enforce regulations, Mississippi would just secede.  That's essentially what the Personhood Amendment was doing all over again.  It would have declared state's rights independent and supreme over federal rulings, such as Roe v. Wade, establishing a dangerous precedent for the future of the state.  But, Mississippi voters could have rallied behind that kind of bill; they would have passed the hell out of an anti-abortion bill.  There's only one abortion clinic in Mississippi.  It's small, costly, and requires waiting periods and counselling sessions designed to shame vulnerable women (and it is now essentially shut down by House Bill 1390). But the Personhood Amendment went a step too far, opening the door for the ban of birth control and even in vitro fertilization.  And, at the time, even Mississippians couldn't get behind that. 

Since November, Personhood USA has taken steps to get similar amendments on the ballots in Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas this year, and back on the Mississippi ballot as early as next year.  Furthermore, all of the GOP candidates for President have signed the "Personhood Pledge." At the core, these ballot measures are about more than state's rights or so-called pro-life ideology; it's about the war over women's rights to make decisions about their own lives, their own bodies, and their own welfare.  Women are told by leaders on the Right that instead of contraception, they should just hold asprin between their knees, rather than using actual contraception, which makes women "sluts" and "prostitutes" who should set up webcams for the sexual gratification of cigar-smoking, illegal-Viagra-popping, prescription-drug addicts. Limbaugh apologized for his poor use of words, of course, but his message was clear--as clear as the message sent by Congress when it initially denied Sandra Fluke's testimony--women must be silenced. And now things are getting really crazy. A new bill in Arizona would allow employers to question women about their sex lives before covering contraception, and a bill in Georgia would require women to carry a dead fetus inside of her until it was expelled naturally, rather than perform a procedure to remove it. A bill introduced in Tennessee would make the names of women who seek abortions publicly available, exposing them to threats of violence that took Dr. George Tiller's life. And if women do not benefit from the asprin-between-knees method, and find themselves needing an abortion, the state of Virginia will still comply, but not until she's had an invasive, painful, costly and entirely unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound, which was repeatedly referred to on the floor of the state legislature as "trans-V" because VAGINA is such a dirty word. Similar bills are approved or on the verge of approval throughout the country.

But the fear is aimed not just at women who take contraception or seek abortion. Even pregnant women are a danger to the fabric of our society.  Radio hosts and right-wing commentators have been doing what they do best--fearmongering at the expense of women's bodies--and spreading the urban legends of terrorists who hide bombs in baby diapers or transport Islamic Extremists in their very wombs. Representative Gohmert's remarks on the House floor are not only unfounded accusations about terrorists crossing the Arizona border, but they also label any pregnant woman of color as a terrorist, "coddling" the next generation of unborn terrorists. Republicans across the country are ignoring their own established paradox--is the fetus something to be protected? Or is it something to be feared?  Would they abort a brown fetus they suspected of being a terrorist?  It sounds absurd, but then, what part of Republican reasoning on women's health doesn't?  It's not a long stretch to say that if a gay gene is ever discovered, abortion will be available free and on demand at many local churches.  

We live in a society where women are told and taught to look a certain way, to behave a certain way.  Wear make-up and high heals, diet perpetually, and then no one will think you're ugly or a lesbian.  If you're raped, however, that's your own fault for looking easy.  They say you were asking for it.  Even in the United States military, the rape of a servicewoman can be brushed aside because she was wearing makeup or skirts. When the fight isn't about abortion or contraceptive, when it isn't about how the victim behaved or dressed, the threat remains.  Even when a woman can sacrifice and put her life on the line for the country, performing every duty that earns praise for male soldiers, the Department of Defense still estimates that at least 20% of all women serving in the United States Armed Forces have been raped by a fellow soldier or commanding officer, with little to no recourse or punishment for the perpetrators. These are not the weak damsels carried into the jungle by King Kong or the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  These are strong, brave, skilled, and armed women. According to RAINN, a sexual assault occurs every 2 minutes. From the moment we become aware of our bodies as female, we know that danger.  We live in that constant fear, and now, within a culture that constantly fears us, silencing our voices and policing our bodies.  If we are not controlled, they seem to believe, the human race will find itself in the middle of Queen from Outer Space, where the monarch of Venus has banished all men.  Women, pregnant or not, fertile or not, are depicted as terrorists destroying American life, and the American way of life, a life in which only white men have a voice. I am not suggesting that the Republican party is responsible for rape; but it certainly does instigate the political, cultural, and even physical violation of women. And that violation, and the constant fear of that violation, is more than partisan bickering, it's more than a cultural war; it is a threat to our safety, to our way of life, and--to draw upon the discourse and vocabulary of fear bandied about by the far right--it's tantamount to terrorism.