Friday, October 24, 2008

A siren's call

In her Washington Post article "Something about Sarah", Kathleen Parker asks the recurring question of this election--why did Senator McCain pick the relatively unknown and untested Governor Palin as his running mate?--and comes up with an answer so ancient that it's somehow new again. McCain was smitten. He couldn't help himself. His "judgment was clouded by the presence of an attractive woman."

No. Really:
As my husband observed early on, McCain the mortal couldn't mind having an attractive woman all but singing arias to his greatness. Cameras frequently capture McCain beaming like a gold-starred schoolboy while Palin tells crowds that he is "exactly the kind of man I want as commander in chief." This, notes Draper, "seemed to confer not only valor but virility on a 72-year-old politician who only weeks ago barely registered with the party faithful."

It is entirely possible that no one could have beaten the political force known as Barack Obama -- under any circumstances. And though it isn't over yet, it seems clear that McCain made a tragic, if familiar, error under that sycamore tree. Will he join the pantheon of men who, intoxicated by a woman's power, made the wrong call?

Who knows? Maybe Parker's right. It's not like McCain is ever going to tell us why he really decided to choose Sarah Palin (except that it was a "cold, calculated move" apparently perfectly primed to piss off all those unattractive, unhappy liberal feminists). That said, I don't begrudge Parker her op-ed. She certainly makes some interesting points (especially in regard to a Canadian research project--the published article titled aptly "Do pretty women inspire men to discount the future?"--which studied the effects of attraction on decision-making). However, her piece really irked me because of the gendered socio-cultural assumptions on which her opinion is founded.

I am so so so tired of the "pretty woman" excuse. And I have a hard time understanding why men aren't furious. (Unless it's true, which to me, were I a man, would signal a problem I'd want to work on.) Isn't it as bad to say that men are easily distracted by beauty (and hence make poor decisions) than to claim--as is so often done--that women are too emotional to be rational thinkers? Actually, it's the exact same indictment--passion trumping logic--except that women are to blame in both cases. Women are too emotional. That's our own fault. But if a pretty woman distracts a man into making a stupid decision, that man just couldn't help himself. What. The. Fuck.

This is not a new argument, obviously. It's frequently used to defend rape ("she was asking for it"). It's cited as a reason why Islamic women must wear a hijab or burqa. It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve:

To the Sirens:

And Delilah:

And Salome:

Not to mention Helen of Troy:

Oh, right, and...Sarah Palin:

How is it possible that after hundreds of thousands of years of human civilization (arguably more), we're still laboring under this notion? The femme fatale seduces and destroys the hopeless, unsuspecting man. The powerful, evil, gorgeous woman weakens the man's resolve through no fault of his own. He succumbs to her beauty. In these narratives, why do men not have any agency when in many other scenarios men have all the agency?

I'm not saying women can't wield power sexually. Of course we can, as can men. We can also be powerful in many other ways, as can men: through intelligence, might, intimidation, charisma, fortitude...the list goes on. So why does this idea of the femme fatale--the man helpless in the wake of a seductress--persist? Is it a convenient excuse? Is it yet another of the myriad examples of female objectification and villainization (vagina dentata, anyone?)? Is it simple misogyny, another way to diminish women's agency/female power as suspect? Is is vagina envy? I mean seriously, I'm flummoxed.

Cross-posted at Open Salon (I'm trying it out...)


Brianna J said...

I think (although I certainly haven't seen anything conclusive on the subject), that the 'siren effect' is a result of inertia. There's no modern reason for it, but it exists anyway. Previously, when women were not allowed to have any real power of any sort, the 'siren effect' was the only form of power women were supposed to have. It was held both to be good - the women inspiring her man to do great things/reform himself, and bad - the temptress.

Men liked this because it was a good excuse, and because it sounded good in fairy tales. The myth was frequently encouraged, ironically enough, by strong women encouraging other women to accomplish things! (See most 17-19th century women authors.) The semi-Christian idea than the woman is supposed to be her husband's encourager/'helpmeet'/non-acting supportor is also greatly responsible for the problem (I think that you could argue that it is the primary cause, in fact).

Now that women (sometimes) have real power, the siren effect still remains. So, there's no real reason. Although, some men I know really do seem to become physically incapacitated around a beautiful woman. I think, though, that even that is mere social conditioning.

In other words, the 'siren effect' is caused by cultural latency.

Anonymous said...

Tag you guys are it, Specifically Brianna

Francis Deblauwe said...

Ironic cartoon at the Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3 blog: "" said...

That's an excellent point, Brianna. While I also have no concrete evidence, I imagine in the past the "siren effect" could be envisioned as a good thing--one way, at least, that women could attain power. No longer though. Now it just seems offensive to me, especially so (ironically) to men. But you're point about cultural inertia is well taken. I think you're probably right.

On that note, there was another Washington Post article today about Sarah Palin's unstoppable charismatic prowess. Oh boy.

Also, a bit tangentially, but still related: Sunless Nick has a great post over at Shakesville about some extraordinarily inappropriate rape apologism/rape warnings (along the lines of "don't make a guy rape you by taking these steps") by a male blogger.