The Woman Who Will Not Die

I've been reading more books lately.

When someone says something like this, you probably imagine stacks of erudite tomes by her bedside, perhaps stained by a ring of tea. Well ... that's not quite my situation, but yes, I have been spending a lot more time with entertainment of the paper variety. And it's been surprising. 

For instance, I watched a strange Marilyn Monroe documentary the other day -- it was part performance art, part voyeurism (then again, isn't everything about that poor woman at least part voyeurism?). Anyway, the documentary left me with Marilyn on the brain, so on my next trip to the library I couldn't stop myself from going to the Marilyn shelf and taking home the biggest, prettiest, most picture-heavy book I could find. I was hoping for some frothy entertainment; it wasn't until I was home that I realized that my pop-culture distraction was written by Gloria Steinem

Well, then. There went my plans of looking at pretty pictures and not much else. I expect dear ol' Gloria to make me think. She did not disappoint. 

Among the salacious tidbits and nostalgia I was hoping for, I found the clearest explanation for why so many men are just terrified of strong women and why so many women in turn are terrified of servile women-children. 

Since most men have experienced female power only in their childhoods, they associate it with a time when they themselves were powerless. This will continue as long as children are raised almost totally by women, and rarely see women in authority outside the home. That’s why male adults, and some females too, experience the presence of a strong woman as a dangerous regression to a time of their own vulnerability and dependence. For men, especially, who are trained to measure manhood and maturity by their distance from the world of women, being forced back to that world for female companionship may be very threatening indeed. A compliant child-woman like Monroe solves this dilemma by offering sex WITHOUT the power of an adult woman, much less of an equal. As a child herself, she allows men to feel both conquering and protective; to be both dominating and admirable at the same time.

For women, Monroe embodies kinds of fear that were just as basic as the hope she offered men: the fear of a sexual competitor who could take away men on whom women’s identities and even livelihoods might depend; the fear of having to meet her impossible standard of always giving – and asking nothing in return; the nagging fear that we might share her feminine fate of being vulnerable, unserious, constantly in danger of becoming a victim.

Aside from her beautiful face, which women envied, she was nothing like the female stars that women moviegoers have made popular. Those stars offered at the least the illusion of being in control of their fates – and perhaps having an effect on the world. Stars of the classic “women’s movies” were actresses like Bette Davis, who made her impact by sheer force of emotion; or Katherine Hepburn, who was always intelligent and never victimized for long; or even Doris Day, who charmed the world into conforming to her own virginal standards. Their figures were admirable and neat, but without the vulnerability of the big-breasted woman in a society that regresses men and keeps them obsessed with the maternal symbols of breasts and hips. Watching Monroe was quite different: women were forced to worry for her vulnerability – and thus their own. 

-- Gloria Steinem, The Woman Who Will Not Die, Marilyn 1987

I mean, you would think that reading this now, in 2013, would make me think "no shit Sherlock" -- but it didn't. Perhaps it was the element of surprise. 

Nicely played, Gloria.