Fascinating (depictions of) Womanhood

I was born in the mid-1960s, so I grew up listening to the debate about the challenges of implementing both civil rights and women’s rights. My Saturday morning cartoons featured explorations on social and environmental responsibility (anyone remember Sealab 2020). In school we read books on the evils of bullying and respecting cultural difference. I didn’t go to church much before I turned eleven, so I’m not sure what issues led the agenda there.

In other words, my days were filled with the activities of a society trying to (re)create itself as more tolerant and integrated than it had been. But I joined the world after the fundamental turn when it was assumed that change was a good thing, after the most bitter parts of the debate had passed.

From a social standpoint that was an odd place to be. I saw the aftermath without experiencing the precedent history, so I was very aware that things had changed without really understanding what they had changed from. I head a lot of bitter remembrance of things that were no longer common practice in my part of the world.

It becomes easy to assume that things were never really different than the way they have been since I started paying attention. Because we experience new change in real time, that change seems somewhat ordinary and slow moving.

So it was a bit of a surprise for me this past month when I was faced with two sets of depictions of women that seemed oddly shallow and silly–one in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and the other in the classic TV show The Outer Limits.

Wharton’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1920 and explicitly depicts a New York high society where women were expected to play the role of ambassador for their husbands. They were expected to be naive and pure–in direct opposition to their husbands who were expected to be worldly wise in both matters of business and physical relationships. They were expected to play a role in society, and over time the players became the role instead of merely playing it.

In Wharton’s case, that dissonance was the primary intent of the narrative and drove the events of the novel as the main character dealt with the discovery that old assumptions may no longer hold in a changing world. The depiction was intended to be at least mildly offensive and the characters a bit pitiable. The reader knew that these assumptions and behaviors didn’t really make sense in current time.

In other words, the depiction was intended to be seen as anachronistic–perhaps once true, but no longer directly relevant. Yesterday’s problem seem through two layers of abstraction–twenty years of time, and an alien social strata that itself was at least twenty years further out of true. It created the distance that allowed for safe exploration of a current problem in light of a past one.

Wharton meant for those characters to be shallow and silly, which is precisely what made the depictions generically acceptable.

But Outer Limits surprised me by essentially inverting every single element of that. Yet most of the stories were set in a future where we should reasonably expect social evolution to accompany technological development. Women were depicted as irrational, hysterical, or emotionally bereft appendages to men. Where a woman had a major role in the story, it was to be either the love interest that motivated a man to greater heroism or the lost soul retreating from intellectual equality into emotional neediness when faced with the unknown.

Of the fifty episodes of the original series (yes, I have too much time on my hands these days), only one depicted the woman as both an intellectual and emotional equal who ended up rescuing a lost man. That’s a terrible ratio, and one that seems at odds with a science fiction literature

What made those more modern depictions so alarming to me is that they were presented without irony. Those were the accepted tropes of the day, and the standard presentations of women at about the time I was born. Not ancient history, but relatively current events–and part of an assumption that I saw only the last, dying vestiges of as I grew up in the post-bra-burning era.

In Mormon history we have a history of strong, capable women who served as equal partners to their husbands. Yet our culture aggressively embraced the paradigms of Fascinating Womanhood that dominated American culture almost fifty years ago–and held onto it long after the rest of the culture had moved on.

I’m ashamed to admit that with the exception of some work by Terry Tempest Williams, I’m not really aware of much in the way of Mormon literature that deals with women’ issues or the role of women as individual contributors in our culture. We’ve addressed racial issues, gay issues, and even politics, but I’m not coming up with many titles off the top of my head.

Have we moved beyond Fascinating Womanhood in Mormon literature; I’m still not sure we’re fully free of that in the broader culture, not less our own culture? What are examples of differing models or depictions in our canon? What unique insights are we offering on the roles and contributions of women both in society and in the eternities?

I look forward to being educated on this gap in my own knowledge.

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3 Responses to Fascinating (depictions of) Womanhood

  1. Mary Walling says:

    I think, without a lot being said, that LDS women speak for themselves. Their manner, actions, deeds and contributions not only to family, church and society says all that needs to be said without a book being written. Not only that, but for the most part they manage to do this and have a full, balanced well-rounded life. I live in a ward where the women are not only college educated, but work out of necessity to help support their families and those that don’t and have chosen to be stay at home moms have learned to be self-sufficient on what their husbands make , have families, fulfill their church callings and support their husbands in their callings as well. Most are involved in the community in some form or the other. I think this says alot for these wonderful women.

  2. I’m only about a decade older than you, Scott, so I got to see some of the changes as they happened, especially while in secondary school. Talk about paradigm shifts–whiplash-making!

    I suspect that there is still a lot of “the more things change, the more they remain the same” though. Else why would people still love shows like I LOVE LUCY which horrify me?

    Considering what Mary Walling has pointed out, the emergence of Mormon Mother blogs and their impact on people from all parts of our American culture (including Salon, as has been pointed out recently in the Deseret News) may be the outlet for modern strong LDS women, instead of literature. Maybe the literature will follow.

    As long as there is a market for things like I LOVE LUCY, though, such things will sell. For those who don’t get what I am talking about, Lucy’s character is Dora as described in FASCINATING WOMANHOOD (yes, I read it and despaired) taken to an extreme that I, for one, do not find at all funny.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    As always, I have to begin with the disclaimer that I am not the most widely read human regarding mainstream MoLit. That being said, I was surprised with the couple LDS romance novels I read this year bc the female characters were capable. (Sorry you romance writers, for being behind the curve.) Oh, men were still there, but less as knights and more as helpmeets. Others will have to speak more widely about the state of women in LDS romance.

    In lit fiction, well, if its written by a woman then you are likely to see characters who are as Mary describes. I think of Bound on Earth. Conversely, there is Rift by Todd Robert Petersen, which was, IMO, down right offensive in the way he wrote LDS women.

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