Written by Jonas Guigonnat
Individually, we tend to think of our body as a kind of private property, a part of our chosen identity. We constantly try to control and shape it on what seems to be our own terms, but ultimately the relationship between human beings and their bodies is not only based on individual preference. What others think of our bodies, and how they relate it to “cultural clichés”, is what motivates us to shape our appearances to fit in.
Yet, it is also what dictates our social and cultural identities as part of social groups. The interaction of those groups with each other defines what one’s body means. On a global scale, and throughout time, there are numerous cultural clichés that have been so deeply rooted in humanity that we still hang on to them today. Firstly, because they are easy to understand. Also, because they represent a hierarchy, an order, that seems to be “natural”. As diverse as cultures can be in different parts of the world, some cultural structures often seem to be recurrent, especially when it comes to the place of women in society.
The fact that the word the words “women” and “men” not only define physical characteristics but also a network of social and cultural symbols hits the nail right on the head.
The body as a social and cultural prison
Stereotypes about women are legions and, even can jokes tell us a lot about general assumptions. Jokes about women behind the wheel, or about blondes, are based on generalities that make sense only in our social environment. This environment seems to us natural and based on truths. As the transsexual woman, sociologist, and feminist Raewyn Connell explains in her book Gender in World Perspective, a social order is nothing more than an intellectual construction. This construction is implemented into the structure of society to such an extent, that it seems absurd to doubt it.
Nonetheless, it is anything but a natural state.
What it means to be a woman – or a man for that matter – is defined by criteria of reproductive functioning, what Connell calls the “reproduction arena”. But it doesn’t mean that those criteria are all there is to one’s identity. Newborns are conditioned into their gender role and young children learn what it means to be a girl or a boy through their social experiences. As the godmother of modern feminism, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Nicolas Poussin, “L’enlèvement des Sabines,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1634-1635). Painting of one of the Romans founding myth, The Rape of the Sabine Women, where violence against women is mostly a justified expression of power
Imprisoned by history
Recounting the entire historical process through which the present position of women was formed is beyond the scope of this article, but some contextualization is still necessary. As far as historical records show us, for the last 5000 years, there was almost no society in which women weren’t considered “inferior” or at least “dangerous”. There are some exceptional women from otherwise repressive societies, such as queens Cleopatra and Sabha, or some legend like the Amazons, but none of those examples really defied the established order. Their bodies still made them weak and corrupt in the eyes of the men around them.
One of the Roman founding myths, the story of the Sabines, is quite symbolic of such mentalities in antiquity. It tells how the Romans, who were desperately looking for women, raped and kidnapped all the wives and daughters of neighboring cities.
Historians point out that this event probably never happened. The first written account about what should have happened around the sixth century BCE comes from the Roman writer Pliny who lived in the first century BCE. “The Rape of the Sabine Women” was part of a propaganda that legitimated the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire under the first emperor Augustus.
There was thus, to say the least, some pride in disrespecting a woman’s body.
Fear, lies, and distrust
The rise to power of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions in the early Middle Ages didn’t help the case for women, as the three great monotheistic cults put women in a separate corner from men. They were to be controlled, otherwise, hell would break loose.
Just take the example of Pope Gregory I, who in the sixth century decided that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman that is referred to in the gospels. This was not the case before he made her officially a woman of little virtue, a prostitute. This ancient “fake news” had been considered the truth until just a few years ago.
Fear seems to play a great role here. Considering that most of those religious men tended to truly believe in the “Kingdom of God”, it is easy to deduce that they were plagued by their own desire for the woman’s body. It imbued them with fear, thus they imprisoned it in every way possible, taking total control over women’s lives by deciding for them what it meant to be a woman.
The women’s march to Versailles in October 1789. As a result, the king and his family came back to Paris, which was a turning point in the French Revolution
Slowly but surely
Things have changed, but it took a while. There were some signs of emancipation in the 17th century Netherlands. In Dutch cities every “citizen” had city rights, and this was also true for women, even though there were some nuances. But it didn’t last long and nowhere else in Europe did any society take this model as an example.
Then there was the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and the Revolutionary Wars in Europe that followed. Women are known to have played an important role there. A few months after what is now considered to be the start of the revolution – the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789 – in a time of economic depression and famine, the women of Paris decided to go see their king on their own. They formed a cortège that marched the twenty kilometers separating Paris from Versailles and, though they initially set out to merely ensure bread got to their tables, they accomplished what revolutionaries in Paris couldn’t achieve: getting the king and his family to move to Paris so he could take responsibility in front of the parliament.
From that point on, women became some of the most fervent supporters of the revolution. They even hoped to improve their social position, but once again, their claims were ignored when new power structures were put into place.
A few years after the event at Versailles they were back to square one. It would take a century to see real changes occur, at least in Europe. Women everywhere on the continent used socialist ideologies to plea for their causes. The only way to change the course of action was to take things into their own hands and be the authors of their own story.
Finally existing, but how?
It was possible for women to influence the way they were seen and the way society expected them to behave. But first, they had to be recognized as an acting part of society. The right to vote for women everywhere in Europe in the 1920’s was a sign that things could not stay the way they were. After World War II and the rise of the “society of prosperity”, it took just 20 years for the emancipation of women to really become significant, even for men.
But the body was still in the way, and quite rapidly new kinds of behaviors became “normal”. Women who were not respectable “housewives” didn’t deserve respect, so men knew full well that they were free to give in to their animal instincts. Sexual objectification, or seeing the woman as a sexual object, was a new prison for women, for men were still “dominant”.
Good Housekeeping (an American magazine), 1908. To be perfect, a woman had to be a virtuous housewife.
Finally, this brings us to the present day and its challenges. The sexualization of women has continued as the norm. But for a few years, there has been a direct answer to this neoliberal gender arrangement. Regardless of the impact, the #MeToo movement has had since its commencement, it shows that things still need to change and that women are ready to express themselves in a way that was unthinkable 20 years ago. The scale of sexual harassment is quite striking, but not surprising. Someone as high-ranking as the President of the USA, Donald J. Trump, even talks about being able to “grab them by the pussy” and the reaction of the establishment is almost nonexistent.
That says enough, women seem to really be fed up. In France, women are even more defiant than in other western countries. This is easy to understand if we look at recent affairs with politicians such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Nicolas Sarkozy, or François Hollande. One day in Paris is also enough to understand what it really means to be a woman in the capitale de l’amour.
Is it then possible to conclude that women did emancipate from the prison of their body? At least the recent history proves that the possibility exists, but the cost in terms of the social struggle and the manual effort it takes is quite huge.
Freeing the body from the mind is already a challenge when it comes to individuals, but it is far more complex when a whole group is concerned. All of society, our co-citizens, are seeing us by what our appearances mean. However, human beings are potentially capable of emancipating from the present and acting towards an unknown future. The body is surely often a prison, but jailbreaking, with all its consequences, is always an option.