The Divine Feminine: an Iron Age Stepford Wife?

22 03 2012

Maybe you are one of them–women, and even some men, who have secreted away from the church pew to summon the goddess in the sacred grove. The trend is growing, it seems. More people are searching for spiritual fulfillment by exploring the “feminine” side of spirituality which is central to so many pagan and New Age traditions, including Wicca, and generally absent from the supposedly more patriarchal male-god religions. But is this “divine feminine“, which forms one half of a duotheistic theology, really such a fair-minded and forward-thinking alternative to male-dominated mainstream religion? As we will see, it might actually reinforce the very patriarchy it seeks to dismantle, and the implications are ominous for women and men alike.

To show how the “divine feminine” movement backfires in its attempt to overturn patriarchy, we must first establish what the concept means. Generally speaking, the “divine feminine” embodies a triad of female archetypes: the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. Each archetype correlates with a different stage in a woman’s life. The Maid represents the pure and innocent virgin, the mother, the nurturing life-giver and care-taker, and the crone, the wise old teacher–or, potentially, the wicked witch. She is every important aspect of womanhood, or so it would seem, and people pursue the pagan priesthood specifically to pay her homage. She functions as the polar opposite to the male god in a binary which consists of an aggressive, rational, dominant “male energy” and a passive, emotional, submissive “female energy”.We worship her because she complements a strong, disciplinarian masculinity with a weak, nurturing femininity that males supposedly lack.

But, in the stereotypical binary of the weak goddess and strong god, we already see the failure of the divine feminine to dismantle patriarchy. An example of this binary in Chinese philosophy would be the yin and yang, in which a negative, dark, feminine principle complements a positive, bright, masculine one. The divine feminine movement attempts to reclaim female authority from obscurity by extolling the meek, nurturing, yielding nature of the goddess and ignoring her strong, confident, assertive nature—but this is oxymoronic, because it suggests that women’s power lies in their powerlessness. How can women gain power and influence equal to that of men if they are essentially less powerful and influential than men? It just doesn’t make sense. So, with its schizophrenically passive-aggressive, powerful yet powerless goddess, the divine feminine simply gives patriarchy room to flourish.

Now, critics of this view will argue that the binary isn’t really that black and white. “Each man has a feminine side, and each woman, a masculine side”, they will assure you, glowing with pride in their observation. They will point out, for example, that in the yin and yang model, each side has a little bit of the other within it. This is true, but it is also true that the yin is still overwhelmingly dominant and “masculine”, and the yang, overwhelmingly passive and “feminine”, so it doesn’t achieve much to say “there’s a little bit of the other in each”. Besides, it’s a circular argument. Arguing that there is no pure masculinity or femininity, and that each man is a little feminine, and each woman, a little masculine, is a homunculus fallacy, because it still relies on the use of the discrete terms “masculine” and “feminine” to explain gender. Once again, we see how the divine feminine fails to completely liberate male and female from oppressive sex roles.

In addition to the yin and yang model, the fact that the goddess exists almost entirely in relation to males and childbearing presents a problem for the “divine feminine”. The most important role of the goddess is that of the fecund, life-giving, heterosexual mother. She is constantly associated with the earth, fertility, menstruation, pregnancy, and child-bearing. After all, only women can give birth, right? Yes, male fertility is also celebrated in the form of gods like Priapus and phallic cults, but this fertility forms only one aspect of the male god, who is also warrior, judge, poet, and leader, among many other things. The goddess, though, is overwhelmingly associated with nurturing, life-giving fertility, and her sexual relation with the god, as in the sovereignty goddess, an earth divinity whose purpose is to bequeath the land’s power to a man through sexual relations. She is the pure Maid who is sexually desirable to males, as in the Teutonic fertility goddess Ēostre (related to “Easter” and “oestrus”), the Mother who bears her husband’s children, as in Gaia, and the Crone who is useful for nothing more than giving advice and recalling how many miles she had to walk in the snow, and who sometimes represents death, sinister magic, and even cannibalism, as in the child-eating Slavic witch Baba Yaga or the Greek serpent-daemon Lamia. When the woman explores life beyond the hearth and nursery, her unbridled energy necessarily becomes an evil, a transgression against her husband, children, and community. But this isn’t exactly fair. What about girls, sterile women, post-menopausal women, hysterectomized women, lesbians, and women who simply choose not to have children, or even to marry? Most of us would still call these people female, and the vast majority of them are not evil child-eaters, so obviously the “divine feminine”, with its inordinate emphasis on female fertility, fails to represent the many different aspects of female virtue beyond that of childbirth and nursing. It is hard, then, to see a feminist ideal in this Triple Goddess.

The divine feminine is a well-meaning attempt to correct the historical repression of females in mainstream Western religion and spirituality, and in some ways it may have made inroads, but it still falls short of the goal: it presents an oxymoron in the powerlessly powerful goddess, it creates a contradiction by using the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to assure us that there is no pure masculine or feminine, and it describes a goddess whose identity exists almost wholly in relation to men and reproduction. This divinely powerful goddess begins to look like nothing more than an Iron Age Stepford wife. Of course there is nothing wrong with women being compassionate and nurturing, but there is something wrong with women being more compassionate and nurturing than men, especially if all of us are supposed to meet the same, ultimate standard of enlightenment. To reclaim female authority in religion and spirituality, then, we should be exploring the many other aspects of the divine feminine: the warrior, the judge, the poet, the leader, and the good witch. In fact, we should be expanding this to the scientist, the doctor, the politician, and the professor. After all, we no longer live in the Iron Age, and these roles meet the practical demands of the modern day. Simultaneously, we should be exploring the more yielding and nurturing side of the god. By performing this kind of self-scrutiny, we learn from each other and become truly whole human beings.

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Boys Will Be Biological Determinists

7 02 2011

What do you think of this picture of Amanda Lepore? No, it isn’t a Björk album cover.

Lepore, a nightlife hostess, model, entertainer, and male-to-female transgendered woman from New Jersey, is clearly a hyperfeminine contrivance, and we could chat till the cows come home about what sort of example she sets. Some gender theorists will argue, “She only re-inforces a stereotypically feminine paradigm for women”, while other gender theorists will argue, “She does not: she transfers that expectation from women on to men”. Personally, I hardly think that she is foisting some expectation on to the average woman to be like her. Seriously? If anything, she is saying that men can be that way, too, or, simply, she is being who she wants to be, as an individual. At any rate, we must agree that her highly ceremonial physical appearance testifies to the fact that the body is a thing to be manipulated for present-day needs and desires, and not an ancestral legacy to be embalmed.

Some people–I daresay men especially–show a profound anxiety over changing things one is born with. They don’t want women to be women, and they certainly don’t want men to be women. I don’t just mean cutting off penises or getting breast implants; I mean things like hormones, hypothalamuses, amygdalae, libido, and fight-or-flight instincts. For these people, we not only are slaves to our natural machinery, but we should be. And yet, as it happens, our natural machinery also includes a capacity for self-awareness and adaptation, a drive to meet our current needs and desires. So why should we worship biological impulses which echo ancestral traits, but not those which encourage innovation?

Let us make the following proposition:

Evolution consists in the natural selection of random genetic mutations which best accommodate the novel demands of the present-day environment.

Well, if this is so, then we should be adapting to our modern-day environment, not clinging to the ancestral one. “But this requires selection of a mate with the most desirable genetic mutations”, say determinists, “and we cannot control that impulse. It is instinctive”.

I don’t buy that argument.

First, it is irrelevant whether or not one can control such an instinct anyway, because instinct itself is adaptive. That is, instinct does the work of adapting for us. For instance, if fear of insects developed as a result of some ancestral awareness of potentially lethal insect venom, then this fear-instinct didn’t exist at an earlier date, because the object of fear was not yet present to merit it. Well, this obviously means that the instinct had to have developed. So pre-existing instincts are eclipsed by newer, more relevant ones which meet novel demands, and this is just one reason why we need not cling to tradition. Determinists often argue that conscious resistance to instinct is maladaptive, but what is really maladaptive? Clinging to an obsolescent instinct which causes undue suffering, or responding to the demands of a new one? I wager the former. Anything less would be counter-evolutionary.

Second, I’m not so sure we can’t help who we choose to mate with. As explained above, we humans have a capacity for self-awareness. The fact that I am discussing it objectively with you right now testifies to that fact. Being aware of our own condition, we are aware of those choices which most suit our present-day needs. The determinist will argue, “women instinctively choose stronger men over weaker ones, because, evolutionarily, stronger men can better defend them against wild animals”. I will agree that there is nothing sexier than a big, dumb, beefy male with a dark beard, but we know that there are some women who choose a scrawnier mate over a brawnier one. But this doesn’t make them “maladaptive” or “perverse”. Men evolved to become physically stronger than women so that they could protect pregnant women from wild animals, but some women consciously realize this is no longer necessary. In one recent newspaper article I read, a man and woman were hiking in the Alaska Range when a grizzly bear appeared out of the brush and charged the woman. The man responded not by wrestling the bear to the ground, but by pulling out a gun and shooting it–something the woman could have done if she had had the gun. In such cases, male strength is irrelevant, and, realizing this, women need not seek it out. Because they are conscious of what they need and desire.

And then we get into the testosterone argument. Lordy. This has been a highly popular credo for aeons, it seems–Gloria Steinem is still trying to dispel its glamour–yet it is fundamentally flawed in terms of ethical reasoning. In its basic form, the credo states, “Men are more aggressive because of testosterone, less emotional because of the way their limbic system operates, and more libidinous because of the hypothalamus”. So, what, so what, and so what? I don’t care, I don’t care, and I don’t care. Black people are more susceptible to high cholesterol levels than white people, but that doesn’t mean they should be, and Native Americans are more susceptible to alcoholism than white people, but that doesn’t mean they should be. In addition, white people are more susceptible to skin cancer than black people because they have less melanin in their skin, but that doesn’t mean they should be–we give them skin-block so that they can live in tropical climates, because they should be able to have that experience. Why, then, should we believe that it is “natural” for males to be more sexual than females? Because of some outdated need for polygyny? Ask yourself. Is that really fair? We already know that more intelligent men are more monogamous than less intelligent men, and that both general intelligence and male monogamy are evolutionary innovations. And why should males be more aggressive than females if everybody should be as kind and as nurturing toward one another as humanly possible? After all, if it is good to be kind, why should we deny kindness where possible? To say that a man sitting at home alone with his baby shouldn’t cuddle it as much as its mother just doesn’t make any fucking sense. It’s inane and full of empty, mindless automation. And if there is some neuro-biological impediment to the realization of this vision, there is a simple solution: medicine.

People think things are good if they are natural, and bad if they are unnatural. This position is called an “appeal to nature” fallacy. What makes this position fallacious is that a thing is not necessarily good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural. So what if male aggression is natural? Rape and murder are natural too, but that doesn’t make them right. In fact, most rapes and murders are commited by males, but we wouldn’t say, “rape and murder are manly things”. That’s just retarded and idiotic. Similarly, airplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around saying that they’re bad. So, no, “natural” does not equate with “good”, and “unnatural” does not equate with “bad”. Therefore, the argument that male aggression is good because it is natural is entirely vacuous.

A very brilliant friend of mine, Christine (whose culinary blog Angrycherry.com, by the way, is an unparalleled source of sumptuous, gorgeously-crafted home-spun recipes), recently recommended a book to me called Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. (Apparently there’s a new, much more fastidiously laid-out edition entitled Delusions of Gender: the Real Science behind Sex Differences.) The book’s thesis is that sex differences in the brain are not as fixed, black-and-white, or hardwired as the popular media would lead us to believe, and that our loyalty to sex difference may actually causes suffering. I don’t have a problem with sex differences per se, but I do have a problem with the preservation or justification of such differences in that they cause pain, injury, misery, suffering, torment, isolation, or depression. The book is quite stunning according to most reviews: it is incredibly rigorously scholastic, yet fun and easy to read. Thus, I look forward to reading this book, and I recommend it to anybody interested in the subject.

The point I am making in this prolix blog entry is that we need to start using the most of our brains. We need to start thinking for ourselves. No more of this, “Aw, I can’t help it. It’s instinct. I’m a boy” crap. Bullshit. People say that kind of thing as an excuse to be a dick–and they get away with it. They do have control over how they behave, so they need to stop using biological determinism to explain away crimes such as rape, assault, murder, and all the other horrible things they do to ruin people’s lives. Isn’t it all as simple as that? Do unto others as you would have done unto you? Why should it make a difference, then, if your ancestors didn’t care for babies because they had penises?