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.





The “Plug-in-Socket” Paradigm: How Homophobia Overlaps with Sexism

3 03 2012

Homophobia, it turns out, has its roots in good, old-fashioned sexism, and I’ll tell you why. On February 6th, Washington state residents Jennifer Morris and Allison Vance, a 13-year-old, testified against gay marriage before the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. Their argument was basically that gay marriage is wrong because men and women complement one another. The state Legislature didn’t buy their argument, however, as Washington state legalised gay marriage on 13 February, the day before Valentine’s Day. (The Seattle bars were rife with exuberant homosexuals that night.) Still, it is important to deconstruct Morris and Vance’s argument, expose its fallacies, and show how they are motivated by sex stereotypes.

The arguments of people like Morris and Vance are usually put in rather crude, simplistic terms. Lacking a grasp on nuance, they tend to compare marriage with things that involve inserting one object into another in order to make more “stuff”, or to produce something tangible. Consider the analogy Morris draws between copulation and buildings, which the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger reported on in its official blog, Slog:

Today my main message is that specific tools are for specific purposes…. If you were going to build a skyscraper, you would not be putting bolts with bolts and nuts with nuts, because the structure wouldn’t go up. And if it did it would probably fall apart, probably destroying many lives…. I feel very demeaned by the fact that roles don’t seem to matter.

Nuts with nuts. Such prurient imagery. According to Morris, sex is about creating people, not pleasure—despite the fact that the world is verging on 7 billion. Morris seems to care more about the tribal Bronze Age ideal of propogation than the twenty-first-century ideal of sustainability. The notion is that sex is about breeding as much as possible, despite the stress this may place on the environment, and ultimately on people. Echoing Morris, Vance says that trying to make a same-sex-headed family work is “like trying to walk with two left shoes.” She also says that “[i]n order to walk properly, you must wear one left shoe and one right shoe”. In other words,the only proper sexual union is that between a man and a woman, because the only proper sexual union is between two people who can procreate, and only opposite-sex couples can procreate.

Of course, we already know that this is ridiculous, since sterile couples, hysterectomised women, postmenopausal women, and couples who choose not to have children can marry despite their inability or choice not to procreate—because they love each other. For the same reason, then, gay people should be allowed to marry one another. Any adult can marry another adult who consents to the marriage. Simple as that. But conservatives are immune to this kind of reasoning—it tends to go in one ear and out the other, or else they come up with increasingly desperate and tenuous counter-arguments to avoid facing the fact that this kind of reasoning makes perfect sense.

But Morris and Vance’s anti-gay sentiment is not just about procreation—it is about the sex roles associated with these (as Morris herself suggested above). Think about it. Traditional sex roles involve a dominant, independent male penetrating a submissive, dependent female. The male is the logical, aggressive, disciplinarian “yin”, and the female, the intuitive, submissive, nurturing “yang”. The male is the dominant force, and the female, the recessive one. The male is the unemotional breadwinner, and the female, the emotional care-taker. Or else, as in the T.V. show Whitney, the woman is the passive-aggressive psychopath, and the male, some dumb, confused testosterone machine who stares like some fucking dumb piece of numb-brained shit at women’s asses. Here we see Vance’s left and right foot. Her argument against gay marriage is founded on old-fashioned, sentimental ideas about a relationship in which a dominant male complements a submissive female (an inherently hegemonic system), and on teaching children these roles early on.

What does this have to do with lesbians and gays, you may ask? Well, in the view of people like Morris and Vance, lesbians and gays are traitors because their relationships do not involve a man dominating a woman (left versus right shoe). Lesbianism does not involve a man dominating a woman, and male homosexuality does not involve a man dominating a woman. Not only does the rigidly mechanistic “plug-in-socket” scenario of “male and female mate, thereby producing offspring” break down in these relationships, but so do the hegemonic, sex-based social roles which derive from it. In a word, gays and lesbians have sex for pleasure, not to dominate a member of the opposite sex and keep the plug-in-socket hierarchy functional. For this reason, in the eyes of gay-marriage opponents, gay marriage is wrong.

But are traditional sex roles really a desirable thing? I don’t think so. They basically imply that women should be nicer people than men (because they have different limbic systems or whatever). But this is kind of like saying that normal people should be a little bit nicer than psychopaths. We don’t say that psychopaths should be crueller than normal people; we say that they should be as nice as normal people, and so we medicate them accordingly. Similarly, we shouldn’t be saying that men should be meaner than women; we should be be saying that they should be as nice as women, and teach them accordingly. And even if there is some biological explanation for men’s greater aggressiveness, it isn’t an ethical imperative; it is merely an observation of a natural phenomenon, like a genetic predisposition for cancer. We don’t say that those genetically predisposed to cancer should be more susceptible to cancer; we treat them for their condition. So, everybody should be held to the same standard of sensitivity and compassion, and it is simply giving licence to cruelty to say that “boys will be boys”. What gay rights activists should be doing, then, is pointing out that homophobia cannot be justified using sexism, because sexism itself is not justifiable.

Besides, true Christians (who make up a sizeable portion of homophobes) shouldn’t be buying into the temptation of saying that male aggressiveness and female submissiveness are biologically predetermined. They believe in Jesus Christ. Well, the Bible says that Jesus was compassionate (Matt. 9:36), that others should be compassionate (Matt. 18:33), and that Jesus himself commanded people to be like him (John 14:12, 1 Corinthians 4:16). If Jesus was compassionate, if others should be compassionate too, and if he told people to be like him, it follows that Jesus and the Bible required people to be compassionate and peace-loving. Now, because Jesus was male, and because he commanded everybody to be as compassionate as he, he necessarily required males and females to be equally compassionate. After all, he is the common denominator for compassion among Christians. So, while sexism motivates homophobia, if Jesus himself breaks down traditional sex roles, Christians can’t use them to justify homophobia.

I didn’t write this post using the traditional English essay formula; I wrote it in a sort of stream of consciousness format. I guess I was channelling Virginia Woolf or something. Anyway, I wanted to show how homophobia stems from sexism, how sexism is stupid, and how sexists have no basis for using Jesus to justify homophobia, since Jesus-quotes don’t justify sexism. Hopefully I’ve achieved this much. It’s important to emphasise that homophobia and sexism have a lot in common. Both gay people and feminists defy patriarchy by defying traditional sex roles. In order to attack homophobia, what gay rights advocates need to be doing is attacking sexism, since this seems to be used to justify a lot of homophobia. A discussion on gay rights is not complete without mentioning women’s rights at some point. Both concern sex roles and sexual identity, and as such they inform one another. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the recent gay marriage victories in Washington state and Maryland.





Christians vs. Witches!

30 06 2011

Oh my god. The other day I wrote the driest, most politically correct blog entry ever. The sad thing is that it was on one of the coolest and funniest things ever. I wrote about this blog on motherhood called Circle of Moms that was hosting a “best blog” competition for its subscribers. Basically, subscribers would vote on one another’s blogs through the Circle of Moms site–Circle of Moms was sort of the meeting place for voting on the blogs of its subscribers. (It’s a SEO strategy—everybody benefits when sites interconnect with one another through a site they all have in common.)

The competing blogs were categorized according to topic. One of these was “faith”, and it had a lot of stuff about “Biblical womanhood”, Biblical patriarchy, home-schooling, premarital sex, and all of that crap that Christian American soccer moms eat up like Starbucks protein bars. Anyway, a pagan mother submitted her blog, Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom, in the competition, and it was put in the “Faith” category, and boy, oh, boy, was there a shit-storm over that. Basically, acting as if they owned the “Faith” category, some of the Christian mothers descended on her like a flock of flying wolf-maidens and tore her apart, sending her nasty comments on her blog—after all, it is about witchcraft, magic, potions, and all of that scary stuff.

Ironically, however, the pagan mother won the blog competion. Guess why? The rest of the Christians defended her, sending her messages of support like “Oh, shit! We’re sorry! Christians shouldn’t act that way! We respect you and your faith tradition!” and even voting for the pagan mother’s blog as well as other pagan blogs. In fact, six of the top ten winning blogs were related to paganism. Now, six out of ten Americans are not pagan, so obviously the figures reflected this dispute. But in the end, people came together despite their different backgrounds. How about that for solidarity, girls?

Anyway, my blog entry on the whole debacle had to be polite and respectful-sounding, and I couldn’t tease any religions or make fun of anybody, because, well, it was a professional blog entry, and that makes sense—if I want to keep my job, I can’t do any dirty writing. But here and now, I can do what I want. And what I want to do is re-write that entry. I want to re-imagine it. I want to tell you what really went through my mind when I read about this hilarious catfight between Christian and pagan soccer moms, and the superbly elegant defection that led to an ultimate pagan victory. So read on.

The twilight slowly gave way to a lurid reddish haze which silhouetted Oxford’s innumerable stern spires, illuminating the soft, curvaceous, cottony English hills of the surrounding neighbourhood. On the town’s eastern border, with the rising of the sun, stood the daughters of Christ, and on the western border, the daughters of Earth. The former were servants of Yahweh, blood-god of the Israelites, and the latter, defenders of Nature, idol of the pagans. Both forces steamed with a heady passion and an impetuous lust. A hush fell over the gracious, still-sleeping city. The grizzly-mommy Sarah Palin, word-mangling publicity whore and leader of the Christians, flew forth to parley with her dread adversary, the numinous Laurie Cabot, leader of the pagans and high priestess of witchcraft in America.

“You will not refudiate my claim to the Throne of Morality!” clucked Palin in her grating Minnesota twang.

“I beg your pardon?” responded Cabot. “That isn’t a word. You cannot win the Throne of Morality with such illiteracy. Such neologisms are entirely ill-conceived.”

“Whaaat?” responded Palin. “I don’t care what you say, smarty-pants! I believe in Jesus Christ! He saved my soul from damnation when I accepted his sacrifice!”

“Well, yes”, replied Cabot with a roll of the eyes, “he did—by killing himself to propitiate himself for the imperfection he himself planted in you, so that you would no longer have to slaughter goats to propitiate him for your sins. Makes perfect sense.”

“Huuuh?? Stop trying to impress the people with your big words, you…you expert! It’s not as though people need to be treated like—”

“—like intelligent interlocutors? No, we wouldn’t want to treat the people with dignity, to address them as ladies and gentlemen. We wouldn’t want to hold them to such a high standard. Let’s talk to them like the retards we want them to be.”

“Grrrrrrr!” roared the angry grizzly-mommy. “I’ve had enough! Grizzly-women, attack!!”

Like a hive of wasps, the daughters of Christ ascended with the giant orb of the rising sun and flew like hawks at their enemy, through the spires of thriving schools and the steeples of long-empty churches, which jutted up mercilessly into the lightening sky. The daughters of Earth rose with the sinking moon as their harbinger of doom and shot at their opponent like a spray of arrows—a cloudy mass of horned bats and sharp-clawed cats. The two armies clashed with the bray of a shrieking eagle.

The leaders, Palin and Cabot, met each other head-on, their hosts crashing in behind them. Palin headed a phalanx of angels and grizzly bear-women that mauled and clawed at their opponents; Cabot’s vast host of flying cat-women and nature-spirits mauled and clawed and beat and savaged their aggressors. A frenzy of claws, bear-swipes, cat-strikes, bat-wings, and angel-wings blurred Oxford’s spikey skyline in a dark cloud against the early sun.

As the day dragged on, there was a temporary halt to the melee, and the two armies chose to employ their greatest champions. Palin submitted Michele Bachmann, U.S. Republican representative from the state of Minnesota, and Cabot submitted Doreen Virtue, PhD, doctor of counselling psychology and angel-whisperer from Laguna Beach, California.

Bachmann flew like a dragon toward the cloudy mass of light that was Virtue, and the light swelled to a near-blinding brilliance. Bachmann resorted to her chief power first, frustrating the light by constantly stating factual errors and making repeated, vacuous invocations of Jesus and God. For a moment, the light stood stunned and dizzied. At that point Bachmann lunged forth and slashed at the light with her bear-claws, but with effort the light regained its equanimity, invoking the angels. Gradually, like a trickle turning into a stream, a vast host of angels defected from Palin’s army and zoomed through the mass of clashing bodies to join Virtue, who absorbed them. The enlarged mass eerily invited Bachmann’s onslaught, unobtrusively absorbing and transforming the evangelical mommy into something like itself—a giant mass of bright, peaceful forgiveness.

“Fuck that New Age shit!” roared Palin. “I believe in the sacrifice of Christ Jesus! That sort of magical mumbo-jumbo is evil!”

“Why?” responded Cabot. “It was fair, and your champion was not killed; her consciousness merely melded with that of her opponent.”

“It’s the work of Satan! It says so in the Bible! Grizzly-women, draw now on the power of your Lord!”

“Seriously, you are one paranoid bitch. I have no choice—cat-women, attack!”

The rest will be conveyed to you in the following series of instalments, which will include such famous figures as Jesus, Stephen Hawking, and an assortment of individual angelic and divine personalities, among them the Archangel Gabriel and the Irish goddess of war and death, Morrígan.