Monday, November 22, 2010

Worms, Roxanne

Recently, a friend I'm very fond of got married and when he updated his facebook status and posted pictures, it was no surprise that his page was flooded with congratulations and well wishes. I scrolled through them briefly before making my own congratulatory comment and read the words:
"Congratulations on winning such a beautiful bride."
This sentence has bothered me for two days now.
Why, you ask, why, Vanessa would this simple sentence haunt you and bother you, follow you around and pester you?
Because language is powerful and meaningful, and the thought that in 2010 in the era where a woman can run for President that a woman can be verbalized as a beauty won as a prize or a trophy in marriage bugs the crap out of me.
Now, as these two wonderful people are boarding the plane to embark on their honeymoon, I did not comment on this comment. I did not take issue with this person, because it would have been wildly inappropriate to start a discussion on this issue on his page when these two lovely people are beginning a life together but I'm afraid I had to address it somewhere. And since I did not know this person, I had no idea whether the comment was an homage to an old play that my friend was in or where it came from, but either way, it got me thinking.
And it got me thinking about how we use language in our everyday life.
The notion of winning a bride is buried in the past, right? That was Shakespeare's time, right?
Still I got to thinking about all the ways that women are monetized and thought of as prizes. The term 'trophy wife' is still bandied about regularly. A trophy wife is some meaningless trinket that a rich man has bought for himself to make his house and car look nice. He didn't even 'win' her at auction, or in a contest because the trophy wife can be bought outright. In fact, she is that rare and precious commodity known as a 'gold digger', after she is purchased, she is covered in gold and sent out to glitter.
Did anyone find this offensive?
There are some who would use this language of a young man winning his bride in a very high manner with a lovely English accent to make it sound less sexist and more nostalgic but the fact is, women as commerce is an old notion we have not quite gotten rid of!
A few years ago, I was at a wedding in Paris. The bachelor party had gone to Amsterdam for the weekend and at the reception, one of the guys who had been on the trip was telling his story of his time in Amsterdam. I sat in awe as this man revealed in great detail his experience with a prostitute.
He began by saying "It was legal, so I was going to do it!"
He then went on to describe the women advertising themselves in windows along the street.
"I walked down one street and the women were all good looking, then I got to the next street and they were even better looking, the longer I walked, the more gorgeous they got, so I kept walking til I saw some ugly ones."
He described in detail the process of looking at all the women and trying to decide between them and when he made his choice, finally, there was great detail of the sex act, how much it cost and how great he felt about the whole experience. He was confident, puffed up, triumphant and self satisfied.
I listened to this entire story that he related to the couple standing next to me and the woman he was talking to asked him to go into excruciating detail on every aspect of it.
When he was done with the story and feeling most proud of himself, I looked at him and said "You realize, you just described window shopping for a woman, then buying her and when you were done, you returned her. This entire thing you did to a human being."
He says to me "It's completely LEGAL."
"Let me ask you something. Was it completely moral? Would you tell your mother this story with the same amount of pride and justification? Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you should do something. Lots of things are legal. That was a human being and you just described her as a transaction."
Yeah, I know. I'm a major buzzkill at parties sometimes. That's probably what he said about me later!
But language is powerful and meaningful. Words have power. It bothers me so much when women are referred to as prizes to be won or trophies to be possessed. When we enter into a marriage, it should be an equal place where we divide our roles in the household in a way that makes sense, not according to gender expectations- at least, that is my idealism showing.
If we think of love as a contest that we can win, then we expect a prize and not a person. A person whose value is in beauty and not heart. I'd like to take these phrases and pack them away in a box in the attic and bring them out in fifty years and laugh at how silly and dated it all seems to have ever thought that way. I'd like the language with which we use about women not to be 'bitches and ho's and sluts'. Wouldn't it be nice for a man's value to be placed on his good works, not how good looking his wife is. This is the language we place on one another to run each other down.
I wish I could say I felt we are getting there as a society but we're not yet. This is just my little blog calling attention to the power of words, which become sacred powers to affect our perception.
Even if some of these notions are dated, these words are still pulled from religious books to enslave us some more. Instead of doing away with the notions from centuries ago because we are supposed to know better, we pull them out as "traditions", another word to make the sexism more palatable.
I like some traditions, but there are some I can do without. And let me be clear, I know that the general meaning of a father walking a daughter down the aisle and giving her away has changed to largely ceremonial and there are many daughters who value their father doing this for completely and utterly different reasons- but it still exists as an outdated patriarchal notion. And I respect the decision to do this- the decision other women make. But this is why, while I accepted and embraced marriage, especially as an act that I could engage in on my own terms, I completely rejected this tradition of a father giving me away.
I think, even if I did love my father, I would never have let him walk me down the aisle. The act of a groom asking a father for permission to marry his daughter is just as offensive to me. The language is "Who gives this woman?"
When did my father possess me? Did he possess me more than my mother? When did I become a thing to give away? At what point did I lose the power to give myself?
Ah, because marriage began as a transaction. Here is the money to buy your daughter so I can use her for breeding purposes and to clean my house. I promise to feed her and allow her to raise my offspring. Thank you, kind father, and when we stand up at the altar, I want you to tell everyone you are giving her away.
Think about the power in those words.
Who gives this woman?
Why, her father does, to the man who won the contest, paid the most money...
Ah, but it's a 'tradition'. It doesn't mean the same thing any more in 2010- we put aside the true meaning of things for the sake of tradition. It has lost its meaning. Or... has it?


Leon said...

Great blog, Vanessa, and I agree with all of it. However, it omits another "crime of language" or whatever. How about the frequent reference, in relation to a consummated relationship or marriage, to the man as (metaphorically) a fish to be caught using lures, lines, and hooks? As in "Oh, you are so lucky! How did you land that dreamboat?" "How did you manage to hook that rich, handsome dude?"

This language is not rooted in archaic family and Biblical speech, but it runs deep nevertheless. Anyway, yours for individual freedom, autonomy, and responsibility!

VanessaMRR said...

Good point, Leon, women are also in competition in this fishing contest! There are many crimes of language out there!