Mary Magdalene: a link between sensuality and spirituality

by Kaitlyn Kohr

Whether you know her as a saint, a prostitute, the apostle to the apostles, or even as a Christ’s possible lover, it is impossible to deny that Mary Magdalene is one of the most powerful women in the Christian tradition and perhaps most well-known after the Madonna. Her reputation as both a saint and a sinner have made her a symbol of the everyday woman. She is real and accessible to women in a way that other biblical women are not. Her accessibility is enhanced by her image, which reflects societal attitudes about women more than her own actually identity.

This approachability is especially prominent in art of the Magdalene, in which her beauty, sexuality, and personality are a reflection of beauty norms and women’s roles at the time the art was created. In the middle of the Italian Renaissance, there began to be a large number of paintings produced that depicted a sensuous, scantily clad or nude Mary Magdalene who is in the middle of penitence or prayer. These images are a drastic shift from prior Magdalene artwork, which usually depicted her clothed and surrounded by her saintly attributes.

The painting The Penitent Magdalene painted by the Italian Domenico Tintoretto inPenitent Magdalene 1598 showcases the new image of the Magdalene. She is a beautiful young woman with flowing hair, her body nude yet covered by a cloth, praying to the heavens surrounded by religious objects. The image is spiritual and sexual at the same time. In the 1876 Mary Magdalene in the Cave by the French painter Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Mary Magdalene is completely nude with fire-red hair spread around her as she covers her face with her arm, lying in the cave where she lived out the rest of her life in penance after Christ’s death. This image  is much more blatantly sexual than Tintoretto’s with the Magdalene appearing to be rolling in some kind of religious ecstasy.

Mary Magdalene in the caveSo what can feminists take from these images, created almost entirely by males that encompass both the erotic and religious devotion? These images depict female sexuality in a time when women’s sexuality was misunderstood and repressed. Yet, in art the Magdalene is in all her nude glory, beautiful and repentant before God. For women in the past as well as today she is a model of the balance between religion and sex. In a religion that has so often been interpreted to forbid desire, Mary Magdalene is a figure that Christian women can look to for sexual empowerment. In a society that condemns women who practice and enjoy sex, the Magdalene is a savior of sorts. For women who may worry about sex or their enjoyment of sex and its consequences for their spirituality, Mary Magdalene appears as an important figure who shows that the two are not mutually exclusive. She stands as a model of a woman who is not oppressed, basking in her sensuality and incorporating religion into her passion.

David Simon’s The Wire: A Study of Women

by Amanda Seybold

David Simon’s The Wire, which aired for five seasons on HBO from 2002 to 2008, is possibly one of the most probative and insightful shows that has ever graced the small screen.  While some would describe it as a show about police in Baltimore who investigate and apprehend drug dealers, the show actually presents thoughtful and in depth examinations of many aspects of urban life, which would otherwise be ignored by middle-class America.  Despite being outside the regular scope of the show, The Wire, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, uses the juxtaposition of two female detectives, Detective Kima Greggs and Detective Beadie Russell, to illustrate a discourse on gender norms, racial implications, sexuality and motherhood.

At the end of her text No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, Estelle Freedman takes a moment to reflect on the changes that have occurred in both the public and private sectors with regards to women’s issues.  She notes “[w]omen and men are demanding new social policies that allow them to choose both caring and breadwinning rather than choose between them.”[1] It is apparent from The Wire’s depiction of both Russell and Greggs, however, that the show is a bit behind the developments that Freedman lauds in her text.  Ultimately the show’s story arc stays with Greggs while Russell is relegated to a secondary position after just one season.   Greggs’ character seems to illustrate Simon’s argument that in order for a woman to succeed in the high energy and exciting world of crime fighting in Baltimore, she must essentially align herself more closely with traits we have come to regard as part of the male gender, rather than with the female. Continue reading

Black Women Defining Themselves in the Music Industry

by Monica Stancu

Editor’s Note: In light of this year’s Women’s History Conference, “Breaking Boundaries,” we are happy to present this previously unpublished work from last year’s conference.

In Check It While I Wreck It, Gwendolyn D. Pough, a Women’s Studies scholar, argues that many scholars have ignored the achievements of black female rappers and limited themselves to criticizing the sexist portrayal of black women in hip hop culture. The author claims that although hip hop is indeed dominated by men, black female singers use this type of music to disrupt dominant masculine discourses.

At the Women’s History Conference hosted by Sarah Lawrence College (Bronxville, New York) on March 5-6 2010, scholars explored the ways black women expressed politics through music. The theme of the conference, “The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music and More,” reflected Pough’s belief in the potential social and political influence of hip hop. The presenters argued that although hip hop can be problematic at times, female artists are not just marginalized or victimized by it: they use hip hop to offer counter narratives.

The scholars present at the panel “Love, Sex and Magic: Hip Hop Feminism as a Tool for the Creative Renegotiation of Black Female Desire” on March 6, argued that hip hop is not unique in its use of sexist representations of women and its commodification of black women’s bodies. The exploitation of these bodies for the privileged is one of many shameful relics of slavery, when they were used as cheap labor and objects for sexual relief. Continue reading

Is He Gay?

by Alexandria Linn

In the fantastic world of relationship self-help, a new dating guide emerged to once again help the lonely American woman land her “dream” guy. Using senseless and sarcastic humor, the markets itself as a guide for women who need to know if their potential suitors are “gay” (according to the author’s understanding of homosexual qualities). For those particular women who want to know how to distinguish between men of the homosexual persuasion, and those who embody all of the violent and neglectful tendencies of the “masculine” male, Ed Baker and Chris Busick have answered the call.

In their book entitled Is He Gay?[1] (for obvious reasons) the two self-help authors follow the story of a young, white and single female as she comes dangerously close to falling in love with a gay man. Despite the author’s attempt to scream commentary to her from the sidelines of the pages, she begins to fall for the homosexual male. Her relationship is sustained by her denial, though she eventually recognizes that the man she’s dating is attracted to other men and not to her.  In the end, the woman leaves the relationship with only small disappointments (fortunately, no deep wounds) and resolves that she still loves him “as a friend”[2].

The good news is that other straight women can steer clear of making the same mistake. By heeding the authors’ advice, one can avoid the queer pitfalls that may occur in the single girl’s dating arena. For those who are not familiar with all the heteronormative ideals of homosexuality, Is He Gay? points out all of the stereotypical tropes associated with “gayness.” The authors, do however attempt to acknowledge their gross generalizations, with a disclaimer at the end of the book that reassures the reader that their mocking was done so “all in good fun,” of course. Continue reading

Virgin America

by Sonia Saraiya

In this exhibit, Sonia Saraiya explores the concept of virginity and what it means in our society when looked at through a feminist lens. This article was originally published at nist.tv.

INTRODUCTION

Everyone seems to know what virginity is – but, oddly, few people can entirely define the term. Though virginity is moored in murky, hard-to-define concepts like “purity,” “sex,” and “first,” most people have a concrete idea of what it is – and either consider themselves virgins or remember the time they “lost their virginity.” In suburban America, teenagers are nervously asking, “If I did ____ with my boyfriend, am I still a virgin?” and in other cultures, kissing on the lips is just as much of a transgression as having sex for the first time – never mind trying to define “sex” or even “first time” in any satisfying, comprehensive way.

Virginity is historically a women’s issue – because the ideal of virginity is heavily, though somewhat subtly, gendered. In common English parlance, a “virgin” is anyone who has not had sex. But the contemporary social pressure, globally, on women’s virginity (as a way of retaining their purity) belies the word’s etymology. “Virgin” comes from the Latin “virgo,” which means “sexually inexperienced woman” and could be interchanged with “maiden.” Though both the ancient Romans and current English-speakers use the term virgin somewhat loosely to encompass more than women, the emphasis remains. Of the few women who managed to make a name for themselves in history, a large number of those are virgins: The Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, for example. Male monks and priests are “celibate”; pagan priestesses to Vesta, meanwhile, were the Vestal Virgins. The ancient Greeks (and later the Romans) categorized their goddesses based on whether or not they were virgins; there were exactly three major virgin goddesses, and three non-virgins. Though virginity is used for both men and women, it is a primarily feminized concept centered on the penetration of a vagina by a penis.

As with many social issues, the argument over women’s issues takes women’s bodies as the territory, often speaking for women at large. Maintaining virginity and losing virginity are both framed as feminist issues, both cited as the best way to maintain self-respect. And the constant background noise behind this conflict is the contradictory message of popular mainstream media – a shaky middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. Continue reading

Raising the RENT: Reflections on Community, Sexuality and Musical Theatre

by Victoria Sollecito

[It’s] this gypsy world of people who are just so appreciative of each other’s individuality! where some people are super-gay and have girlfriends or boyfriends for twenty years, and others swing both ways—or are straight and have a wife but they’re okay with gay men giving them foot massages and don’t freak out. And you’re singing about that: no day but today, and there’s only us and there’s only this, and don’t regret… You can see young couples, old-guy couples, clutching each other, openly sobbing…And you’re singing at them, to them, sobbing too. It’s very cathartic. And it certainly put to rest my weird personal concerns, because there’s a much bigger picture.[1]

– Openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris on his time in the cast of RENT

RENT began as a rock re-imagining of a classic opera created by a precocious up-and-coming musical theatre composer in the early days of his career. What it has become, in the sixteen years since it was first produced, is nothing less than legendary. [2] Set almost exclusively in the East Village neighborhood known as Alphabet City, Jonathan Larson’s RENT follows a group of friends through a single year, from one Christmas Eve to the next, and charts the trajectory of their lives individually and together. Art, love and mortality are at the heart of the show, and creator Jonathan Larson’s script and score explore what those themes meant for Gen X New Yorkers, treating questions of sexuality, drug use, poverty, artistic integrity, isolation, community and, most notably, life and death in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Despite its controversial subject matter, RENT was an almost instant critical and commercial hit. The genesis of its story was in a harsh and dangerous New York; the first production of the show was mounted in 1994, the same year former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. The show’s development and eventual premiere on Broadway unfolded as the new mayor began cracking down, cleaning up and forever changing the landscape of New York City. In 1996, following the sudden death of its creator, the intentionally incendiary show about the struggles of living and dying in New York, became a Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and Pulitzer prize winning musical for a new generation. RENT maintained a dedicated, loyal and extremely enthusiastic fan following well into the new millennium, extending its run several times before finally closing in the fall of 2008.[3] Continue reading