A few things have gotten me thinking lately about how women are idealized. By this I don’t necessarily mean that women are held up as ideals, though that is half the equation, but also how women are held up s paragons of temptation as well.
One of the things that got me thinking about this is Grant Horner’s book Meaning at the Movies (see my review here). In his discussion of film noir Horner talks about the classic femme fatale figure — the beautiful female who, while she seems innocent and helpless at first, leads the male character to his destruction. The man in this case is usually portrayed as weak but basically helpless in her clutches. His downfall is usually laid at her feet as if he had little or no responsibility for it himself, or at least no ability to resist her charms. As Horner himself points out, this figure is taken right from the book of Proverbs in which a wicked women easily leads the young, foolish man astray with her wiles (p. 172).
On the flip side, there is the good female character. She too is beautiful, though perhaps with a more innocent, less sexual kind of beauty. She is truly innocent, good and pure, as well as helpless — unlike her evil counterpart who only appears innocent and helpless to lure men in. She too can be found in the book of Proverbs in the person of Wisdom who is there personified. Proverbs clearly puts these two before a young man as two choices: will he turn towards the one or the other? Will he follow the straight and narrow path or go astray after the temptress?
[A variation on the good female character would be the prostitute with a heart of gold figure. Mary Magdalene and Sofia in Crime and Punishment come to mind. It is interesting that “Sophia” means wisdom, isn’t it?]
My daughters and I had also noticed these two kinds of figures in popular country songs. And been very irritated by them. In our completely biased, unscientific opinions, it seems like male singers are always idealizing the women they sing about one way or the other. Either she is so incredibly unique and wonderful — she’s beautiful but doesn’t know it; she sings in church on Sunday but parties with him Saturday night; she wears blue jeans with her pearls; she loves him despite all the rotten things he does . . . you get the idea — or else she is the temptress — she lures him in; he can’t resist her; he fell for her but she dumps him unceremoniously. Honestly, we just don’t se that the songs by women about men go to these extremes. Yes, there are the he done me wrong songs and the he’s no good songs, but I don’t think there are so many of the he’s perfect songs. There are also I can’t live without him songs (and . . . without her songs by men) but I would count these in a slightly different category.
Anyway, my point is that from the book of Proverbs to today’s country music, men seem to have the tendency to hold women up as ideals of either goodness or evil in a way that women don’t do in equal measure to men. So then we must ask why? and is it biblical? Because clearly these two extreme characterizations do occur in Proverbs so on one level, yes, it is biblical; it occurs in the Bible. But how should we as Christians here and now be viewing women? Are they refining influences on the men in their lives? Are they, as perhaps has more often been said, the source of sin and temptation? Eve did eat the fruit first after all. Maybe women really are trouble.
Before I get to answering those questions, I want to bring in one more thread that has played into my thoughts lately. We have a lot of African immigrant families in our church. These are people who were Christians before they came to this country but are not at all American in their outlook. As I have been informed, they, both men and women, were surprised to learn that both sexes are equal in status before God. Historically, of course, women have been held to lower status and in many societies they still are. But it was a bit of an eye-opener to see they that might be considered so also by non-western Christians. The fact is it was quite a society-changing idea in the western world that men and women were both equally valuable as persons. This idea came from Christianity and it have pervaded Christian (or post-Christian) societies, but even among Christians, it has apparently not taken hold in non-Christian societies. In other words, we take it for granted here in America today but most people throughout history and a pretty good chunk of them living today as well have not assumed that men and women are equal in value.
So, on the one hand, I am saying that Christianity has introduced and spread the idea that women are of equal value with men, but, on the other, there are indications even in the Bible that women are the source of temptation for men. How are we to reconcile these ideas?
This post is getting long, so I am going to stop here with having posed the questions. Look for some attempt at answers next time.