(6/21/01 10:58:35 pm)
I was reading this very curious piece of writing by Kierkegaard called "Diary of a Seducer" (It's in Part One of *Either/Or*) and I came across this passage:
"A man can never be so cruel as a woman. Consult mythologies, fairy tales, folk legends, and you will find this confirmed. If the aim is to describe a natural force whose mercilessness knows no bounds, this force always assumes the form of a virginal being. Or one is horrified to read of a maiden who callously allows her suitors to lose their lives, as so often happens in the fairy tales of all peoples. A Bluebeard kills each of the women he has enjoyed on their wedding night, but he does not enjoy killing her; on the contrary, his joy has preceded the killing. Therein lies the concretion, it is not cruelty for cruelty's sake. A Don Juan seduces them and leaves them, but he finds no joy in leaving them, his joy lies in seducing them; his cruelty therefore is by no means this abstract cruelty".
I'm fascinated by the interplay between gender, cruelty, motivation and sexual experience (or lack thereof) in this passage and I was wondering how others thought these motifs intermesh in the tales. Is cruelty or a specific kind of cruelty implicitly gendered?
(6/21/01 11:05:35 pm)
| Re: Cruelty|
Is cruelty or a specific kind of cruelty implicitly gendered?
No, I would not think so. Rather, I believe it to be individual, and related to that individual's time and culture.
(6/22/01 8:54:14 am)
| cruelity of the victim|
I choked on Kierkegaard's passage...it's so, so awfully sexist. I think he's pulling in the fairy tale motif without a whole lot of study in the tradition...one of those casual male assumptions that isn't questioned, given the community and the time in which he is writing, which share those assumptions ("hell hath no fury, ect). There are of course a few notably hard virginal female characters (Turandot perhaps...) but K. ignores the fact that the contest set up to win those impossible brides is usually established not by the young woman, but the father. It is a case of male possession and the treatment of the daughter as property in an exchange for what ever the suitable surivivor brings to the table. Thus it is often the cruelty of the father, one male excising weaker males in favor of an alpha male to win his daughter. And its amazing that K. could insulate himself from the wretched cruelty of fathers to daughters in the tales (Armless Maidens, Donkeyskin). And I really don't read Bluebeard (or the Robber Bridegroom for that matter) as particular remorseful at having murdered their former brides after enjoying a night of sex (nor Shahrayar murdering innocent brides after one night in 1001 Nights). Those stories are partially about the destructive abuse of power between men and women...not joy and remorseful murdering. (K. almost makes it sound as if its a shame that those guys get offed by the young woman who finally decides not to be a victim).
But the question is about gendered cruelty....I don't know. That needs more thought. Looking at women as victims of war, raped/mutilated in ways men on the battle field never are, or the mother who strangles her children, or the father who sexually abuses his daughters, or the woman who sets her abusive husband on fire in his sleep....I suspect that cruelty might follow gender lines along similar lines of power and social agency. Some men who feel powerless within the context of the community, commit acts of violence and cruelty on women, and women in turn move down the line of power and commit acts of cruelty on their children. Male psychotics are first recognized as children committing acts of cruelty to small animals. I really think that cruelty if gendered, probably follows closely the lines of power established for each gender within the social context.
But as for Keirkegaard...I think he formed an example out of fairytales because he imagined it to be so and because it neatly fit his argument.
(6/22/01 9:02:07 am)
Midori is being kind. Kierkegaard is full of s--t.
(6/22/01 10:22:41 am)
| Friend of the Pirhana Brothers, I think...|
This is Kierkegaard, who likes to bite the heads off whippets, isn't it?
Since I'm immersed in Bluebeardology at the moment, I'll fire at that one. Indeed, our Mr. K is full of puppy stinkies. Bluebeard doesn't take pleasure from killing and dismembering his wives? Are you nuts, Mr. K? The entire thing is a great, grand and glorious game of passive-aggressive manipulation and control. Bluebeard expresses deep regret that his wife has failed him because she didn't obey his command not to have any curiosity--for which you can read "free will." And it's a great scam, too, because he's arranged things so that it's all her fault, nothing to do with him. He simply must kill her for thinking. I won't even get into the parallel to the fabled ejection from the Garden of Eden for fear the Christians will come get me for suggesting that God is the ultimate control freak.
Bluebeard takes diabolical pleasure from murdering each wife. He lives for the opportunity. For him it is much more potent than the mere deflowering of her the night before, whereas, clearly, shooting his mouth off was more exciting for Kierkegaard.
(6/22/01 10:34:35 am)
| Cruelty in fairy tales|
Well, I certainly share your opinion of Kierkegaard - a modern (female) reader kind of chokes on these words. They are unacceptable for us. And yes, I do think that cruelty knows no difference in gender. Still- I think Kierkegaard has a point, though not the one he is trying to make.
Most male cruelty in fairy tales is "typically male" (and here I am being sexist, I know). Like the king in 1001 Nights, his reason is that he was hurt by his wife, betrayed - it's more or less a question of male ego and pride. The fathers bartering away their daughters for mercenary reasons or to improve their social standing. King Thrushbeard's cruelty to prove his superiority to the princess (she got the better of him on their first meeting, didn't she?). I could go on and on. These are usually very "straight forward" motivations: Greed and Pride.
The female cruelty is very often motivated by competitive behavior - all those stepmothers and stepsisters. But there are also other forces at work, if you think of the witches, be it the witch from Hansel and Gretel or the Baba yaga, and the likes of them. I think that in those characters, there are bits and pieces left over from the goddesses of fate, who have reasons no mortal man understands.
No wonder Kierkegaard is afraid. :-)
One more word to real life (but who says a fairy tale isn't?): I think that women, who very often are taught more strictly to avoid physical violence, tend to emotional cruelty or blackmail, whereas men tend rather to physical violence and cruelty. But this might be changing. And basically, I agree that it is subject to each individual, irrespective of gender.
(6/22/01 4:41:03 pm)
First, I think I should have included more details about the context
of the passage. Kierkegaard does not write the above passage as
a philosophical treatise- he is adopting the persona of a particular
character, a seducer called Johannes, in order to elucidate a particular
kind of lifestyle- the lifestyle of the aesthete (The *Either/or*
of the title refers to a choice between the aesthetic and moral/ethical
ways of life- Kierkegaard eventually chooses neither- he takes the
religious path). The adoption of personas or characters to illustrate
a particular idea is a peculiar feature of K's work- thus, it is
difficult to take any one passage as a blunt statement of K's own
viewpoint, regardless of what you may think of his treatment of
whippets! I realise now that I should have made that clearer- I'm
sorry! Still, it stirred delightful blazes!
Secondly, in posting the above passage, I did not mean to insinuate that cruelty is gendered in "real" life. Like Midori, as a modern female *and* feminist reader, I choked when I read it- but this is a character who is designed to provoke you. My question was about a particular tradition of writing and interpretation. Do we see a gendered characterisation of cruelty in specific tellings by specific people? I *know* that, in the broader world, cruelty is very much tied up with the individual- as several people state above. It's all a matter of editing and selection, as Midori notes- of leaving one particular element out of the story (as Midori observes, the seducer conveniently forgets that the father is often the instigator of the suitor's "punishment"). My question, stated more clearly (I hope!), is - do you think particular authors or particular traditions of narration/interpretation combine or delete story elements in a manner which supports a misogynistic/misandronous reading of cruelty?
Once again, apologies for the lack of clarity.
(6/23/01 11:14:57 pm)
| Re: Contextualisation|
Greg: Aaaah, Bluebeard, my all-time favorite. You're absolutely right.
What I find interesting is that, in fairy tales, women seem to be more likely to be credited with acts of unmotivated cruelty. The witches of "Hansel and Gretel," "Rapunzel," and countless others are evil simply because they *are.* The foul deeds of Bluebeard and his ilk are often rationalized -- Bluebeard is justified in killing his wives because they disobeyed him. Sharayar is taking out his betrayal upon all women. The tales often provide a motive for male cruelty, even if it's petty. But female characters' actions are justified/rationalized/explained far less often, it seems to me, and when they are, then there are often further derogatory remarks upon her evil ways.
(6/25/01 8:13:14 am)
| Cruel motivations|
You have me mulling over a whole bunch of things now. Sharyar's behavior is certainly outrageous to us. I never had much sympathy for the excuse that one woman betrayed him therefore all women must perish (sexism as genocide); but Sherazade wades in without any clear reaction to what he's doing--that is, she simply takes control of the situation without any suggestion of judgment on her part.
And the nature of cruelty does seem to fall along sexual lines, so I have to raise the question of whether the women in the French salons who fashioned the shape of many of these stories had, perhaps, less sympathy for the cruelties of their own sex, or whether we've ended up with a set of masculine motivations as a result of men (Perrault, etc) having insinuated excuses for the behaviors of the males into the stories over time; or perhaps something derived of both.
(6/25/01 12:44:40 pm)
| Re: Cruel motivations|
Greg wrote: "And the nature of cruelty does seem to fall along sexual lines, so I have to raise the question of whether the women in the French salons who fashioned the shape of many of these stories had, perhaps, less sympathy for the cruelties of their own sex, or whether we've ended up with a set of masculine motivations as a result of men (Perrault, etc) having insinuated excuses for the behaviors of the males into the stories over time; or perhaps something derived of both."
I would lean toward the last hypothesis of a blending of both. Even after the feminist movement, I find that many people are still more willing to excuse male behavior than female behavior. "Boys will be boys" is still a common phrase in my environment with all of its accompanying implications.
However, to refer to current events, it is interesting to observe the community reaction over the woman who killed her five children last week. The community overall--according to media interpretation, of course--is "standing" behind her and feeling sorry for her and her illness that caused this tragedy. Women, it seems, are excused from cruel or violent behavior when they have either been victims of extreme violence or when they have severe mental problems. The violence is not explained away, however, as "girls just being girls."
I find I don't have a gut reaction about the events in Texas other than empathetic horror for everyone involved, especially the children. My mother suffered from post-partum for several years after my birth and it is a very real disease in my experience. I can't use it to condone the events however.
Imagine if we now re-evaluate Medea as suffering from post-partum complications? That would be an interesting and horrific novel.....
(6/25/01 12:53:01 pm)
| Media & Either/Or|
That's funny, Heidi. You posted as I posted, and your post deleted my post! It was about Texas too. What is that widely used statistic--something like 90 percent of violent crimes are committed by men? But nearly any violent crime committed by a woman makes national headlines. I said more in my last post but I'm too busy to try to patch it back together from memory. Sorry.
I was also writing to weigh in a tiny bit in poor Soren's defense--the Kierkegaard quote above is presented quite out of context! Though I see exactly why it interests you, Karen (and angers others, out of context). (Not to limit the value of anyone's postings on gender, or cruelty, in the context of this interesting conversation--to which I would like to contribute more, but am in the middle of page proofs! Scary.).
Either/Or is an amazing, intricate book, one of my favorites. In fact Kierkegaard's ideas on sex and gender were actually quite forward-thinking.But for those who can't stomach him, perhaps you would like Daniele Dubroux's compelling, complexly feminist, fairytale influenced film "Diary of a Seducer." Or Elliott Smith's record Either/Or.
That's all for now. Sorry to be such a brief interloper.
(6/25/01 3:06:02 pm)
| censored nights|
Once again, many apologies for taking Kierkegaard out of context-
I assumed everyone would know the book, which was very wrong of
me, I realise. Sorry! I've been a little tired & confused of
late- trying to organise a (temporary) move to Montreal in a couple
of months' time and negotiating my way through the burecracy of
visas, etc- smelling salts must be kept close by at all times! Kierkegaard
is indeed comparatively enlightened, especially if you compare him
to Friederich "Woman is the problem. Pregnancy is the solution"
Discarding the pointless drivel, I want to second Kate's reccomendations! I'm also interested in what Gregor says above about the Arabian Nights, especially if you consider that the frame story was the most frequently censored or expurgated tale in nineteenth century England- often they would remove all the sex and imply that the queen's crime was a political one, a vague crime to do with aligning herself with the king's enemies. IN a sense, though, her original crime is political... In their mode of censorship, the Victorians simply reinforce a particular interpretation of female adultery- the old racist notion that "miscegnation" is threatening to white power. After all, the space of a woman's body frequently becomes the metaphorical stage upon which the play of colonialism is enacted.... Just musing aloud!
(6/25/01 9:26:49 pm)
| No Sorries!|
Karen, no apology is necessary at all. I know exactly how you meant your post! I didn't mean to imply you made any mistake or misrepresentation. At all!
(6/25/01 9:33:00 pm)
| Cruel and Unusual posts|
I'm very unsure of the logic and proof behind this:
"Some men who feel powerless within the context of the community, commit acts of violence and cruelty on women, and women in turn move down the line of power and commit acts of cruelty on their children."
Or, they might drink too much, or they might become David Chapman or Timothy McVeigh, or they might be caricatured henpecked husbands, or they might...you get the idea. And, of course, men are just as capable of committing acts of cruelty against children as women are.
"I could go on and on. These are usually very "straight forward" motivations: Greed and Pride."
From which, of course, the weaker sex is immune? Of course not. Your very next line says, "The female cruelty is very often motivated by competitive behavior - all those stepmothers and stepsisters." The "other forces" were equalizing factors in a world where women, by and large, were not imagined to have such power, so the story gave them power, but by making the power fantastic the stories actually legitamize the power for a superstitious people.
Sexism as genocide? Another might read pathology, not sociology, into that same behavior. Are characters simple bell curve representations of cultural standards, or does modern academic theory condemn them to that sorry fate? For real people, the mean can never describe the individual. Perhaps all fiction is allegory? I'm not sure I buy that.
"Looking at women as victims of war, raped/mutilated in ways men on the battle field never are..."
Actually, they are. Reports came out of Bosnia that male prisoners of war were forced to perform fellatio on each other. I think it's good advice to never underestimate our collective cruelty. Women, being sexualised culturally, are more common victims, and there were also reports that male prisoners were made to rape female prisoners after watching their captors rape them, but to say it never happens to men in war is to ignore the real world.
Karen, I think that you will find that cruelty is so common that it can't be categorized. Cruelty is typical, really, it's the norm, not the exception. What may be interesting is to find how literature canonizes certain kinds of cruelty.
If you don't believe that cruelty is common, read back through a couple of years worth of Amnesty International's papers.
I think that you will see that class, not gender, is most often the determining factor.
(6/26/01 10:30:33 am)
Can you clarify your point that class rather than gender is the determining point in cruelty? And what is being determined? I was a little confused by this comment and it seems central to your reply.
O.k, so now I'm feeling salty at having lurched to the wrong conclusion of K. piece. Now I will just have to go the library and read the whole thing. And maybe in a year from now I won't be so embarassed! Kate, thanks for the secondary references, lord knows they will come in handy when reading these materials.
If we continue to discuss "cruelty" in the context of fairy tales, perhaps its important to examine what function cruelty plays in the text, rather than ascribe to it a single social interpretation of the doer. Are the acts of cruelty (and those who commit them) interchangable? Are similar acts of cruelty offered by the fantastic? by mothers? by Kings and by robber bridegrooms? I don't have the answer, I'm just musing here.
(6/26/01 10:35:55 am)
| Re: Cruel and unusual|
I agree with you that cruelty is the norm and not the exception. If you look, for instance, at the history of the Roman Coliseum and the games, you discover brutality for mass amusement that still so far exceeds what we find repellant on television or in film today that it overwhelms. (Try Daniel Mannix's long out of print "Those About to Die" for a course on human cruelty). Among other things, the Romans caused whole species to go extinct as a result of hunting the animals so they could be released and slaughtered in the games.
If you follow that rather ugly thread along, you'll find that our century is about the first where people cared at all about other lifeforms, not to mention their own species in less happy circumstances. Historically, our sense of compassion can be viewed as something of an aberration.
(6/26/01 3:37:16 pm)
I know you didn't mean to imply.... I apologise too much- right
now I want to apologise for apologising! Sigh! Is there no help
for me? It's a Catholic reflex!
I *am* interested in how literature/tales canonise particular kinds of cruelty- this was the subject I had in mind when I began the thread- for instance, why does being eaten appear as the quintessential threat to the autonomy of the hero/ine in story after story? Why do so many storytellers configure the struggle for power and supremacy in terms of a cannibal dialectic? It might be interesting to consider the figure of the cannibal ogre (Kronos) eating his would-be successors/overthrowers in terms of your assertion that class rather than gender is the determining factor in cases of cruelty. Certainly, I would be intrigued to hear any responses to the questions Midori asks above, which I will have to think about.
I have been trying to steer myself away from a broader discussion of cruelty within the "real" world, since, as you say, Jeff, it can't really be catagorised- but the detour your response suggests is so fascinating! Your response and Greg's reply made me think of the account of the various public executions and tortures in Foucault's *Discipline and Punish*. In particular, I thought of Foucault's assertion that the mode of execution was frequently determined on the basis of class rather than crime. When the guillotine was instituted as the universal instrument of execution in France, the move was hailed as a democratising gesture- now all criminals could die like "nobles"!
Secondly, when I used the term "cruelty" I was thinking of individual acts of violence rather than an organised, centralised system of oppression, but I see that that understanding was somewhat narrow. As abhorrent as it is to consider, rapes in times of war are often systematic, strategic manoeuvres on the part of invading armies- as if dispossession must be played out in the theatre of the body before it can be complete and irrevocable. However, within the relatively/allegedly more peaceful First world city, I believe that you will find that most violent crimes which are motivated by hate rather than money *are* committed on the basis of gender, race and/or sexual preference. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of serial killers are straight, white men and the overwhelming majority of their victims are young women. This does not mean that no one else is capable of cruelty or murder- not at all. It would, however, be naive to assert that women and men are always or even often subjected to the same threats- in a darkened, run down city street a man will probably fear a physical attack while a woman will inevitably fear the threat of sexual violence first and foremost.
And yet, I do concur with your thesis in part- organised, mass atrocities or acts of cruelty are far more likely to be commited against peoples with less economic power. Now, with the advent of "free trade" and the truly appalling conditions under which many people (often young women, might I add) in developing countries are forced to produce consummer goods for multinational corporations, you could certainly argue that the class system has gone global and that money calls the tune when it comes to human rights. Nevertheless, I think we must inevitably return to our usual point of contention- I do not think that you can ascribe oppression or cruelty to any one factor. Often the discrimination is enforced according to a mixture of gender, race and class issues. Class may be the enabling factor, but, in many cases, the mode of oppression is principally and ostensibly sexist or racist.
(6/27/01 6:59:07 am)
That's a *brilliant* idea!! Reconstructing "Medea" in a post-partum setting...
I recall a musical that recreated "Medea" in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, involving voodoo, but I never actually figured out the entire storyline (I only had the songs by themselves, without any dialogue in between).
It's a fascinating story, I think. Heartbreaking, but fascinating.
(6/27/01 10:04:42 am)
| thanks Karen|
Thanks for the wonderful long reply to Jeff. I found your ideas fascinating and am really appreicative of the time it took to compose a long and thoughtful reply. My own have been so desperately short lately. Once I emerge from this manuscipt I should be back to reading and writing a whole lot more!
(6/28/01 9:22:44 am)
| Theatre of Cruelty|
Karen wrote: "I do not think that you can ascribe oppression or cruelty to any one factor. Often the discrimination is enforced according to a mixture of gender, race and class issues. Class may be the enabling factor, but, in many cases, the mode of oppression is principally and ostensibly sexist or racist."
Indeed. The factors are going to change according to the specific ecology--individuals interacting with their environment, whether that's war or peace. But I think the tendency to violence, to oppression, is in some way hard-wired into us. I'm thinking in particular of social experiments where a group is split up into prisoners and jailers; the inevitable outcome seems to be that the jailers, as they grow used to their positions, become more likely to threaten, more prone to violence, even though they know it's a controlled experiment, it isn't really a prison, and the "victims" are colleagues. Something happens to the script by which they operate (as it appears to do for those who are playing the prisoners). It seems to take a real force of will not to fall into this pattern. In real-life situations, I imagine that force of will would have to increase significantly.
The true enormity of the Nazis, as someone has said, is the banality of the violence. Monsters don't look like monsters or necessarily come from monsters; but a nightmare ecological matrix can pervert them with horrible ease.
One of the things I find most offensive in the majority of morality tales (if they can be called such) that Hollywood turns out is how villainous the villains usually are--so easily identifiable, and often in a way that is itself prejudicial toward a class or race if not sex.
(6/28/01 8:06:14 pm)
"One of the things I find most offensive in the majority of morality tales (if they can be called such) that Hollywood turns out is how villainous the villains usually are--so easily identifiable, "
Is this an American or Western cultural thing I wonder? I recently watched "Princess Mononoke" with my kids and was struck by the ambiguity in who the villain(s) were. I don't watch or read a lot of Japanese or other Eastern tales so I don't know if this is typical of the Japanese mores or specific to this picture. The real villain, I guess was supposed to be anger and hate - but you still had the forest creatures who wanted to wipe out all humans and the humans who wanted to deface the forest and kill the nature spirits - and both were depicted with a degree of sympathy... No clear cut villain like Gregor was talking about. In this case, I'm not sure it was a 'good' thing - I, at least, found it somewhat unsatisfying in this kind of story...
I know a bunch of you have seen this movie - what did you think about the mutual cruelty and lack of distinctive villain?