I, perhaps like you, suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. Too often, I say or hear something that is totally inane or asinine, which is why I prefer writing to chattering, prattling and jabbering.
Recent news reports say that one of the founding mothers of American women’s history said something ludicrous at best and profoundly offensive at worst.
I know no more about this incident than what I have read, which isn’t much. The news coverage has been pretty thin. I’ve yet to read an account that offers much context for the reported remark or any response from the scholar at the center of the controversy.
I know full well about the dangers of speaking out before all the facts are in. Yet I do hope that this incident might prompt some serious reflections about aging, academic civility and the debt junior scholars owe to their more senior colleagues—and vice versa.
In a civil society, someone would have taken the senior scholar aside, said she had spoken obtusely and urged her to apologize. Then, the apology, once voiced, would be accepted and we’d all move on. The advice offered in the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew 7:5-7—“Judge not, lest ye be judged”—strikes me as wise. In circumstances like this one, judgment and punishment are God’s to mete, not ours.
But that’s not the society we live in. These days, we don’t cut each other much slack, not even to those who are old enough to be our grandparents. A self-righteous moralism infects this society and has, I fear, become an instrument of power. It serves to silence and chastise those who fail to conform to the current orthodoxies. In some instances, it’s a thinly veiled form of generational warfare, rooted in a sense that the baby boomers have remained ascendant for far too long, empathy be damned.
Thirty years ago, Lois W. Banner published the first comprehensive history of women and aging. Entitled In Full Flower, this landmark account chronicled the ways that Western culture has demeaned and denigrated older women over the past three millennia. A mixture of social, cultural and literary history, this volume drew upon an impressive array of sources—including myths and legends, works of literature, and artifacts from popular culture—to show how older women’s hard-won wisdom was dismissed, their experience denigrated, their sexuality denied.
Banner closely and critically analyzed figures, real and imagined, including The Odyssey’s Penelope, the Wife of Bath, Mother Goose, Margaret Fuller, Colette and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and uncovered rare instances when older women have been treated not as witches, dowagers, old maids or warm, loving yet sexless grandmothers, but as empowered and respected figures whose sexuality was recognized and accepted. The book’s most striking and novel section examined the essential roles performed by older African American women and the respect they have been accorded within the Black community.
Few works of historical scholarship withstand the test of time, but In Full Flower is one of them. It remains the essential starting point for any serious discussion of gender and aging and the ways that U.S. society describes aging as a process of mental and physical decline, deprecates the elderly as out of touch, and discriminates against seniors through various institutional policies and practices even as it portrays them as greedy geezers who consume a disproportionate share of society’s resources and hang on to their jobs far too long.
Even as the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians executive board “condemns the racist, homophobic and Islamophobic comments of one of the Big Berks conference co-founders,” I’d like to do something that I’m afraid American historians do too infrequently: appraise briefly a senior historian’s body of scholarship. I do this not to defend Banner, whom I have never met, but, rather, to remind us: the best way to judge a scholar’s life is to look closely and critically at their academic scholarship.
Among Banner’s many books, several stand out:
American Beauty traces two centuries of shifting ideals of (white) feminine beauty from the “frail, pale, willowy,” ethereal and near-anorexic antebellum archetype to the buxom and voluptuous woman of the later 19th century; the Gibson Girl, tall, athletic and patrician; and various 20th century models: curves out, curves in, hair long, hair short, hair curled, hair straight, breasts and hips suppressed, breasts and hips exaggerated. Driving these shifts? A heightened emphasis on women’s sexuality and slimness exploited by advertisers, dressmakers, fashion designers, cosmeticians, hair stylists, Hollywood and more. Her conclusion: The pursuit of beauty has been “ultimately, the most oppressive” force in 20th-century white American women’s history.
Intertwined Lives, a biographical study of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and their circle of family, friends, husbands, lovers and colleagues, drawing upon previously closed private papers, shows how their sexual experiences contributed to their embrace of ideas about cultural relativity, human plasticity, racial and sexual equality, and the fluidity of sexuality and how these pioneering anthropologists succeeded in bringing these concepts into the broader culture. Especially noteworthy is Banner’s discussion of the first sexual revolution of the early 20th century, which was reduced in popular culture to a matter of petting and spooning but which was accompanied by a heightened awareness of bisexuality, homosexuality and lesbianism.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox treats the film icon both as a victim (including her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage, incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation by a host of men) and as an active agent who created her own distinctive persona and who masterminded her sexual objectification. As Banner shows with great subtlety, the Hollywood sex goddess self-consciously engaged in a masquerade or burlesque of postwar femininity with her “wiggling walk, jiggling breasts, childlike voice and pouty lips.” In my eyes, the most exciting part of this biography is the treatment of Monroe’s blonde whiteness and its sexual, aesthetic, social and historical meanings.
Banner, who, like Nancy Cott, Linda Gordon and Alice Kessler-Harris, was instrumental in bringing a feminist lens into U.S. history, was never oblivious to the centrality of race in the American past.
Let me now turn to a recent book by Claire Dederer. This is the author’s attempt to ask and answer a series of very tough and timely questions that go well beyond the blow-up that took just place in Stockbridge, Mass.:
- How should we treat a single lapse in judgment in the context of an entire life’s work?
- Can we love the work of artists who are monsters in their personal life?
- Do geniuses deserve special dispensation?
- Is there a link between genius and monstrosity? Do those who stare into the bleaker side of the psyche or of society inevitably become monstrous themselves? What if an artist’s monstrosity is a product of inner demons that are themselves consequences of abuse?
- Is male monstrosity different from female monstrosity?
- When we consume a monster’s work, are we endorsing that person’s character? Or are we, instead, signaling our moral superiority and denying our own monstrosity?
In our age of moral policing, what do we do with figures like Caravaggio, a murderer, or Gauguin, who fathered children with at least three different girls between the ages of 13 and 15 and then abandoned them? Or how about more recent figures, not just Picasso or Heidegger or Hemingway or Faulkner or Hans Asperger or Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, but Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Anne Sexton, J. K. Rowling, Doris Lessing and Joni Mitchell?
More than one critic has written that Dederer “has nothing original to offer on the quandary of how the public should reconcile the Janus-faced artist’s public and indeed private, reprehensible conduct with the merit of his/her oeuvre.” Indeed, The New Statesman called her book “An idiot’s guide to cancel culture.”
Whatever her book’s weaknesses, it does invite us to think long and hard about issues of guilt and forgiveness in this age of cancel culture.
No one should defend the indefensible, nor should we let offensive words go uncorrected. But we should also strive, to the best of our ability, to separate odious words from nasty deeds and character flaws from rigorous scholarship. We shouldn’t treat works of art or scholarship as a reflection of the moral character of their creator. We should also remember: soon enough we too will be old.
To be human is to be flawed. In Kant’s famous phrase, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
With those thoughts in mind, we’d do well to recall the words attributed to Jesus in John 8:7: “let him that is among you without sin, cast the first stone.”