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Friday, June 24, 2011


"Our Lady" - Alma Lopez
Bristol Palin, the 20 year old unwed mother and daughter of Sarah Palin, has written a book entitled, "Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far". In it, she reveals that on the night she conceived,
“I didn’t know that girl-flavored wine coolers were just as likely to get you drunk as the hard stuff” while she was on a camping trip with then boyfriend Levi Johnston.

Before the incident, she vowed to wait until marriage but with no memories of what happened, she got pregnant regardless of being on birth control pills to treat cramps.
Now, I'm working hard to put aside my temptation to make snide remarks about this "confession" of her "unconscious conception" whilst on "girl-flavored wine coolers" as well as any about Sarah Palin.

Instead, I want to ask what is to me an obvious question: Doesn't sex involve two people?

Which is not to defend Mrs. Palin's darling daughter but to ask why she has been excoriated and Levi Johnston, who was not, presumably, drinking "girl-flavored wine," not held up for equal accountability and responsibility?

He's the "playboy". She's the promiscuous tramp. 

Although you'll never find it written down anywhere, there is, nevertheless, an ancient, unwritten cultural double standard for women.

There seems to be two extremes: A woman is either whore or virgin.

If she is a whore, she is the object of scorn and ridicule and, in some cultures, punishment and death.

If she is a virgin, then she is the "property" of her father who "gives her hand in marriage" to another man. She is expected to remain the "property" of her husband for the rest of her life. The husband, however, because of "natural law," can't possibly be expected to only have one woman.

So, if he has "played around" and had sex before marriage, or if he is unfaithful to his marriage vows, well, see, he just can't help himself. He's just a man. It's genetic. In his DNA. What's to be done?

We have lots of terms for men who "stray," most of which have connotations which are complimentary. The "other woman" with whom he has strayed, however, does not often fare as well. Indeed, she's often blamed as the reason the poor man strayed in the first place - "seductress" and "home wrecker" and "Jezebel" - that she is.

Scripture and the institutional church's attitudes toward women in general and women's bodies in particular only reinforce these cultural attitudes. Indeed, they are often the genesis of these ideas and ideals about women and their bodies.

The Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary
Case in point: Mary. The Theotokos. The God-bearer. The Holy, Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

We like her pure, thank you very much, her body robed in demure colors of white (for virginity) and blue (I guess because she had a boy), often with touches of red (for His blood, shed for us), her long hair - the symbol of her sexuality - properly covered in a white veil (representing not only her modesty but the 'veil' between heaven and earth).

And, of course, she often has the same pierced heart as her son, symbolic of the suffering she experienced in having her son sacrificed on the cross, and emblematic of the suffering we share as Christians.

As a good Roman Catholic girl, this was the image of womanhood held up for us by the nuns of my youth - they, themselves, all covered up in black with white wimples stretched taughtly around their faces, foreheads and necks.

It was they who gave me the conflicted message of the church about sexuality: "Sex is bad. Save it for someone you love."

I was also carefully taught all those things about which former Roman Catholics now find humor - because, if we don't laugh, we'll go crazy.

Good RC girls did not wear their hair in pony tails because it was viewed as a phallic symbol, which curiously enough, was supposed to excite the male libido.

We weren't allowed to wear patten leather shoes because they reflect up (our skirts).

We were told to bring a phone book with us on dates - just in case the car was full and we had to sit on a boy's lap (I swear to God, it's true!) - so we wouldn't 'inadvertently' excite them.

And, we were told not to hold hands with boys because, as the sage aphorism went, "Whenever there is 'skin to skin' there is an opportunity for sin."

Like Son, like Mother.
I am not making this up. 

Those are the major ones. Then there are the things we learned about women through liturgy.

Like the "purification of women" that went along with the reception and blessing of the baby in the church before baptism.

Or, that women had to wear hats and gloves to church because of their impurity.

And, if we had any doubts - any doubts at all - about the inherent impurity and inferiority of women, there was the obvious absence of women as clergy, as well as the strict prohibition of girls or women serving at the altar or even reading from Scripture.

The "body politics" of the institutional church are always bubbling just under the surface of all doctrine, all polity, all practice.

Lupe & Sirena in Love
So, we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the art work of a Latina woman, feminist and lesbian, Alma Lopez, is causing controversy in the church.

That's her portrait of "Our Lady of Guadalupe" at the top of this post, which shows the Virgin of Guadalupe in a bikini made of roses, held up by a bare-breasted butterfly.

She also did one my personal favorites,  "Lupe and Sirena in love" which you see there on your left.

Her work was recently exhibited at University College Cork in Ireland where it - and her talk - were the target of protest which demanded that the event, “Our Lady and Other Queer Santas (Saints)” be cancelled.

Lopez is also there to promote her new book “Our Lady of Controversy: Alma Lopez's 'Irreverent' Apparition” at the university’s conference on Chicano/a culture.

When Lopez's work was first exhibited in 2001, there were death threats, censorship efforts, and violent protests. In Ireland, the right wing has organized a “Please Stop This blasphemy!” campaign, urging people to send the university a message that concludes:
“In my opinion, these are blasphemous events that offend Our Lady’s spotless purity, insult Catholics and undermine God’s natural order. To avoid such grave blasphemy, offense and scandal, I respectfully urge you to cancel these events.”
Ah, all the right words which I remember from my youth: Blasphemy. Spotless purity. Insult. Undermine. Natural Order. Offense. Scandal.

This from a church which not only participates in and perpetuates sexism, misogyny and the oppression of women, but has tolerated the physical and sexual abuse of children for years, obfuscating justice with silence, secrecy, lies and quiet "transfers".

Excuse me but I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

John Buckley, Catholic bishop of Cork and Ross, described the exhibition as "unacceptable", adding "respect for Mary, the mother of God, is bred in the bones of Irish people and entwined in their lives".

Interesting. I didn't know that all Irish people are "devout Catholics" - or even Catholic at all.

Truth by blatant assertion. It has ever been this with the RC Church hierarchy.

Women around the world are under siege as a new post-modern wave of sexism and misogyny overwhelms us. There are the astounding increases in the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution and slavery, "honor" murders in the Middle East and "acid assaults" India, rape as a weapon of war in the Global South, female genital mutilation as an acceptable "rite of passage', and the continued attacks to prohibit or erode reproductive rights for women, just to name a few examples.

The art of Alma Lopez is under attack because it dares to communicate a message about women in general and Mary in particular which the church hierarchy wishes to suppress.

It is a message about the right of women to claim ownership of our own bodies. It is a message about the power of a woman's sexuality and sensuality and how that is a vehicle of spirituality.

It is, in my mind, a way to heal the ancient rift between sexuality and spirituality by unveiling that power hidden for centuries behind long white and blue robes.

It displays not a desire to offend or a need to scandal, but the deep devotion of the artist to a Most Holy Woman. She is portrayed as a sensual woman, with a round belly and broad hips and full breasts, who stands with hands on her hips, near-naked and unashamed.

The bare breasted butterfly woman who is supporting her represents all women who find strength and courage from this image of divinity, interpreted for us by one of our own. We support "Our Lady" and her on-going apparitions to us in the work of our lives of faith.

Ms. Lopez writes:
I admit, I was surprised by the violent reaction to Our Lady because I am a community artist born in Mexico and raised in California with the Virgen as a constant in my home and my community. I know that there is nothing wrong with this image which was inspired by the experiences of many Chicanas and their complex relationship to La Virgen de Guadalupe. I am not the first Chicana to reinterpret the image with a feminist perspective, and I'm positive I won't be the last.
If you would like to take part in the counter-protest, and let your feminist voice be heard, please visit the post over at the FABULOUS blog, "Jesus In Love."

You will find there names and addresses and links to various religious organizations who are protesting Ms. Lopez's art as well as ways to send messages to the artist and the university, supporting their courageous stand in the face of such ignorance and adversity.

I hope you'll find a way to talk about this work and the issues it raises about sexuality, spirituality and women. I hope you'll have these conversations in church, at work, with your friends and colleagues.

There is a difference between blasphemy and art.

This is art. It is, for me, iconic.  As such, it is an icon, a window into The Divine which provides a way to deepen my spiritual relationship with God and others through the Theotokos.

If the church finds offense in that, I would remind them that this exhibit is not appearing in a church. It is only exhibited in a state universities and private museums. You know, like lots of other religious art.

I would also repeat my own variation of the words reportedly said by Jesus in Matthew 7:5:
"You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your sister's eye."
"The Men in Black" (or red or purple), need to be reminded that their response to a woman's body is their responsibility. It is not a woman's responsibility to organize her life to the pleasure or priorities of men, or dress in a certain way so as not to "entice" the male members of the species.

And, even if she does - because she likes the breasts or hips or thighs or legs which God gave her - it's still a man's responsibility to monitor and control his own responses.

Even though I obviously disagree with either her politics or her religious beliefs, as it turns out, Bristol Palin is a feminist - even if unconsciously so. And, I'm not talking about being under the influence of "girl-flavored wine coolers."

The title of her book is:  "Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far".

That could have been the title of a book written by an young Galilean woman named Mary, who, for me, was one of the first feminists.

"Not Afraid of Life" could aptly title of the collection of work by the artist Alma Lopez.

It could also be the mantra of feminists and Christian women who are feminists.

The really scary thing is the deadly politics of institutional church doctrine and polity which seek to stifle the lives - and bodies, and voices, and artistic expressions - of women.

That, my friends, is the real blasphemy.


TG K said...

Heaven forbid that women take charge of how we represent the Virgin of Guadalupe. And my definition of a guy who has sex with an unconscious woman (wine coolers or otherwise), or a woman who is very very drunk is simply called rape, and it is all the guy's fault. That's right folks, have sex with a girl who is very drunk and you are committing rape, and in a feminist world... well in my world, you'd get far worse than jail. This being an episcopal site and all and not a radical feminist site, I'll leave it to your imagination what we'd do to these guys.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are absolutely right, TG K. This clearly classifies as "date rape". There is no imagination involved about the penalty for that. It's jail. Period. Interesting that Bristol didn't file charges. Raises a few questions about her "unconscious conception," which seems to serve her purpose of protecting her family's values about abstinence rather than her own integrity and dignity. I'm not sayin', but I'm just sayin'.

MarkBrunson said...

Even in 1989, in college, in Georgia, we were told that that constitutes date rape.

Kittredge Cherry said...

You weave together so many aspects of “Our Lady”! We all benefit from the time and thought that you obviously put in to this post.

I am especially struck by your list of taboos to help “good” Catholic girls maintain their virginity. A few years ago I found 3 historical (and hysterical) Catholic sex manuals from the 1930s to 1950s on the free giveaway shelf at our neighborhood library. When methods like those you describe failed, the girls were advised as a last resort to THINK OF THE VIRGIN MARY! So, if Our Lady becomes like a real woman, the whole repressive system falls apart.

Many thanks for calling my blog FABULOUS! For extra convenience, here’s the direct link to my post on this subject at the Jesus in Love Blog:

Our Lady & Queer Saints art attacked as blasphemy - Show support now!

The exhibit (and protests) are set to continue all this weekend, and I will keep posting updates there.

About your comment on Mary’s "unconscious conception" -- in my novel “Jesus in Love,” it was a totally conscious experience of giving permission to God and experiencing blissful pleasure, which Mary discusses with her adult son Jesus as part of his spiritual education.

IT said...

As for the complaints against images.... the RC church has done great damage with its fear of healthy female sexuality. I think that's a big part of why they didn't pay attention to the child sex scandal for so long "at least they weren't girls!"

Revd. Neal Terry said...

Cracking post Elizabeth. It has been added to my resources folder for my groupwork with young men.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Right, Mark. So, if Bristol has such a close relationship with her mother, and if she is so committed to abstinence, then why didn't she report it as soon as she realized she was pregnant? It's very curious.

Joan of Quark said...

Writing from England, where Levi Bellfield was convicted of another murder yesterday. Here was a guy who cruised around in a van yowling obscenities at schoolgirls in uniform and trying to pick them up, expressed vicious misogynist hatred and violent fantasies to a horde of co-workers and friends, and was accused of rape and domestic violence by several partners. Now, either those viewpoints and behaviours are so unusual you'd think someone would have picked up on them and investigated, but they didn't bother, or else they are so (statistically) normal as not to raise a red flag. I'm not sure I want to live in either of these possible universes.

JimB said...

Date rape is rap period.

Super post!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kitt - Your blog is FABULOUS, my dear. I was first introduced to it in Patrick Cheng's Christology course. That's quite an endorsement.

Okay, all y'all. Go read it. Like I said, it's FABULOUS!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - You know, your note gives me an insight as to why the nuns didn't want us to wear our hair in pony tails because it was a "phallic symbol". Perhaps they knew more than they were telling.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

TMTIM - Thanks, darling. Glad to help.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim - I'm sure you meant "rape is rape". I'll put a period at the end of that sentence.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Joan, I know I don't.

Turtle Woman said...

Thing is, that if you really look at Alma Lopez' photo montage, it is actually a beautiful image. You could say more about the nude David statue, or the nudes of the Sistine chapel. I think what shocks the catholic bishops, is they don't own the copyright on Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a Chicana lesbian dared to represent her! How dare lesbians create art with scared women men are supposed to control? The noive (in Brooklyn accent) :-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle Woman - Your point about David is absolutely spot on, as well as your point about ownership. It always comes down to power and control with these guyz, don't it?

Matthew said...

So why isn't the district attorneys office prosecuting this? I read the statute of limitations for rape in AK is ten years.

Then again, I recall a legal case from many years ago. I cannot recall the name of it. A bunch of military guys on leave got a woman drunk to rape her, as a group, a gang rape. The court held they could not be prosecuted for rape because you cannot rape a dead person. It turns out based on toxicology reports that at the time they gang raped her she had died of alcohol poisoning and was not merely unconscious as they had thought. The case made me very angry.

Then Again, rape is soooooo hard to prove in a courtroom which is why 90 % of rapes go unreported. So sad.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I can only think that the reason the DA hasn't charged Levi with anything is because Bristol is lying through her teeth. She can probably get away with writing that in her book, but I suspect the DA in Alaska is not going to prosecute unless there's rock solid evidence and if Bristol won't file charges, they ain't got nothin'.

One more reason to simply shake one's head in dismay at the Palins from the Upper Forty.

Frair John said...

Blue used to be the color for little girls and women. It was also the color for many wedding dresses. Queen Victoria is "responsible" for the change. She got married in white lace to try and get people to wear English and Irish lace instead of French. Yes, she got married in a very unfashionable dress. Women followed suit and started wearing white lace dresses, in French and Belgian lace.
Prince Albert was a red faced little kid who looked awful in Pink, the color of boys. So Victoria dressed him in royal blue, and told the scandalized court to lump it. She set the fashion again. She reportedly grumbled once upon seeing the future Kaiser Wilhelm II that he'd "look better in pink."

The earliest iconography of the BVM had her dressed in blue and red. The blue was because she was female, the red because she was old enough to have a menstrual cycle. Most of the, then standard, images of Virginity, pre se, are absent from the early depictions. In fact the blue veil and/or cloak were reinterpreted to be virginal, just like a white wedding dress.

Frair John said...

One of the major reasons for there not to be a prosecution is that Her Serene Highness, Princess Sara of Wasilla was desperate to make the pregnancy disappear. Then, when they realized that this could be played to their advantage, they wanted no "stain" of rape, so adopted a "happy families" image. Remember the audience they had to try and play to. I got that from a Republican J street operative I used to date. It was a leading reason why they entire family was, and is, held in such contempt by so many in the party: They have a different version for whom ever it is they address.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Friar John - I've read lots of interpretations - male and female sources - about the symbolism of the colors of Mary. Most of what I wrote comes from the RC nuns who taught me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Friar John - The Palins are such an incredible mess.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Anonymous, identify yourself and then get over yourself.