Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Goddess is not your bitch

Laurie Penny, in an excellent critique of Naomi Wolf's book, Vagina, has drawn attention to a worrying new trend.
Throughout Vagina, Wolf refers to something called the 'Goddess', a sort of wibbly-wobbly divine feminine energy that can be woken by appropriately angled vaginal massage and a nice bunch of flowers, a strategy known, and I really wish I were making this up, as the 'Goddess Array'. This 'Inner Goddess' idea is having a moment right now.

It crops up as a clunky motif in the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which the protagonist's 'Inner Goddess' responds to the virile attentions of the millionaire stunt-dick in a variety of interesting ways. As the heroine administers a simple blow-job, the reader is informed that her 'inner Goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves'. Imagery matters, even clunky, awkward imagery: in Wolf's hands, this weirdly retro goddess conceit becomes a manifesto, informing the female reader that no matter what her life may look like, no matter what gender inequities she may experience every day, there is something wonderful, special and mysterious about being a woman, and especially about being a woman receiving sexual attention from a man, that should be its own reward.
The idea of the Goddess does not have to be - indeed, should not be - some fluffy flower-bedecked Persephone tripping through the meadows waiting to be abducted by Hades.

Goddesses include the hag Lilith who rejects men, the subversive Baubo who makes Demeter laugh, Eris who sows dissent, Ishtar who destroys, Kali the slayer, Pele of the volcano, and Artemis the hunter.

Because the Goddess is 'Mother Nature', she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

It's true that the idea of the Goddess was first popularised by a woman who thought that women were somehow essentially different from men, namely Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the Goddess in the 1930s, who believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the next generation of enthusiasts, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. And clearly Naomi Wolf's inner goddess, and the inner goddess of Fifty Shades of Grey, are also pandering to socially conservative essentialism and the idea that women are just there for men to have sex with; not as beings in our own right.

Can we reclaim the idea of goddesses from this essentialist and socially conservative discourse? I think the first step is to regard them as goddesses, not the Goddess - if they are plural, there's a range of gender expressions available, and there can also be transgender goddesses. Each has her own story and her own political stance. Each expresses her gender differently, which encourages us to see that gender is a social construct and not an essential attribute.

As Laurie Penny says, we don't need the kind of feminism peddled by Naomi Wolf; we need a feminism that affirms women's worth as human beings, and campaigns for women's rights around the world, and that fights back against the current tidal wave of misogynistic rhetoric and legislation.

The Goddess should be on the side of real feminism, not putting women back in frilly nighties in the bedroom. She is not the bitch of patriarchy - she is the wild instinct of women yearning for freedom and human rights.

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