I met an African woman at an eating area near my job once. I used to see her there early in the morning smoking. One day she came up to me and asked me if I had a light for the cigarette she held in her hand. I looked into my backpack and handed her a lighter. As she lit her cigarette she smiled and we made small talk. I found out she owned one of the restaurants in the area. She kept looking around her as she smoked and I asked her what was wrong. She laughed and said that her husband and children didn’t know she smoked. I asked her if that’s why I would see her chain smoking in the mornings and she laughed and said yes. She said she couldn’t smoke at home. She said that her husband was African as well and that where she was from women didn’t smoke or do things like that — that it was frowned upon. She said that women are held in high regard but they are expected to be and act a certain way or it is considered shameful to their family. When I heard this I had a mixed reaction. Part of me thought it was nice that Black women were revered but then I thought that if that reverence pressured them into ways of being that didn’t come naturally then maybe that’s not such a good thing. I asked her how she felt about that and her reaction was almost as mixed as mine. She liked that women were treated with reverence but she didn’t like that they were boxed in terms of behavior.
Long after our conversation I kept thinking about the things she’d said and the way she’d said them. And then I thought about my reaction and thoughts about what she’d said. It took a few months for me to really come up with the words to articulate, but when it came down to it, I thought that the whole thing was about desire and possession from the male gaze.
In thinking about that meeting with the woman I met, I thought about Black women in America and they suffer a similar dynamic of oppression. America being an imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist, patriarchy shapes the mainstream opinion through the gaze of men (usually rich White men). That gaze when placed upon women often offers only 2 stations in life: madonnas and whores.
The reason for these polarized options for women lies in the systems of oppression that shape the majority of male thinking. Most specifically imperialism and patriarchy. These two systems condition male thinking and direct the male gaze in such a manner that creates an oppressive presence to women.
Imperialism teaches the male mind to conquer and possess that which is desired. For example, the colonists who fled Britain in search of freedom desired a country of their own and they stumbled upon America and despite finding it populated with people, they sought to conquer those people and possess their land. This is the sentiment that American ideals teach men is manly, masculine, and/or appropriate male behavior.
Patriarchy teaches the male mind that women are objects separate and different from men. Patriarchy objectifies women through the validation of physical differences chosen by natural selection to create male and female. This distinction is further exploited by patriarchy and social conditioning to create a position for women that is separate (as it should be to some extent) but not equal (as it never should be) to men. This objectification makes a dynamic between men and women where women are objects to be desired by men and (through imperialistic teaching) conquered and possessed. This is the American male gaze which mostly offers women two options: madonna or whore.
The madonna is desired for her purity and self-sacrifice. She is the archetype of everything good in a woman from the imperialistic patriarchal gaze. She is the madonna: almost a goddess, to be worshiped for her chastity, her devotion to man, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for his cause. Even when she is not sought after to be possessed physically through sex, marriage, or slavery, she is possessed through the males fantastical reverence and worship of her. Don’t be fooled that this is not oppression, it very much is. It is the most insidious form of oppression in that it manifests in a form of love — a doppelgänger of affection. The oppression takes place in that it does not allow the woman who is relagated to the Madonna position to be human, flawed, full of contradictions, imperfections, desires, and urges. She is the Madonna meant to sit quietly on eternal captivation of her husband and son (almost never daughter). She is a statue to be attended to and never engaged.
The whore is the other woman. Her station is low and unrespectable. Because of that station she is expected to bear the lowest treatment and to succumb to the males filthiest urges. She is the un-revered object that is meant for possession, use, and disposal. The whore is the antithesis of the Madonna: she is common and tangible and all of the desire for her possession is related to that which has already possessed her and/or her willingness to subservient to man. There is a freedom to be obtained from the whore in that, unlike the Madonna, the whore requires nothing (whereas the Madonna requires reverence and devotion). The whore shares a similar oppression as the Madonna because she too is not human: she is not allowed to have feelings and she is not worthy of true love.
The issue is that women are just as complex (if not more) creatures as men. There is no 1 or 2 archetypes that describe every woman. Nor can any archetypes describe any individual woman who may move through a number of characteristics associated with anyone archetype or stereotype. Her development should not be constrained by a singular period of her development in which she explored any aspect of herself. Often men are afforded the benefit of having a period of exploration in which he can be and act in complete opposition to the man he one day becomes; however, he is not condemned to wearing a scarlet letter for his actions. In many ways women are not expected to uphold the stringent requirements of the madonna position. But they are usually looked down upon if it is ever discovered that they have not. That is a problem. Like all human beings, women, should be allowed redemption as much as the next guy. to assert that a man can have a faze of ‘sowing his oates’ and asserting that a woman does not or shoudl not have similar urges is preposterous. Women, like every other human being on this planet, is flawed and is growing and learning within the their own developmental capacity. That should never make her less or more of a respectable woman. It should, in fact, make her human. Just as much human as any man.
The issue is that these 2 options of madonna or whore leaves no room for women to assert themselves as both sensual and sexual beings without the restriction of the male gaze. They are boxed in, by the male gaze, as 2 polarized extremees for which most women would fall along the spectrum (making them more human and equal to men) rather than one or the other. If we are to interact with women in a contemporary sense and allow them the freedom of personal expression that is offered to men, then we will have to realize that not every madonna is a goddess and not every whore is a disposable object. Women, like men, are capable of a diverse and contradictory arrangement of actions and values that may or may not be aligned with these traditional thoughts.
Women have every right to be a combination of traits that might fit within some of these traditional modes of thinking without their being bound to the extreme of the requirements for either. Women, like men, are human beings capable of a myriad of thoughts and behaviors that do not constitute any one persona. If we are to heal the connection between men and women, the imperialistic, patriarchal standard of the male gaze must be sacrificed to allow women the privilege and opportunity to be completely human: however flawed and imperfect that may be.
I’m not just sayin’; I’m just sayin’,
An Angry Black Man