Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Ascent of Woman, parts 1 and 2: “Civilization” and "Separation" (Public TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the first two episodes of a four-part British TV series called The Ascent of Woman that was being presented on PBS, hosted by a powerful personality named Amanda Foreman who turns out to have been the daughter of High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman. She also turns out to have been the person behind the rediscovery of Duchess Georgiana, an 18th century woman in England, wife of the Duke of Devonshire and an accomplished writer, musician, linguist and political campaigner for the Whig Party; Foreman’s 1998 biography of Georgiana was filmed in 2008 as The Duchess, with Keira Knightley as Georgiana (though, being me, in my blog post on the movie I wrote, “I couldn’t help but think what a 1930’s version with the young Katharine Hepburn as Georgiana might have been like”). One reviewer faulted Foreman for endorsing the “great man” — or, in her case, the “great woman” — theory of history other feminists have tried to debunk, but her agenda was basically to identify famous women who had openly challenged the gender orthodoxies of older civilizations and risen to positions of power. Her first great woman was Enhedduana (I think I wrote that down right), the daughter of a Babylonian monarch and the first person of either sex to write a work of literature that survives. One of Foreman’s points was that it was not inevitable that civilization would impose a patriarchal order on society, with men at the top and women’s position varying from being grudgingly given some protections but no real rights, to being treated almost solely as man’s property — in her discussion of Athens in ancient Greece, she notes the irony that despite their city being named after a female deity, really existing women in Athens were treated much the way women were treated in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Not only did they have no political rights, they couldn’t even go out of the home without strict supervision from men, their husbands could have sex with them any time they wanted to (though as I’ve noted in these pages before, it wasn’t until 1977 that in California it finally became illegal to rape your wife), and if a woman was raped she was considered to have brought dishonor to her family.

The history of women in ancient cultures Foreman tells is a bit more complicated than the one in Frederick Engels’ The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State — Engels argued that civilization created surplus value and also a warrior class to protect it from other states seeking to seize it in war, and that was the reason the matriarchal power structures of pre-civilized humans were replaced by patriarchal ones, with the classic “double standard” (men could play around, women couldn’t) imposed because the men wanted to make sure that whatever children their wives produced were theirs. Foreman notes that there were actually cultures in the ancient world, including the nomads who lived across what is now southern Russia and the successor states to the Soviet Union — at their height they inhabited a band of territory stretching from the Ukraine to Mongolia — who gave women the opportunity for real power and authority. She’s able to tell this because of the discovery of quite elaborately equipped tombs and burial sites honoring women, and she ironically notes that for centuries these lavishly equipped corpses were assumed to be male until the ancient bones started to be given DNA tests which revealed that their original owners had been female. She also noted that in the first Mesopotamian culture, Sumer, women had far more rights than they did in later Babylonia (where the Code of Hammurabi offered protections for women but no real rights) and Assyria (a warrior culture that kept all the restrictions on women from Hammurabi’s Code but got rid of the protections). She briefly mentioned ancient Egypt as a society in which women got a somewhat better deal than they did in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq); she noted that there were at least six documented women Pharoahs, though the only one she specifically mentioned is the well-known Hatshepsut (who took power in the first place only as regent for a baby king), and she noted that after Hatshepsut’s death her male successor tried to wipe her out of the historical record, a recurring pattern in these histories.

Exactly why the idea of women wielding state power is considered such a threat that men in culture after culture felt compelled not only to resist women seeking power but to wipe the women who achieved it out of the record is something Foreman never quite discusses — though she makes the point that there was nothing “inevitable” about “civilized” humanity being dominated by men, the stories she tells show the pattern of male dominance recurring again and again in cultures that had no contact with each other. All that was mentioned in her first episode, “Civilization,” which focused on what is now the Middle East — and I found myself amazed at how wretchedly the ancient Greeks, who in my own school days I was taught to admire as the cradle of democracy and the ancient world’s most enlightened and rational people, come off in her story (just as they came off badly in the documentaries on Jewish history I’ve seen — in which Jews were given rights under the Persian Empire but lost them big-time when Alexander the Great conquered it and established Hellenistic rule over most of the Middle East). Part two, “Separation,” was about the rights of women (or lack thereof) in China, Viet Nam and Japan, and her principal bad guy in this show was Confucius. Apparently Confucius’ own writings interpreted the principle of yin and yang not as a union of equals but as one in which the male yang spirit was dominant over the female yin — and other commentators on Confucius, including a woman who wrote a book called The New Ji telling other women it was their role to be subservient to men (sort of the Phyllis Schlafly of ancient China), hardened that into orthodoxy. Foreman notes that Chinese attitudes towards women softened somewhat when Buddhism came to China and preached a message of human equality that countered Confucianism’s emphasis on classes with different social roles and everybody knowing and being content with their “place.” She tells the story of the Trung Sisters, who a century after China had conquered Viet Nam led a rebellion against their authority that was briefly successful before being suppressed, and she showed footage of a modern Viet Namese ceremony honoring their historical memory.

Perhaps the most fascinating character in “Separation” is Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, who rose from being a concubine of one emperor to marrying his son and successor (and she notes that the very idea that she had sexual relationships with both father and son would have been considered incestuous) and holding power in her own right. Predictably, her male successors tried to erase her from the historical record — the stele on her tomb is blank, even though she wrote an 80,000-character eulogy for her ineffectual husband that survives, and in Chinese depictions of her she’s shown as a bloodthirsty bitch who smothered her son almost as soon as he was born because she didn’t want to be succeeded by a man. (This view of Wu is illustrated in Foreman’s documentary by clips from a remarkable-looking 1939 Chinese film about her that looks like its director had seen and been strongly influenced by The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg’s marvelously stylized 1934 biopic of Catherine the Great of Russia, with Marlene Dietrich playing her.) The denunciations of Wu as a woman in league with dark powers who hypnotized her husband and everyone else around her into letting her have her way had an oddly familiar sound — we heard a lot of it directed against Hillary Clinton in the recent Presidential campaign (and one reason she lost is that a lot of men out there felt deeply threatened by the idea of a woman in the White House — and a woman who had arguably slept her way to the top, at that — in ways they didn’t by the idea of an African-American man as President). Foreman then traced the influence of Chinese culture on Japan, where there was actually a more egalitarian tradition before the samurai clan took over Japan and, like the Assyrians, imposed a harsh regime of male dominance on the country’s women (once again, Foreman never quite comes up with an explanation for why this keeps happening — why, especially in cultures that glorify war and the military, any rights or protections for women are collateral damage — we can agree with her that there’s nothing innate in the nature of the human species that requires males to be dominant, but the fact that it’s so often worked out that way in practice requires some sort of explanation) that once again literally kept them indoors — with the result, she argues, that in order to have some contact with nature Japanese women (at least the ones high up enough in the class system that they could afford it) built their own gardens and miniaturized the natural world (her explanation for the existence of bonsai).

She also mentions writer Murasaki Shikibu, who in the 11th century wrote The Tale of Genji, which is often considered the first true novel, a work with multidimensional characters that attempted psychological realism. The Wikipedia page on The Tale of Genji rather diplomatically states, “While regarded as a masterpiece, its precise classification and influence in both the Western and Eastern canons has been a matter of debate.” Set during Murasaki’s time, the Heian period of Japanese history, The Tale of Genji is about a Don Juan-esque prince who sleeps his way through the Heian court and ruins just about every woman he has sex with. In the most compelling scene in the two episodes (of a total of four) we’ve seen so far, Foreman is shown Murasaki’s inkwell, preserved in a Japanese museum, and practically goes into orgasm over being able to see, touch and photograph the implements with which The Tale of Genji was written — much the way a modern literature devoté might gaze awestruck at a typewriter known to have been used by Hemingway (I was about to write “or Fitzgerald,” but Fitzgerald actually wrote in longhand). Foreman argues that Japanese Buddhism took an even more egalitarian cast than it had in China, mainly because the Japanese merged it with their own indigenous religion, Shinto, in which the principal deity is female — though once again Japan “evolved” into a heavily male-dominated society as it went through various changes — the rule of the samurai, the Shogun period (in which the emperor became largely a figurehead), the imperial restoration and the Japan the U.S. fought during World War II, in which their soldiers were indoctrinated into the idea that they had a duty to fight and die for their Emperor (while the actually existing Emperor, Hirohito, was a rather befuddled young man kept away from any real political involvement — which he wasn’t interested in, anyway; all he really wanted was to be left alone to pursue the one passion in his life, marine biology).

Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman is alternately inspiring and depressing — inspiring in telling the tales of powerful women who have challenged the male dominance of most of “civilization,” depressing in the extent to which it documents how men always seem to have come out on top long-term, outlasting their female opponents and consigning their historical memories to oblivion as much as possible. (One of Foreman’s most chilling points is that aside from a few minor domestic paintings, the Athenians didn’t depict really existing women in their art at all: a powerful indication of the extent to which they devalued women and wiped them out of their race memories.) Her shows also mention that the veil is not specifically a Muslim invention; women were forced to wear face coverings and, in some cases, burka-style whole body coverings, as early as ancient Babylonia, and in Japan it took the form of stark white rice-powder makeup and up to 50 layers of kimono so no hint of a woman’s actual shape could penetrate her clothing (and Foreman also notes that women changed the color of the clothes they wore to match the seasons they weren’t allowed to experience directly because they were almost never allowed outside). Especially given the outcome of the last Presidential election — in which American voters were asked if they were ready for a woman President and (even though more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump) enough of them said “no” that she lost — despite major social advances (at least for Western women), women remain a pointlessly oppressed and devalued class despite the utter absurdity of consigning the talents, skills and intelligences of over half the human race to second-class status.