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Friday, March 26, 2010

BATHING BEAUTIES

I find it depressing that for such a long time there have been only two choices for defining women; Madonna or Whore. The exception, of course, is Madonna, who has made a career out of playing the whore. But the social definition of womanhood for the last hundred years has remained Queen Victoria. She took the throne in 1837 and made such an impression that ever since women have been forced into one of two boxes marked either “saint” (like Victoria) or “tramp” (un-like Victoria). Aphrodite was not so neatly compartmentalized, and neither were the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome. And no more, it seems, is Miss USA. Could we have reached a tipping point in the evolution of the feminist movement?
The Assyrians first recorded a female deity associated with Aphrodite more than 4,000 years ago. The Phoenicians liked her so much they transported her to Greece via Cyprus and from there the Romans adopted her, although they changed her name to Venus. She was the goddess of love, both of the mind and of the body, but mostly of the body. During the festival of Aphrosdisia, when ritual prostitution was practiced, having sex with the high priestess of the temple was a sacred act; which must have made their church fundraisers a lot more popular than a Lutheran ice cream social. It may sound odd to modern ears, but parents in ancient Greece would have been proud to learn that their daughters had been accepted into the priesthood. At least the were learning a marketable trade.
At the other ancient extreme were the Vestal Virgins of Rome, charged with maintaining the ritual “fire of Vesta” which according to the offical religion of Rome, protected the city. These were the original keepers of the flame. But reality was accomidated. The Virgins were only required to remain virgins for thirty years. In return they got the best seats at the coliseum and they were the only women in Rome who could own property and vote. On the down side, if convicted of a sexual indiscretion they would be thrown in a tomb with some water and a few pomegranates and left to starve to death in the dark.
In 394 A.D. the newly Christianized Emperor Theodosius I odered the pagan Vestals out of their temple and the last one to leave was supposed to put out the light. But at some point Theodosius’ niece, Serena, slipped back into the deserted temple and stole a necklace from a statue of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Reamus. Out of nowhere an old virgin appeared and, in a scene any graduate from a Catholic school can imagine, laid such a curse on Serena (and Rome) that she would have nightmares for years to come. Worse, the curse seems to have taken. In 409 A.D. Serena was sacrificed in a desperate attempt to placate the angry Goddess Vesta. It did not work, and shortly thereafter the Goths burned Rome to the ground. It may be sacrilegious to point out, but Rome had never been so completely destroyed before the Christians came along.
And then came Victoria; the epitome of virginal motherhood, who gave birth to 9 children and outlived her husband by 40 years. In fact she was spoiled, stubborn and demanding, and as governed by superstition as she was by religion. As a Queen, Victoria fashioned herself after Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”, but I find her more like Lady Honoria from Dickens’ novel  “Bleak House”; arrogant, conceited and obsessed with her own reputation. When Prince Albert died in 1861 Victoria’s widowhood established Victorian morality definition of womanhood as the cultural norm; absolute and contradictory, just like its namesake. The only problem was most women were not widows.
More recent events seem to offer a hint that perhaps the Victorian custom is shifting, and the mileposts of this shift may be the outcome of scandals involving the Miss USA pagent, with three mileposts, the first in 1950, the second in 2006 and the third in 2009.
The Miss USA pageant was created in 1950 to fill the desperate need created by not enough women wearing swimsuits and high heels in public. Specifically, the problem was neo-feminist Miss America, Miss Yolande Bethbeze, who refused to pose in a bathing suit after winning the Miss America pageant that year.
In response to this “Women have brains and are not simply sex objects” foolishness, Miss USA contestants would not be required to display a talent of any kind, but instead to wear swimsuits as often as possible, preferably while also wearing high heels, as impractical a wardrobe combination as one can imagine. High heels on the beach are an impossiblity. And bathing suits in a dining room are an invitation for spillage burns.  
It was thus inevitable that billionaire pseudo-personality and creepy old toupee-head Donald Trump would buy the pageant in 1996. What better property could a spooky old man buy than a spooky old anaronicstic beauty pagent? A decade later, this would make 17-year old Dallas teenager Tara Conner, The Donald’s problem.
Tara Connor won the Miss USA tiara on April 21, 2006. By December the grinding schedule of personal appearances and swimsuit and high heel wearing, combined with Tara’s approaching 18th birthday, drove her to 'partieee'.
On December 14th, 2006, that bastion of public moraliity on the Hudson, The New York Daily News,  published a photo of an obviously plastered Tara Connor swapping spit with Miss Teen USA, Katie Blair. There were also reports that Tara had been sneaking men up to her apartment in the Trump Tower, specifically Katie’s boyfriend. This raised the question of Tara’s virginity, and the underaged Katie’s too. The idea that teenagers, with their young firm bodies and raging hormones might be stupid enough to drink alcohol and be sexually adventurous at the same time was so unprecedented that Mr. Trump felt his personal tower had been belittled.
Miss Connor had her tiara publically removed (in public) and was forced to tearfully enter rehab, all the while making a public apology for endangering Mr. Trump’s investment in her. And she was prohibited from ever again appearing mostly naked in public while representing Donald Trump’s Tower. There were tears and drama and cleansing of the soul and forgivness from the father confessor, The Donald.
Clearly, Miss USA might look like a high priced hooker, but professionally she was to remain a virgin.
Flash forward to 2009 when, during the finals of the Miss USA pagent, Miss California, Carrie Prejean, was asked on stage if same-sex marriage should be legalized. She still had to display no talent, and in fact showed no talent in blathering a run-on two-faced answer to this question. And that, some have alledged, is why she lost the competition. The question was asked by a proud gay man-judge, who was qualified to judge a Miss USA Pagent because gay men make up a substantial percentage of the audience. But I can not imagine such a shockingly socially relevant question being asked of a Miss USA  evenj five years before. I can not imagine such a relevant question being asked of Yolande Bethbeze. Because she would have simply told the truth about how she really felt. And I cannot imagine why anyone would want the answer to such a question from someone whose work clothes consist of a string bikini and high heels.
The response to such a relavent social question from Donald Trump would have been just as valid as Miss Prejean's was, and I certainly don't consider "The Donald" qualified to pass judgement on gay marraige, either. In fact I was more interested in the Donald’s reaction to the hyped broo-ha-ha, as expressed on “The View”, where "The Tower" himself admitted the controversy was a good thing for his tower; “No one is talking about the young woman who won. Nobody knows who she is,” said "The Tower". Oh, good point Donald!
She was Kristen Dalton of North Carolina and she was at the time the privately owned and privately paid public Vestal Virgin of Mr. Donald Trump. That's you, Donald. You just insulted your own product. The Toupee went on to say, “We went back and added up the scores, and she (Carrie Prejean) would not have won anyway.” Does that remark seem a little “catty” to you? Cause it sure does to me. But then, who won the Miss USA title the year before?  Who won it this year? You remember the controversy, not the winner. And it turns out, that is The Donald's real product. 
It seems to me that somewhere history has taken an unexpected turn, at least in America. It is a turn which would have amused Aphrodite and maybe even Queen Victoria, too. Somehow it seems that where we were talking about women, looking at women as sex objects and Madonnas or both, we are suddenly talking about gay men. And does that mean that discussing the sexual definition of straight men and women can not be that far beyond? But that should not be a surprise. We have been talking about tramps and Queens, and men fit into  those categories too, one way or another, at least as often as women do.  The roles they are a-changing, but they are still just roles, not the totality of who we are.
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