Occasional essays on women, gender, and popular culture. . . .


Guys Just Wanna Have Fun--Regulating Women's Bodies


Thirteen years before he ran for president with a strong anti-abortion position, the God-Emperor for conservative Republicans, Ronald Reagan, approved an act liberalizing abortion law. On 15 June 1967, just six weeks into his term, Governor Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Law. The optics were what you would expect for politics in 1967: 


Reagan's Legislative Secretary is behind him; on the far left is Republican

assemblyman Craig Biddle, looking over his shoulder is the Democratic

Senator Anthony Bellenson


Yeah, it was four white guys happy to be in charge of what women could do with their bodies, but, hey!, it was FIFTY YEARS AGO! (And, afterwards, when he realized what he'd done, Reagan was really, really, really sorry about that bill . . . )

But, not to be outdone in the we're-the-boss-of-you department, here is George Bush signing the "partial birth" abortion ban in 2003:


There is a Democrat in this photo--or at least his head is there;Senator Jim Oberstar

was a pro-life Democrat

More smiling white guys! (And, yes, that's the paragon of virtue, Dennis Hastert, just to Bush's right--so nice to know he's thrilled with the prospect of regulating what women can do with their bodies and lives.) This picture was notorious for its masculine line-up FOURTEEN YEARS AGO!

 But here we are, back to the future, in 2017, reinstating the so-called global gag order, from 1984 (yes, you read that correctly, Nineteen Eight-Four!):  

THE MORE THE MERRIER! From the left: Vice President Mike Pence,White House Chief

of Staff Reince Priebus, National Trade Council adviser Peter Navarro,  Senior Adviser

Jared Kushner, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and chief strategist Steve Bannon--

nobody seems to  know who the guy between Miller and Bannon is . . . 

Do these guys never learn? Surely they could have rounded up a female body or two to stand in the frame? (By the way, the policy Trump was reinstating was originally put in place by Ronald Reagan in 1984--Clinton rescinded it in 1993, GW Bush reinstated it in 2001, Obama rescinded it in 2009. I'm tired.)

Anyway, over on my blog, I've been posting pieces like this under the heading "Back to the Future" sarcastically--under the impression that Trump's desire to turn back the clock would be uniformly bad for women. But looking at this line-up, I'm not so sure now . . . 


The following post, dated 1 December 2014, originally appeared on my blog, The Monstrous Regiment of Women: A Women's History Daybook, but I thought it might be comfortably reposted here, along with other essays on women and popular culture. 

"Remembering Rosa Franklin--and Forgetting James Watt: A Case Study of the Difficulties Faced by Women in Science"


As The Guardian reports today, the Nobel-prize winning scientist James Watson--who is also a notable racist and sexist bigot--is having to sell his Nobel medal because he is "poor." He is quoted as saying that, despite his "academic income," he is so poor in fact that he can't afford to buy a David Hockney painting. (In 2009, a Hockney painting sold at auction for £5,235,328, so I'm pretty sure most people can't afford paintings by Hockney.)

Although Watson has brought all his problems on himself, he still feels he is misunderstood--as reported in the Financial Times, "Mr Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, sparked an outcry in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent were inherently less intelligent than white people." To Watson's surprise, he became an "unperson"; or, as he says, "no one really wants to admit I exist." 

 Unfortunately, Watson's 2007 comments are just part of a much longer history. As Laura Helmuth writes, Watson has a history of making "ignorant" and "prejudiced" comments, in particular racist and sexist comments, throughout his career. For Watson's bigotry, and for the "outcry" about it that he decries, you can check out the stories in the Financial Times or in The Guardian (where the headline says Watson "deserves to be shunned"). My interest here isn't in wasting more time on Watson but on taking this opportunity to remember the crucial work of Rosalind Franklin. 

Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Watson were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 for their "discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." But their contributions to understanding the structure of DNA were based on Rosalind Franklin's research. As The Guardian notes, "The story of the unveiling of the double helix is messy and complex, just like all biology. It has been pored over and studied and embellished and mythologised. But simply, the race was won by Crick and Watson, and in April 1953 they revealed to the world the iconic double helix. The key evidence, however, Photo 51, was produced by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, at King’s College London. Franklin’s skill at the technique known as X-ray crystallography was profound, and was indubitably essential to the discovery. Crick and Watson acquired the photo without her knowledge" (emphasis added).

For many years Franklin's contributions were largely unrecognized--they may have been acknowledged or understood among some in the scientific community, but they were not widely known. And Franklin's untimely death of ovarian cancer in 1958, when she was just thirty-seven years old, contributed to her obscurity. 

The first real public acknowledgment of Franklin's contribution was made by Watson, in his 1968 autobiography The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. There, as The Guardian reports, Watson "patronisingly refers to Franklin as 'Rosy' throughout, despite there being no evidence that anyone else ever did. Here’s a sample of how he described her in the first few pages: 'Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.'''

And here is what Watson had to say about Franklin some forty years later, in a 2007 interview: 

He smiles. "Rosalind is my cross," he says slowly. "I'll bear it. I think she was partially autistic." He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. "I'd never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind's behaviour.

Watson's reduction of Franklin to the diminutive "Rosy" in his autobiography, his sexist references to her appearance and clothing there, and his failure to acknowledge sufficiently her critical contributions to his work inspired Anne Sayre's corrective, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, published in 2000.

The last three decades have brought Franklin the recognition she so richly deserves; for those of us who are not scientists, the PBS Nova broadcast from 2003, Secret of Photo 51, offers an excellent introduction. The program website offers biographical information, articles, interviews, and online galleries and slideshows. Of particular note is an interview with Lynne Osman Elkin on Franklin's legacy. (You can watch the original Nova episode on YouTube by clicking here.

I might also recommend Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA for its analysis of the sexism, egotism, and anti-Semitism that Franklin faced. Beyond her particular case, you might also check out Julie des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. There is a chapter on Franklin, subtitled "The Politics of Partners and Prizes in the Heroic Age of Science."

Over the last few years, while increasing focus has been on Franklin, I've heard a fair number of people try to excuse Watson by saying that all the attention on Franklin is misplaced, since she couldn't have been included in the Nobel, because the scientists weren't recognized until 1962, after Franklin's death, and the Nobel is never awarded posthumously. That's not the issue at all--the issue isn't whether she "won" a Nobel, but whether her life and work have been recognized, or whether she, like so many women, has simply been written out of history. 

 Thankfully, that has not happened. 

 So too bad for poor James Watson.

Update, 5 December: As has been widely reported, Watson's medal sold for $4.1 million at the Christie's auction.

Update, 9 December: Again, as it has been widely reported, the anonymous buyer of Watson's Nobel medal has revealed himself as Alisher Usmanov, described by Forbes as the "richest man in Russia." Usmanov has has accumulated a fortune estimated at $15.8 billion, garnered through steel and mining interests, telecom interests, and "investments." Usmanov plans to return the medal to Watson. Maybe Watson will be able to sell it again. 




Wednesday,  9 March 2012, was a significant date in the ongoing debate about marriage. On that day, President Barack Obama announced his support for marriage equality. The day before, voters in North Caroline passed Amendment 1, legally banning same-sex marriage. (For good measure, the amendment also bans any form of "domestic legal union," such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.) In response, Mitt Romney reaffirmed his opposition to marriage equality. Earlier in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney joined Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum in signing the National Organization for Marriage’s “Marriage Vow,” which includes, among other pledges, a vow to “appoint a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters.” What with all this news, as well as the ongoing legal wrangling over California's Proposition 8--and I still haven't forgotten Kim Kardashian's epic 72-day traditional marriage--I thought I’d repost an op-ed originally published in 2004. . . .

 "Traditional Marriage?"

Why all this fuss about “traditional marriage”?  You can’t turn on the radio without hearing at least one hysterical rant on the subject.  And then there’s the political posturing.    

Here’s George Bush:  “I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman.”  And Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney:  “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded human history. . . .  Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.”  And for clarity, there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger:  “I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”  Huh? 

Of course, Bush “believes” a lot of things, all evidence to the contrary.   Romney “agrees with” history, but what would “disagreeing with” history mean?  And in any case, there's the blatant falsehood of his assertion, since his own family relocated to Mexico where they could practice polygamy, a form of "traditional" marriage that had been banned in the U.S.  As for Arnold, it’s hard to figure out what he “thinks.”  While they’re all three eager to defend “traditional” marriage, it’s clear they know nothing about it.

Here’s traditional marriage:  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”  For most of “recorded” history, at least through the nineteenth century, a wife was just part of a man’s stuff, like his ox or his ass.  (Even Roy Moore, the so-called “Ten Commandments Judge,” felt the need to edit—or censor—God on this one—he cut this commandment down to just “Thou shalt not covet.”)  The same “tradition” allowed polygamy.  It allowed a childless man, Abraham, to father a son with his slave, Hagar, and then throw them both out when his wife gave him a “legitimate” son.  It allowed a man to send his wife a “bill of divorcement” when she no longer pleased him. 

For most of “recorded” history, in fact, marriages were contracted to suit men’s economic and political ends, not to conform to any religious ideal.  I’m assuming that those who speak so ardently in favor of “traditional” marriage are really defending Christian tradition, so it’s worth knowing that the Church didn’t much concern itself with marriage, at least not for centuries.  For the first thousand years or so after the birth of Christ, marriage remained a secular institution, reserved for the wealthy and powerful.  As for the rest, simply living together was all the “marriage” they got. 

To be fair, the Church did discourage some “traditions,” like abduction marriage (“marriage” by kidnapping and rape), plural marriage (which survived well into the eleventh century), and concubinage (which allowed a man to have a wife and any number of other women to satisfy his personal needs).  But marriage was of such little concern that it didn’t become a sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.  Even so, for more than four centuries, all it took to contract a valid marriage were verba de praesenti (“words of the present”); a couple simply exchanged vows in front of witnesses.  Even without witnesses, a couple could promise to marry at some date in the future (verba de futuro); if their promise was followed by consummation, ecclesiastical law recognized their marriage as irrevocable.    

But once in the business of marriage, the Church did uphold “tradition.”  It agreed that a girl was ready for marriage at age 12—well, to be accurate, she could be married earlier, but consummation had to wait until she was twelve.  It traditionally dispensed with its own laws whenever it was politically expedient, allowing royal uncles to marry their royal nieces, for example—incest was no problem if you were a Habsburg emperor.  And “tradition” allowed powerful men to dispose of inconvenient wives—Henry VIII generally gets the prize here, but my personal favorite is Louis XII of France, who dissolved his marriage of twenty-some years by claiming it had never been consummated.  (His rejected wife was sent to a convent, but since she was later canonized, I suspect she got the best of the deal after all.)

In “traditional” marriage, sex was strictly regulated.  It could take place only during certain days of the week, only during certain hours of the day, only in one position (male on top, penis in vagina), and only for the purpose of procreation, not for “intimacy,” and never mind pleasure.  Any deviation whatsoever, heterosexual or homosexual, was sodomy, and sinful. 

Once you start to examine the “tradition” of marriage, in fact, you might wonder why anyone would defend it, much less embrace it.  But many people prefer their “beliefs” unexamined.  They’d rather “agree with” some fantasy of history than come to terms with historical reality.  (None of this even begins to address the subject of divorce, about which Jesus is unequivocal: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  Many of those who are the most hysterical on the subject of  “traditional” marriage are conveniently silent about this aspect of the institution's “traditions.” )

We should be thankful marriage has not remained “traditional.”  But if we’re determined to amend the Constitution to defend the “tradition” of traditional marriage, I have one issue I’m really interested in:  as the mother of a son, I’d like to make sure that all the defenders of traditional marriage are going to get around to that part about the dowry.

An edited version of this essay was published as an op-ed commentary, "Who Really Wants 'Traditional Marriage'?" in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune11 January 2004. Perspectives, B-7.

"Sex Education"

The writing portfolios and final exams are stacked so high on my dining room table that I haven’t been able to eat there for a week—but I can’t concentrate on them.  Instead, I find myself focusing on the smaller stack of news stories and editorials that are beside the computer where I am sitting right now. 

First there are the alarming headlines:  “WASL [Washington Assessment of Student Learning] Scores Show Wide Gender Gap” (The News Tribune)!  “Boys Far Behind in WASL” (The Everett Herald)!  “Analysis of WASL Scores Shows Boys Trailing Girls” (The Seattle Times)!  “Boys Fall Behind in WASL Testing” (The Bellingham Herald)!

Then there are the dreadful consequences:  “If the pattern isn’t corrected soon,” the state’s high schools “could be graduating far more girls than boys in 2008”!  “In every state this is a problem and in all 35 industrialized countries this is a reality.  This is a worldwide concern,” gasps one educational authority.  Such achievement gaps are symptomatic of the “growing crisis in boys’ education,” warns one recent report; “The problems boys face in school seem to grow each day.” (For information on the Academy for Educational Development's Raising and Education Healthy Boys: A Report on the Growing Crisis in Boys' Education, see http://www.aed.org/Projects/healthyboys.cfm.)

And from the editors of The News Tribune comes this ominous prediction:  “The growing disconnect between boys and school portends dire things for U.S. society if it is allowed to continue” (“An Alarming Disconnect between Boys, School,” 7 December).

Well, that’s one way of looking at things, of course.  But as I sit here thinking about the young women enrolled in my PLU classes this fall—14 of the 15 students in my first-year seminar, 20 of the 24 students in Shakespeare, and 20 of the 25 in English Renaissance literature—I have a slightly different perspective on things. 

Because for centuries girls had no access to education at all.  Now that was a crisis. 

Oh, sure, there were reasons why women weren’t educated.  For one thing, our greatest thinkers had a dim view of women’s intellectual capacity.   Aristotle, pretty much the authority on every subject for more than a thousand years, concluded that every female born was a “defective” or “mutilated” male.  Women were passive, “deprived,” and irrational—not worth the effort when it came to education.  In Roman law, with few exceptions, women were regarded as children, under the perpetual guardianship of their fathers and husbands.  No real need for education there.

Our religious traditions were equally dismissive.  Genesis, with its stories of Eve’s creation and fall, was interpreted to mean that women were justifiably subordinate to men, while Christian theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas agreed that God had created women for one reason only, to assist in procreation, “since,” in Aquinas’s words, “for other purposes men would be better assisted by other men.”

The rebirth of knowledge we now label “the Renaissance” did result in some improvement for a few women, and a number of humanist scholars actually argued that women—some women, anyway—might be educable after all.  But my favorite Renaissance contribution to the debate about women was the 1595 pamphlet that answered the question, “are women human?” with a resounding “no.”  (Actually the writer offered 51 separate theses in support of the position that women were not human.)  Now to be fair, the piece was probably intended as a satire, and its publication did spark a controversy.  One unfortunate scholar who delivered the arguments to a group of mothers was beaten to death by the angry women, or so the story goes.  Nevertheless, the text stayed in print, in various translations, until 1769. 

So women had a few obstacles to overcome when it came to education—a few centuries’ worth of social, political, legal, religious, and economic barriers stood in their way.  A public school education for girls wasn’t widely available in the U.S. until the 19th century.  College education for women was also slow in coming.  In 1852 Oberlin went coed, in 1858 Iowa became the first state university to accept women students, and in 1865 Vassar Female College was founded.  By the beginning of the 20th century, women were earning only 19 percent of college degrees. 

Even so, educating girls remained controversial.  In his Sex in Education (1873), Harvard professor (and doctor) Edward Clarke warned that women who spent their “limited energy” on studying would surely sacrifice their health.  Blood intended for their ovaries would be redirected to their brains, resulting in “monstrous brains and puny bodies,” “flowing thought and constipated bowels.” 

And when another Harvard man, Charles W. Eliot (then president of the university), was invited to speak at Wellesley College in 1899, he made use of the occasion to express his concerns about a curriculum designed for women.  Because of their “delicate qualities,” Eliot warned, their women’s education should not “injure” their “bodily powers and functions.”But how times have changed—and the reversal of fortune has been shockingly sudden.  Today there are not only unprecedented numbers of female undergraduates, but women are enrolling in increasing numbers in graduate programs and professional schools.  At my own university, 64% of our students are women, only 36% men.

I am not unsympathetic to the obstacles boys now face in school.  I am the mother of a dearly beloved son.  Nor am I dismissive of male students—the two most outstanding students in my classes this fall were both male.  And I am definitely not a fan of tests like the WASL.  But I am troubled by the assumptions that seem to underlie the doom and bloom of the recent WASL reports.  All of the "It's-great-female-students-are-doing-as-well-as-they-are-but" stories seem to imply that there's something fundamentally amiss if girls outperform boys in school or on tests.  If girls are reading, writing, and calculating, if they are scording well on their WASL tests and their SATs, if they are going to college in greater humbers, and if the Department of education is right in its projects that by 2010 two-thirds of all bachelor's degrees will go to women—well, if all that's true, then we must be in deep trouble.

But why is it the end of the world if girls are outperforming boys?

The 54 women in my classes this fall weren't all great students.  But most of them, and most of the women I have taught over the last 25 years, have been inspiring.  They are focused and determined and passionate.  They struggle and they sacrifice.  They make up their minds to succeed no matter what, and they do, often at great personal cost.  They are unbelievably courageous.  They take my breath away.  They break my heart.

So as I've read all the stories about our boys and the WASL test, I've been thinking about our girls.  I have begun to onder whether the girls in our high schools and the young women I see in my classrooms aren't somehow responding, eagerly and hungrily, to all the deprivations suffered by all those generations of women who preceded them--whether, somehow, all the pain and struggle and determination of their mothers and their mother's mothers, and their mothers before them, haven't somehow inspired our girls.

That's why the success of female students—their triumph over all the obstacles that have ever been put in their way—makes me more proud of them than I can ever say. 

How is their success a problem? 

An edited version of this essay was published as an op-ed commentary, "Alarms Ring Hollow as Girls Outperform Boys in School," in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 8 January 2008. Insight 1, 4. 

An update: According to the American Council on Education's 2010 report, Gender Equity in Higher Education, "several indicators suggest that the size of the gender gap in higher education may have stabilized. The distribution of enrollment and undergraduate degrees by gender has remained consistent since about 2000, with men representing 43 percent of enrollment and earning 43 percent of bachelor’s degrees."

"Beauty Queens and Fairy Princesses"

For the last few days we have been gorging ourselves—again—on the JonBenet Ramsey story.  It’s a safe kind of voyeurism—we don’t even have to leave our homes to enjoy the titillating images, playing in an endless TV loop, of the little beauty queen who was murdered nearly 10 years ago.  

You might easily have missed two other stories in the news.  After only 37 years on the air, Sesame Street introduced its first “leading female character” on August 14, a muppet named Abby Cadabby.  According to the Season 37 Press Kit, she’s a “fairy in training” who has arrived from a “storybook world.”  She has beautiful wings and floats when she’s happy.  Her favorite expression is “That’s so magic!” 

A few days later, on August 26, we commemorated “Women’s Equality Day,” which marked the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the one granting half of the citizens of the United States—women—the right to vote.  This story wasn’t in my morning paper or on the evening news, though NPR noted the date.  The story didn’t merit the wall-to-wall JonBenet coverage on CNN.  

That these stories appeared simultaneously was coincidental, but the weird pairing of the “real-life” beauty queen and the storybook fairy princess isn’t really all that strange, once you begin to think about it.  

What other models do we offer our daughters?  You might think that, 76 years after we gained our “equality” by being “given” the right to vote, we’ve come a long way, baby.  But think again.  

When I ask the young women in my classes about their favorite childhood fictional heroines, they invariably name a Disney fairy princess, usually Snow White or the Little Mermaid.  Not Beezus or Ramona, not Anne of Green Gables or Harriet the Spy or Hermione Grainger.  

You’d be shocked to know how many of them name Vivian, the Julia Roberts character in Pretty Woman.  In this modern Cinderella story, Vivian is a prostitute, her “prince” a wealthy businessman who buys her services for a week.  It doesn’t seem much like a fairy-tale made for children, but our daughters love it. 

And, really, how different is Vivian from Snow White and Ariel?  She’s beautiful, and that’s all that matters when it comes to living happily ever after.  Like Vivian, Snow White is beautiful—she can win her prince even though she’s comatose.  Ariel has it a little harder—this 16-year-old has to do something besides look pretty.  She lies to her father, runs away from home, and then gives up her voice.  She may not be able to say a word to Prince Eric, but she’s beautiful.  

And the real women who inspire our daughters?  Many say their moms, but if pressed beyond this endearing choice, the most frequently named woman is Oprah.  Now I love Miss O too, but she seems to be the only “real” woman most of my students can identify.  They aren’t inspired by Angelina Grimké, Margaret Fuller, Jane Addams, or Margaret Sanger because, for the most part, our daughters don’t know who these women are. 

So they’re left with JonBenet and Abby Cadabby.   JonBenet, the 6-year-old “little princess,” JonBenet in a sequined tiara, JonBenet, prancing across a stage like a Vegas showgirl. 

Abby Cadabby?  She’s pretty in pink.  A little princess who is so shy she disappears.  This is the character described by the show’s executive producer as a “strong role model for girls.”  

Our daughters don’t need more beauty queens and princesses as role models.  The aisles of Toys R Us are already flooded by rivers of Barbie pink.  The children’s section at Barnes and Noble is overpopulated by princesses, but just try to find a book about Susan B. Anthony. 

And our daughters sure don’t need more dead girls as models.  Whether they’re tortured and murdered, like JonBenet, or whether they simply “disappear,” like Abby Cadabby, our daughters know how disposable women are.  Movies and TV entertain them with girls stalked, raped, and killed. News shows inform them with stories about pretty girls who have gone missing.  (Remember Natalee Holloway?)  Magazine ads sell clothing, shoes, and video games with images of beautiful dead women. What does this tell our daughters about what it means to be a girl in America today?  And, equally troubling, what do these models say to our sons? 

JonBenet Ramsey and Abby Cadabby—brought to you by the month of August.  So much for Women’s Equality Day.  

An edited version of this essay was published as an op-ed commentary, "Our Girls Don't Need More Princesses as Role Models," in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 31 August 2006, B5.


"Who Cares about LaToyia Figueroa?" 

Nicole.  JonBenet.  Amber.  Chandra.  Elisabeth.  Laci.  Natalee.  We are on a first-name basis with all of them.  Say their names, and their faces appear before our eyes.  Young, female, pretty, blonde—mostly blonde, anyway—and mostly dead.  We like them dead.  And then there’s LaToyia Figueroa. 

While the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba has occupied the mainstream media for the last two months—breathless, round-the-clock coverage on the all-news channels and, at the very moment that I sit here writing, some 257,000 hits in .05 seconds on Google—where is LaToyia Figueroa?  Her story seems to have all the elements we find so irrestitible:  She’s young (just 24), very pretty, pregnant (5 months), and she has disappeared.  Vanished without a trace.  

LaToyia is not blonde, though neither was Chandra Levy or Laci Peterson.  But Latoyia is not white.  Since her disappearance on July 18, there have been no screaming headlines, no hourly updates on Fox or MSNBC, no Larry King Live interviews with members her distraught family, no FBI rushing to the scene, no Katie Couric or Stone Phillips or Dateline.  It wasn’t until 9 days after her disappearance that CNN finally mentioned the story.  And then, in the bottom right corner of the third page of our Friday News Tribune, was the brief wire-service story that caught my eye:  “Family Calls Attention to Missing Woman.” 

According to the reporter who wrote the story for the Knight Ridder news service, the people who know and love LaToyia “can’t understand why it took so long to get her disappearance into public view,” but I don’t believe that claim for a minute.  I think LaToyia’s family and friends know exactly why no hordes of reporters have descended on her Philadelphia neighborhood in the now-familiar feeding frenzy that is regularly triggered by the disappearance—and possible rape, torture, mutilation, murder, or other unspeakable torment—of a pretty, young woman, whose smiling face will be imprinted in our hearts and dreams forever.  

The police say that it is “rare that a minority missing persons case has attracted so much attention.”  They are undoubtedly correct—LaToyia Figueroa is not a “missing person,” she is a “minority missing person,” and that’s exactly why no one much cares where she is.  That’s why on-line references to Natalee Holloway mount up at the rate of thousands a day; meanwhile, 11 days and counting after her disappearance, I found only 539 references to LaToyia when I Googled her name, many of the posts arguing about whether she is Latina or African-American.  My point exactly.  

Leave it to Tucker Carlson to defend us all against racism—“there’s another dynamic involved here,” he claimed on the 27 July edition of his MSNBC show, The Situation.  That other “dynamic”?  Well, when “someone” (“not just a black person or a Hispanic person,” he was quick to say) lives in a “tough neighborhood,” such things are to be expected.  A case like LaToyia’s isn’t news because “it’s like planes that land safely aren’t news.”  A young white woman disappears, and it’s news, it’s the equivalent of the crash of a Boeing jumbo jet with hundreds of passengers on board.  A young woman of color disappears, and it’s the same old same old, another uneventful arrival of a cheap Southwest hop from L.A.  

Carlson and his crew even managed to find humor in the whole thing, suggesting that the case hadn’t gotten much national attention because, after all, if you were a reporter, where would you rather “vacation,” Aruba or west Philly?  At that point, the show’s transcript indicates “LAUGHTER.” 

Despite Tucker Carlson’s denial, this is racism.  But it’s not only racism.  It’s not just the absence of Latoyia Figueroa’s story, it’s the presence of all those other stories and what they reveal about our obsession with sexualized brutality, cruelty, and violence, and about our voyeuristic fascination with the torture, torment, and mutilation of the bodies of young women.  We fetishize their stories.  We revel in the lurid details. 

The struggle for power, domination, and control has always played itself out on women’s bodies.  We can look as far back as Homer’s account of the Trojan War—the clash of civilizations inscribed on the body of one woman, Helen of Troy.  And we have only to look around us today—whether it’s the systematic rape of women in Darfur, the burqaed women of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or a U.S. pharmacist refusing to fill a woman’s prescription for birth control pills, we see political, racial, social, economic, and religious ideologies using women’s bodies for their battlegrounds. 

And, as comforting as it might be to think so, our pleasure in these battles is not just confined to rap music and Grand Theft Auto.  It’s where you might least expect it:  in our churches and in our schools and in our great books.  I could never understand why saints’ tales were so popular in the Middle Ages until I read a few, and there it was.  Every kind of sexual perversion, twisted torment, and painful death enacted on the bodies (but not the souls, it goes without saying) of one beautiful young woman after another.  We were all introduced to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at some point in high school, but my college students are horrified at the stories he collects in his Legend of Good Women.  Dido, betrayed and abandoned.  Lucrece, raped.  Philomela raped and mutilated, her tongue cut out to prevent her from naming her attacker.  All of Chaucer’s “good” women suffer, and they all die, either at the hands of the men who have assaulted them or by their own hands, to save the honor of their fathers and husbands.  As one surprised student blurted out recently in class, “Is Chaucer saying that the only good woman is a dead woman?” 

And all of those beautiful Renaissance love sonnets?  I’ll be teaching them again this fall.  There are thousands of them, addressed to Stella, Delia, Diana, Phyllis, Chloris, Cynthia, and countless other idealized young women, all of whom are beautiful and most of whom are blonde.  Although these poems are all addressed to women, they’re not really about women, but about the lovers themselves, who anatomize their beloveds, describing in lingering detail their eyes, noses, lips, thighs, breasts, even their nipples.  The women in these poems are not unique, thinking, feeling, desiring persons—they are body parts, examined and displayed for the reader’s enjoyment.  

And so the women in our music videos, on our television screens, and at our favorite multiplex.  Female bodies displayed, exploited, abused, assaulted, and served up for our entertainment. 

And so the stories of Nicole, JonBenet, Amber, Chandra, Elisabeth, Laci, and Natalee.  Their terrible stories are commodified for our pleasure, neatly packaged up like one of Chaucer’s legends of “good” women.  We enjoy all the lurid details.   We are transfixed by the agony of their mothers and fathers.  We greedily consume the graphic accounts of their sufferings and deaths, and we are moved by how much we care.  The candlelight vigils, the flower-and-teddy-bear memorials, the prayers we say as the cameras record how much we care.  And then the apotheosis, as each martyred young woman joins our pantheon of angels and saints.  We promise that we will never forget them, and we don’t, not really, until the next young, pretty, blonde, white woman disappears. 

Our stories reveal our values.  They tell us what—and who—is important.  The story of Natalee Holloway tells us a lot about what we value in women.  We like our women lost, weak, threatened, endangered, fearful, exploited, controlled, silent, and, to be honest, dead.  We prefer these dead women to be young and pretty and blonde.  

We don’t want to pay attention to women who are too fat or too old or too unattractive.  We don’t much care about poor women, who cost us money and have too many children, and we don’t want to have to think too much about homeless women.  We’d rather not train women as soldiers, arm them with M-16s, and send them into combat, unless we can rescue them, like we did Jessica Lynch—who is young, pretty, and blonde, and whose shattered body, while not dead, still made a good story.  We don’t much appreciate women if they are too powerful or successful or demanding or loud.  We don’t much like them gay, unless they’re funny like Ellen or hot like the women on The L Word.  We don’t think much about women who are working hard, making ends meet, struggling through life.  And we don’t pay much attention at all to the more than 22,000 missing women in the United States who aren’t Natalee Holloway.   

Nearly 9,000 of the women missing in the United States at this very moment are women of color.  

One of them is Latoyia Figueroa. 

An edited version of this essay was published as an op-ed commentary, "Missing Woman Would Be Bigger News If She Were Blond," in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 7 August 2005. Insight 4. 

Update: LaToyia Figueroa was reported missing on 18 July 2005.  A month later, on 20 August, Stephen Poaches, the father of LaToyia Figueroa's unborn child, was arrested; on 17 October 2006,  he was convicted of two counts of murder and is currently incarcerated in the State Correction InstitutionHoutzdale (PA).  The lack of news coverage in LaToyia Figueroa's case sparked a controversy, dubbed the "missing white women syndrome," commonly attributed to PBS news commentator Gwen Ifill.  

 In March 2014, a Google search for "LaToyia Figueroa" produces 8,360 results.  A search for "Natalee Holloway" produces more than 4 million hits. 


"Where Is Abu Ghraib?" 

In one picture, the prisoner is caged, forced to crouch awkwardly and painfully because the cell is so small that it is impossible to stand up or to sit down.  In another, a body is splayed out, back arched, arms extended overhead, one hand covering the face, which has been turned away from the camera’s view.  Another shows a body stretched out on a chair, legs held apart, an open beer bottle aimed at the crotch; the photo is taken inside a chain-link enclosure of some kind.  

There are scenes of forced homosexual sex.  In one picture a man grins happily at the camera while pointing to naked bodies made to writhe in a simulated orgy.  In another image, four bodies are lined up with their backsides facing the camera; there is something scrawled across their shoulders—or maybe burned into their flesh.  In yet another scene, someone is lying stretched out on the floor; a man is shoving his foot into the genitals of the person on the ground, but we don’t see his face in the photograph, only his shoe.  

And then there are the pictures of dead bodies:  One is submerged in water; another lies twisted on the floor, mouth open, a man’s foot pinning a lifeless arm to the ground; another is stretched open-eyed, but unseeing, on the floor of a green-tiled shower; one is covered in garbage, brown skin showing through here and there, another has been dumped onto the floor of a concrete room, another left on the desert sand.

More Abu Ghraib photos?  No, sorry.  These are images a little closer to home.  

The first is a magazine advertisement for bebe, a designer label that proclaims its “bebe look” (“with that signature hint of sensuality”) appeals to “the hip, sophisticated and body-conscious woman who takes pride in her appearance.”  The “hip” and “sophisticated” woman in this ad is imprisoned in a cage.  

The second image, the one with the body arched backwards, is an ad for La Perla lingerie.  The woman in the photo has been stripped to her bra and pants and thrown over the hood of a car.  She looks as if she is about to be raped. 

The third is a photo of model Yamila Diaz-Rahi, wearing a $770 swimsuit by Christina Perrin.  Are the beer bottle and the chain-link enclosure the must-have accessories for this summer?  The simulated homosexual acts are in Tip Drill, the latest music video by Nelly—which also shows him swiping his credit card through a woman’s rear end.  The four bodies that seem to have been branded are seen—or were seen—all over town on KISW billboards.  The bodies—women’s bodies, of course—had logos of rock bands burned onto their backs and shoulders, while the billboard crudely suggested that KISW could do something “harder,” “faster,” and “longer” than you.   The woman with the man’s foot shoved into her genitals is wearing a Gucci dress.  She stares at us, not at her attacker. 

And the dead bodies?  Ads for Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton.  Women’s bruised and dead bodies seem to be everywhere. 

Which is my point.  Once I got over the shock of the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, I realized I’d seen them all before—the same contorted bodies, the same sexual humiliation, the same callous, brutal, inhumane treatment of other human beings.  In fact I’d not only seen the images before, I’d seen much worse, every day.

The real shock about the Abu Ghraib photos is how shockingly familiar they are.  Nearly a dozen years ago, writer Naomi Wolf identified ads like those I’ve described above as “beauty pornography.”  She argued that the violent sexual imagery, voyeurism, and sadomasochistic themes of hard-core pornography had become part of mainstream popular culture.  In the years since, critics as diverse as Jean Kilbourne, Sut Jhally, bell hooks, Don Sabo, and Jackson Katz have analyzed the devastating effects of such images.  They are used to “entertain” us.  They are used to sell us everything from shampoo to shoes.  But they sell us more than stuff. 

These images sell us powerful messages about dominance and submission, about power and powerlessness, about those who control and those who must be controlled.  They sell us hyper-violent constructions of masculinity, they sell us misogynist fears of female autonomy and independence, they sell us racist and homophobic intolerance of difference.  They fetishize these attitudes—they dress them up in designer fashions, scent them with designer fragrances, and present them to us as beautiful and desirable.  And normal. 

And so the images of Abu Ghraib don’t seem that bad.  The humiliation and degradation of other human beings?  Mere “pranks,” just a bunch of guys “having a good time” and “blowing off steam,” just a few really-mean-girls-gone-wild moments captured on digital cameras, copied onto CDs, and “swapped” among soldiers “like baseball cards.” 

Why are so many people so eager to dismiss the horror of Abu Ghraib?  Because it’s easier to ignore it or to explain it away than to admit our collective responsibility for it. 

Where is Abu Ghraib?  It’s all around us every day.  It’s at the multiplex, on movie screens, at the check-out line where we buy our groceries. 

Abu Ghraib is in our homes.  Abu Ghraib is in our minds. 

This essay was originally published as an op-ed commentary, "At Home with Abu Ghraib," in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 13 June 2004. Insight 1.