Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vagina Dentata* or the story of Sarah the Barracuda

Mean Beauty Queen
September 5, 2008
by Michael Copperman

I listened on NPR yesterday as American and international feminists debated the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s Vice-Presidential nominee, and something was wrong. It wasn’t just the cognitive dissonance of hearing Feminists praise Ms. Palin for her historical candidacy, while Blueblood stay-at-home moms called in to attack Ms. Palin for taking on a campaign with a young Downs syndrome son. It wasn’t that nobody wanted to talk about book-banning. It wasn’t even the strangeness of the dozen-dozen left-leaning callers supporting the ban on speaking of Ms. Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy, a pass Republicans would never have offered the child of a Democratic candidate. Taking the high road is better than becoming the Hate-wing Radio Show Right, even if I would like to take a moment to appreciate the effectiveness of abstinence-only education, and to note that Bristol is hardly the poster-child for unwed teenage mothers, given that she’s upper-middle class and white and is marrying the father not exactly by choice (once Ms. Palin and her husband found out what was going on, the machine of keep the child and take the vows was surely kicked into gear independent of anything Bristol might have had to say about it). No. What I was struck by, in the conversation, was the awkwardness of it all.

There were great gaps and holes in the conversation, the echoic rush of radio static as no guest had anything to say. There was no energy to the conversation, and virtually no substance. Nobody was even talking about why Ms. Palin had been chosen, beyond the suggestion that there was a pandering to disaffected Clinton supporter. Nobody seemed to know what, if anything, to say—for these Feminists to note that Ms. Palin has a breathtakingly thin resume, for example, would be an attack on the idea that women can reach positions of power. For these Feminists to speak of Ms. Palin’s Beauty-Queen past, and to note that there is an odd way that her aesthetic appeal seems central to both her career and her candidacy would be to attack a woman on the basis of appearance the way that many did so deplorably during the Clinton run. And so the panel talked and talked and evaded anything uncomfortable, and nothing of significance got said.

I’ve used this example once before, but it’s too perfect not to offer here: when I taught a class examining the role of Miss America in creating the ideal of the American woman, I once had a frat boy get worked up and say, “It’s just not fair that people don’t think women can be beautiful and smart!” What he was missing was of course the bigger point: a woman shouldn’t have to runway walk in a swimsuit before she can take a stage and be heard. Ms. Clinton was a serious figure, which explains a lot of the hatred directed her way: “She’s a castrating bitch,” was one of the more telling slurs directed at her—ie, she insisted on arguing with men as an equal, which meant they couldn’t act like men. When Ms. Palin went on the attack against Mr. Obama in her speech to the Convention, the crowd went wild, and I knew something was wrong in her tone, her presentation, all of it. Ms. Palin is not, surely not a ‘castrating bitch’—she’s a mean beauty queen, the attractive and traditional Christian mom, who rejects that dark-skinned fellow with the un-American name. I once heard a psychologist say that while a woman’s deepest fear of men is that they will rape or murder them, a man’s greatest fear of women is rejection. I’m not saying that Mr. Obama ‘feels’ rejected by Ms. Palin, but rather that having her, the ‘pretty’ girl, turn him down has a strange force. The Republican ticket has become the All-American grandfather parading out his cute young niece—to battle the forces of Otherness. The choice of Ms. Palin restores all the ugliest aspects of the race versus gender war, except now the woman is ‘appropriately’ hot and stands for the ‘right’ things-- things which just happen to invoke every cultural wedge issue at once: abortion and teen pregnancy, guns, the separation of church and state.

This race will be an ugly one, and quite honestly, Ms. Palin is a formidable foe not because of her intellect (I’m not saying she’s not smart) but because of demographics and aesthetics. I know that the properly post-feminist argument here would be to say it’s all fine and well and good—she should be able to use her gender to whatever advantage she wants, to ‘objectify’ herself in her own favor, and in doing so, demonstrate intelligence through that calculation. Perhaps that’s why, on that NPR radio show, nobody knew what to say. I’m not particularly partisan, but the last seven years has made it impossible to believe that elections don’t matter or that politicians are all the same. Voters let subconscious factors make their decisions for them, and the Palin choice is a doozy of a factor—on the basis of a latent sexism that suggests the attractive woman should be kowtowed to, voters get a free pass on their latent racism. Somebody needs to lift their voice, and say what isn’t comfortable before it’s too late.

*Vagina Dentata from
The vagina dentata appears in the myths of several cultures. Erich Neumann relays one such myth in which “A fish inhabits the vagina of the Terrible Mother; the hero is the man who overcomes the Terrible Mother, breaks the teeth out of her vagina, and so makes her into a woman.”[1]

The myth appears for example in the second of the three sequences of founding Maori myths, where the hero, Māui, has to enter the goddess of night and death Hinenuitepo through her toothed vagina to try and pluck her heart, in an attempt to make mankind immortal. He fails and becomes the first man to die.[2]

The legend also appears in the mythology of the Chaco and Guiana tribes. In some versions, the hero leaves one tooth.[3]

In his book, The Wimp Factor, Stephen J. Ducat expresses the view that these myths express the threat sexual intercourse poses for men who, although entering triumphantly, always leave diminished. The myth is also popularized in the movie Teeth, starring Jess Weixler.[4]

The vagina dentata has proven a captivating image for many artists and writers, particularly among surrealist or psychoanalytic works. Although the myth is associated with the fear of castration, it is often falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud. Freud never mentions the term in any of his psychoanalytic work and it runs counter to his own ideas about castration. For Freud, the vagina signifies the fear of castration because the young (male) child assumes that women once had a penis that is now absent.[5] The vagina, then, is the result of castration, not the cause of it.

1 Neumann, Erich; translated by Ralph Manheim (1955). The Great Mother. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 168.
2 Maori Mythology, Aotearoa
3 Leach, Maria (1972). "vagina dentata", Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, entry by Erminie W. Voegelin, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1152. ISBN 0308400909.
4 Ducat, Stephen J. (2004). The Wimp Factor. Boston: Beacon Press, 115-149.
5 Simon, B. (1991). Cambridge Companion to Freud: The development and vicissitudes of Freud's ideas on the Oedipus Complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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