On Friday, I visited the wonderful Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where I saw Dancers in Pink by Degas. The docent told us that these girls were poor, and were selected more for their looks than for their talent. They were not the main attraction, but would perform during the intermission at the opera.
As you can see, one of them wears an earring.
The earring signified that its wearer had a patron — someone who had promised to take care of her and her family for the rest of her life.
“For the rest of her life, or for the rest of his life?” one of my fellow tour-takers asked.
“Good point. For the rest of his life,” replied the docent, a sweet woman in her seventies.
“So was she like a mistress?”
“Yes, that’s right,” the docent finally disclosed.
All at once, I saw two things.
The first was that poverty brings with it many ills and humiliations beyond being poor. One can imagine a poor family with a beautiful daughter. It fell to her to sell her very person to support her family. You can write the script from there — her degradation; the devaluing of her own marriage, if she were fortunate enough to have one; her worries for her children; her feeling of being forever trapped.
Dancing girls looking for “patrons” no longer vie for the attention of wealthy men during the intermissions of operas. However, plenty of women resort to prostitution, or simply live with abusive, unstable boyfriends because they feel they have no better option.
I call on those who loudly care about morality (I’m looking at you, Religious Right) to work to structure society so as few women as possible face these impossible choices.
I readily agree that we cannot solve the problem by throwing government money at the symptoms. We have tried that by giving money to women who have out-of-wedlock births, and — surprise — the out-of-wedlock birthrate has gone up, not down.
What will work? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: the people least likely to find the solution are the powerful, white males who have both promoted and benefited from the inequalities of power and wealth for all of Western history.
That brings me to the second thing. I felt another reason to rejoice in President Obama’s reelection victory. He won with a coalition of the relatively powerless: young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, secularists — and women. Romney’s base of older, white, evangelical men are no longer enough to carry the day. They still have plenty of power, but they don’t have the monopoly they once had.
With Obama’s reelection, all segments of society are seated firmly at the table, so we are more likely to find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. No segment will write the rules for everyone else.
Powerful males wrote the rules of Degas’ society. The dancers were ruled for the pleasure of men.
I’m glad we have given ourselves a chance to get past that.
I wouldn’t say ‘white males’ as the rich and powerful in most societies, no matter how primitive, tend to be this way.
As society has opened up and information has flowed more freely, we have learned more and more about how those with power have abused it. That includes some of the most respected segments of society (e.g., priests).
What was such a surprise to me about Degas’ dancers was that there was a story of exploitation behind a painting that seemed so innocent and beautiful. I suspect there are many untold stories like that.
I do not think white males are more prone to exploit than anyone else. China’s leadership, with no white males among them, were in the news last week as they contemplated what to do about endemic corruption in their ranks. Corruption seems correlated with power, not race or sex.
Yes, but you did specifically say white males.
Besides, it also depends upon what angle you want to look at it from. The problem is rather simple: supply and demand. We can look at it from the point of view you presented above and we can look at it from the point of view not mentioned. Women have the ability to exploit men. They take advantage of them with their body. It may seem born out of poverty but this behavior transcends all levels of society. So it could be said that rich and power men are being taken advantage of. But the reality is, they take advantage of one another. That will never change no matter what is legislated. The change must come from the hearts of people which legislation can influence but on a very limited level. Those who want will always want more and those who have will always use it to exploit those who don’t . . . unless their heart is righteous. (I’m not referring to the religious definition of righteousness which, as you pointed out, has a double standard.)
I do agree that women generally tend to be victimized more than men and that there are practical things we can do to discourage this behavior. But ultimately, what has to change, is people must genuinely care for their fellow man.
I only recently found your blog, and I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I grew up in the church, and I always felt that I was missing something that everyone else could so readily see. I spent countless nights afraid to go to sleep, because I was afraid of dieing and going to hell. To me the fact that I was afraid meant that I really didnt believe what I was supposed ot believe.. Doubts = Hell. I finally got on my own and spent enough time looking at good information that I shed the malinformation that I was fed as a child.
While I do not resent my parents at all because I knew that they were doing what they thought was best. I would like to ask you something, and I wont mince words even if though they might seem harsher then I would like. How have you coped with indoctrinating your kids to something that you now know to be untrue? Im generally just curious, I often ponder the idea that for generation after generation people have been teaching lies to their children out of the goodness of their hearts, and how it is the perfect example for good people doing good things and the organized religion being harmful or at the very least useless.
>> …I wont mince words even if though they might seem harsher then I would like. How have you coped with indoctrinating your kids to something that you now know to be untrue?
Your words are a lot less harsh than the words I have spoken to myself!! I spent quite a few months being very angry with myself (you’ll hear about that in the final parts of this series) but have finally come to terms with my mistake. I realize I probably have only one life and I’m just not going to waste it beating myself up or even being angry at others. BTDT.
I don’t want to say much about my kids because this blog is not quite anonymous, but I believe they will be fine. They will be good people whether they continue in the path of faith or veer off in my direction. Some of them have questioned more than others, but I know all of them can think for themselves. That’s all any parent could ask, right? And I’m very thankful that none of them have shunned me. Far from it. They are the most wonderful six children any parent could want, and I know that even those years where I pointed them in the wrong direction have something to do with that.
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