Netflix is streaming a biography of Gloria Allred called “Seeing Allred”. I watched it last night. The film begins with Dinah Shore in a Virgin Blue flowing gown with fine jewels, making fun of advice to preserve one’s marriage by showing up when hubby came home in a negligée. (The more extreme versions of this suggested being naked under a few layers of Saran Wrap.) Marriage, in this version, is about sexual enticement and the assumption that it means female nudity.
I’ve never met Dinah Shore, but her ex-husband, George Montgomery, was from near Great Falls and is buried near Charlie Russell. He was a sculptor in his later years and bought Scriver bronzes in his earlier years, but perhaps his greatest gift was as a furniture maker. Sometimes his graceful chairs and tables end up at Western art auctions. He was a mild, hard-working, gifted guy. A female household employee fell madly in love with him, was resisted, hid in the bedroom closet, and jumped out with a gun in an attempt to kill him and then herself. To show how much in love she was.
Though I never met Dinah, their daughter drove up with George to visit on a sweltering summer day. She looked just like her mother and asked, “Would you think I was a depraved Hollywood person if I asked for a cold beer?” This was before cars had AC. We never kept alcohol, so I zipped to the grocery store quickly. She was gracious and appreciative.
This is a role-reversal of the main script in “Seeing Allred,” which focuses on her specialty, the defense of women victimized by men, a narrative that has become overwhelming recent news in Hollywood and Washington. But most of the story is about her early life and two finally hurtful husbands, the kind of weak men who are attracted by strong women. Allred’s daughter, like Dinah’s, is very much like her mother, but shaped by different times. Anyway, it’s a good movie.
I watched it because I think about sex quite a bit from an anthropological point of view — analytically in terms of the biggest background possible, which is the beginning of the universe, the gradual evolution of hominins among other species, and all the various socio-economic pressures that impinge on sex and create gender-roles.
Sex in a species sense is always on two levels: one is the individual and the other is the group. The two can support each other or can oppose each other. Different ecologies press people into “best practice” roles, and if there is a drastic shift in those ecologies — specialty institutions; governments entwined with religion; commerce as primary; the invention of agriculture and then, much later the development of industrialization; and more lately the segue of science into technology; and then computing and the internet — all these changes impact gender-roles, lifting up some versions and oppressing others.
One challenge has been to binary roles, the exclusion of any versions of conjugation except for the potent male and the fertile female, driving any same-sex or paraphilia into secrecy. Criminalization; association with disease and dirt; mixing sex with authoritarian violence; the mobilization of guilt and hypocrisy; have always been effective ways for society to control gender roles. When China used its authoritarian powers to force the elimination of female babies for the worthy cause of population control, the unwanted and possibly world-holocaust results have been a demographic loaded with frustrated, angry, goal-less men — war tinder.
If I were Chinese and creating alternatives, I would look at polyandry; homosexuality; celibacy; glamourization of the power and aesthetics of the eunuch; ritualization of violence; and state-supplied care for the elderly — probably if you looked carefully, those features are already present. The practice of out-marrying to wives from somewhere else will change the culture of the country, because women carry the culture and give it to the children. What if Chinese men began to buy wives from Alabama?
In Euro-America the forces have been medical: the pill and other effective birth control; the ability to transition from one gender to the other, even changing organs and hormones; DNA identification of inherited identity; lives and careers that don’t depend upon sex identity; the perception of “halfways” between the binaries since biology varies, creating people with characteristics of both sexes or neither or just ambiguous.
But now, even more than that, our studies of brains reveal that how society and genetics impact us, the function of our brains in their work of reconciling what is outside our skins with what is inside our skins, provides a new hand of cards: vitality; desire; memory; effects of experience and education; intelligence; musical and artistic skill — all of these traits influence how one’s sexuality develops and is expressed. All of them shape our gender-roles into unique personalities. Rosie the Riveter is not just crossing into a previously men’s field, but each rose blooms in a different way. One is neat and colorful, the next might be athletic but blowsy in presentation.
Socio-economics has greatly undermined marriage, which is a once gender-assigned event which enforced male economic obligation and female homemaking. Now marriage is considered a matter of emotion, a fantasy of eternal attachment in a world that industry and social media have converted to loneliness, which creates a market for solace and time-occupation. It was always about who paid the bills and the taxes, which depended on the whole governmentally enforced idea of ownership and profit. It turns out that this covertly benefits the few at the expense of the many, turning the orderly rule of law into a fishing net of licenses, tariffs, penalties, and interstitial management of entitlement by lawyers, much of that last enforced by institutional religion.
Abandoning governmental policing, people invent or accidentally slide into arrangements. Public schools are one way to try to shape the children of shapeless families. Residual religious beliefs from much earlier gender-role morality interfere with teaching kids what they really need to know, like: what to do if an adult is abusing them. When one is being pushed into a sexual role too early. How to protect oneself if abandoned. How to manage a 24/7 social media that fits into your pocket. How to get enough to eat. How to withstand witnessing horror.
Gender-roles, loosely based on sex-identity, are always at heart S/M relationships, so one of the most vital categories of self-management is how to be a protective S, how to be a healthy M, how to move from one to the other and back, and how to achieve equality or at least communication about it. IF equality is a value that will support survival. Sometimes it isn’t. But there’s no need to shoot someone with a gun to make the point.