Hating Women: America’s Hostile Campaign Against the Fairer Sex
By Shmuley Boteach
Regan Books, 326 pages, $24.95.
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Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles
By Otto Weininger, translated from German by Ladislaus Löb and edited by Daniel Steuer with Laura Marcus
Indiana University Press, 440 pages, $75.
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‘The Da Vinci Code,” the Zohar, and the famous Taoist symbol of yin and yang all share the same central metaphor: that of a universe constituted by the interplay of masculine and feminine energies. In our own lives, these energies are most obviously apparent in the sexes, men and women — but in mystical thought, they go well beyond them. For Kabbalah, masculinity is the line, with history, direction, finitude and purpose; femininity is the circle, in the present moment, encompassing, infinite and ever present. In Taoism, yang is active, outward, material, light and apparently forceful; yin is receptive, inward, spiritual, dark and the true bearer of strength. And in “The Da Vinci Code,” of course, masculinity is the sword, Christ and the male godhead, while the feminine is the grail, the Bride and the suppressed goddess.
The goal, in all three of these systems (and many more besides), is unification: bringing together the Holy One and the Shechinah (the feminine Divine Presence), uniting the upward-pointing triangle of the Star of David (sword, phallus, sky god) with the downward-pointing one (chalice, femininity, earth goddess). Unlike those macho, sexist cultures that denigrate the passive, the gentle and the compassionate, these ancient mystical teachings hold out the promise of integrating that which many seek to suppress. The more one looks for it, the more the binary of masculine/feminine appears, and the more it seems to cohere as a useful map of reality.
But there are also deep problems with seeing the world this way, the most important of which is the conflation of types (masculine and feminine) with actual men and women. The books that are under review — one by a contemporary pundit, another by an obscure but once notorious German intellectual — are two different yet equally fascinating examples of how thinking about gender can go awry.
On its surface, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Hating Women: America’s Hostile Campaign Against the Fairer Sex” seems to be a great praise of womankind. In 40 cleverly titled chapters, such as “Fat Wives Have Their Husbands To Blame,” Boteach argues that women are superior to men. He claims, unabashedly, that our worldwide contempt for women — “oppression in the East, degradation in the West” — is literally the cause of most of the world’s problems. “Disrespecting women is the principal cause of the world’s devolution,” he writes.
For Boteach, the world is supposed to work in a pretty straightforward way. Men are great at building civilizations, but they can be brutes, so “God created the female sex as the counterbalance to the male, to soften and civilize man.” Those women who, by choice or by nature, don’t conform to this type have been brainwashed either by the masculinizing error of late-model feminism, or by the objectifying forces of contemporary vulgarity. Our popular culture, Boteach says, is particularly adept at “hating women,” valuing “bimbos” (his term) such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton instead of refined, nurturing mothers and daughters. In doing so, it pulls women away from fulfilling their essential nature: to be “ladies,” exhibiting such qualities as dignity, grace, intimacy, nonaggression, and the role of nurturer and comforter. Thus, “reality” television shows such as “Joe Millionaire,” and oversexed pop stars such as Christina Aguilera and Madonna, are ultimately misogynistic, because they compromise the essential nature of womankind.
For many feminists, though, “misogyny” is about specifying what female “nature” is supposed to be. For example, Boteach approvingly quotes the Eshet Chayil prayer as evidence of a culture that values women. But for many women today, it is evidence of rigid gender roles, and of a world in which women are valued primarily through and for their husbands. Boteach cites courtly love and the cult of the Virgin Mary as examples of proper respect for women. But he minimizes the way these ideas coexisted with — some would say supported — objectification, marginalization and disrespect of those women who couldn’t measure up to such lofty standards.
Boteach showers contempt on those women who choose to express themselves sexually in a public way, from Madonna down to his daughter’s friends at school. “What act of courage is involved in subordinating oneself to the leering eyes of lecherous men who need to see a woman’s breasts while they masturbate?” Boteach asks incredulously. Well, some might reply that the courage to take control of one’s body, to celebrate one’s sexual energy and not to let men like Boteach determine what the boundaries of pleasure should be. Boteach says that Madonna “has spent her career dishonoring women, portraying them as chunks of meat bereft of personalities or even souls.” Papa, don’t preach. Madonna has controlled her image from day one, manipulated the world’s media machine, and has messages in her songs that are about empowerment (“Express Yourself”), even spirituality (“Ray of Light”). Sure, there’s sex, but not just sex.
Ironically, just as “Hating Women” gets interesting, Boteach backs off. For example, he recognizes that the kabbalistic ideal is not manly men and ladylike women, but people of all genders who embody both masculine and feminine energies within themselves. This trait, as Boteach recognizes, is most readily visible in gay men and lesbians, who used to be called (and still are, in some cultures) “third gendered” or “intermediate gendered.” Reflecting on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Boteach writes that “gay men are the world’s last nurturers.” But then he ends the chapter abruptly and says that gay men
should marry women and have children.
Ultimately, Boteach wants “a softer, subtler society that embraces the influence of femininity — rather than one that corrupts and neutralizes it.” Hopefully, few would disagree with that ideal, and Boteach’s book is an excellent critique of how vulgar our public discourse of sexuality has become. But the way in which he seeks to achieve a kinder, gentler, more effeminate America — including a return to sex-segregated schools, modest dress codes and a very constricted notion of female possibility — borders on the Puritanical. In his rants against pop culture, Boteach ends up revealing more about himself than about American society; he is simply the worried father of teenage daughters, horrified by the thong underwear and sexually explicit music that they might freely choose to enjoy. The onetime author of “Kosher Sex” now seems excessively worried about the trayf.
It’s an apt coincidence that Boteach’s new book coincides with the first complete translation in a century of Otto Weininger’s “Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles.” The books share the same themes, although the authors, and conclusions, couldn’t be more different. Born in 1880 to an assimilated Jewish family, Weininger was a Viennese prodigy who wrote “Sex and Character” when he was 23. He committed suicide a few months later. His book, a brilliant, misogynistic and bigoted attempt to understand the phenomenon of gender, is a classic of the same fin de siècle culture that brought us eugenics and “scientific” antisemitism. It deserves ignominy — but it was hugely influential (not least on Nazism) and remains dangerously interesting.
In “Sex and Character,” Weininger argued, in scientific detail, that there are actually innumerable gradations between the poles of masculine and feminine. Anticipating contemporary queer theory, he wrote that “ideal Man and Woman, neither of whom exists, [are] sexual types,” not realities. But in stark divergence from contemporary thinkers, who usually see gender as socially constructed, Weininger ascribed these gradations to biology — specifically, different forms of cytoplasm. Each of us has some amount of Man and Woman cytoplasm, and Weininger’s project was to observe how the two types interact within all of us. His conclusion? That Man is essentially about genius, direction, values and creation; woman about receptivity, passivity, sentiment and thoughtlessness.
Weininger didn’t stop there. He saw the Man/Woman binary as extending beyond sex to civilizations. In particular, he wrote, Judaism relates to Christianity in the same way that Woman relates to Man. “Jews and Women are nothing and therefore can become everything,” Weininger tells us, going on to explain why neither possess true genius, authentic greatness or real moral values. (Weininger converted to Protestantism during the writing of the book.)
Obviously, Weininger’s substantive theories are far more sinister, and misogynistic, than Boteach’s. Yet, unlike Boteach, Weininger is at pains to explain that “Woman” and “Man” doesn’t mean women and men, and “Judaism” and “Christianity” doesn’t mean Jews and Christians. Judaism, he writes, is a “cast of mind, a psychic constitution, which is a possibility for all human beings.” Indeed, Weininger’s typology of Judaism, if one can see through the misogyny and self-hatred, actually has very interesting things to say about Jewish ideals of manhood, themes that have been picked up in recent years by such scholars as Daniel Boyarin and Sander Gilman — and that echo in Boteach’s book. Think of the modest Moses in contrast with the virtuous Achilles, or the crafty rabbis who live for God in contrast with the Christian martyrs who die for Him. Or of the “effeminate” Jewish model of manhood (gentleness, bookishness), the ideal of the wimpy scholar and the pre-Zionist disdain for exercise and bodily strength.
These were meant to be philosophical types, not sociological observations, but Weininger’s followers missed that subtlety. As Weininger’s book became enormously popular — it was reprinted almost every year from 1903 to 1932, according to Daniel Steuer’s excellent introduction — his readers extrapolated from abstract Judaism to actual Jews, and helped create the intellectual justification for Auschwitz. As with Boteach — though with far more serious consequences, of course — the error lay less with Weininger’s typologies than with mapping those typologies onto the real world, which is always more complicated than a dichotomy.
At the end of “Sex and Character,” Weininger writes: “Humankind once more has the choice between Judaism and Christianity, between business and culture, between Woman and Man, between the species and the personality, between worthlessness and value, between the earthly life and the higher life, between nothingness and the deity. These are the two poles: there is no third realm.”
Perhaps not — but there is always complexity.