Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Common, Unintended Christmas Message - The Mary Paradox

It's becoming more and more common to hear and see examples of women being objectified, dehumanized, and held to impossible standards in today's media. As a consumer this holiday season please be conscious of the kinds of messages you support with your dollars. If the advertising is sexist (or oppressive in the form of any other "ist" or "phobic") don't buy it. There's a movement out there to use #notbuyingit in response to those kinds of ads so we can show companies that we don't respect oppressive advertising and we won't support it.
I think it is really important to let our dollars speak for us on the commercial side of Christmas as we're bombarded with marketing schemes, but there is another side of Christmas that can have some pretty negative impacts on our young women too.

Religion is a touchy subject so let me just say that I am not trying to be offensive. In fact, I'm trying really hard not to be offensive, so keep that in mind. I get that people have all kinds of personal feelings and beliefs and the only reason I'm bringing this up at all is because there are a lot of Christians in the United States and every year this story about Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus is told, which is fine, except that there is a really damaging impossible standard for women in this story and no one talks about it.

Mary is a virgin and a mother.

In many cases, culturally and religiously, women are found valuable for only three reasons: Purity, beauty, and child bearing. The more a woman has of one of these things, the more valuable she is, if she has two of these things, she's even more valuable. The catches are that without at least one of these things, no other positive qualities seem to matter, and it's impossible to have all three.

Unless you're Mary. Mary, who is a virgin and a mother, who is always depicted as young, innocent, and beautiful. Mary who was said to be "favored" and "blessed among women."

I was raised in a devout Christian home and I can testify to the heart-breaking sense of shame at knowing I would have to choose between purity and bearing children. I used to wonder what Mary had done to be worthy of such a wonderful calling and what I had or hadn't done that made me so much less special. Women feel an expectation to live up the standard this presents. We're expected to be sexy enough for a man to want to have sex with us, but we're supposed to not want to have sex ourselves; we're supposed to be striving for "virgin mother" and that's about as close as we can get.

I'm not saying that, if it's true, the story of Jesus being born of a virgin isn't miraculous and worth telling. I'm saying that the value of Mary, as a person, should be a lot more about the way she accepted the scary and dangerous calling of carrying a fatherless child during the time and in the place she did, and the overwhelming responsibility of raising the Savior of all Mankind. I'm saying that the value of Mary, as a person, should be a lot less about the fact that she'd never had sex. The virgin part seems incidental to me... in a time without birth control, choosing a virgin was a good way for God to make sure no one else claimed his kid, that's about all the value I can see in it.

Personally, I'm not a religious person so when I think about Mary now I imagine a young woman who either thought she was in love with someone she knew before she was given away to Joseph or was raped. In either situation she would have been killed as punishment, probably by stoning.Which is why, in the bible Joseph considers keeping the matter private, and simply "putting her away."

So... the difference between one of the most revered, respected women in history and a woman stoned to death in shame and disgrace, or made to disappear, comes down to whether the skin on the penis of a man had touched the skin lining the inside of her vagina. Or, if you'd like, it doesn't have to do with her at all, it's about who impregnated her- a person or the spirit of the lord. Whether she had any choice in it doesn't matter either way.

Neither of those messages is acceptable to be teaching girls and young women.
If you wait to have sex until God makes you pregnant you're awesome. If you have sex after you're married, just to have children, you're alright, and if you have sex before that, you should die horribly or at least disappear. Or:
If you're raped by someone cool, you're cool. If you're never raped you're alright. If you're raped by someone not cool you should die horribly or at least disappear.

Do I need to go into all the ways these ideas influence and support rape culture?

It seems to me that many Christian women have at least part of their sense of value tied up in Mary. Let's stop influencing that value with the idea of the pinnacle of womanhood being dependent on simultaneous virginity and motherhood. Instead it should be influenced by the ideas of courage, selflessness, strength, and grace that can just as easily accompany women without "virginity" or children. Mary displayed those characteristics and they influenced our world much more than the details of her bedroom ever could.

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