Monday, June 06, 2011

Sluts And Baptism - Reappropriation

Preoccupied with other things, I haven't really been paying attention to the growing attraction of a new phenomenon - the Slutwalk. Unlike the unfortunate "Take Back The Night" marches of a couple decades ago, the Slutwalk are far less earnest, far more confrontational, yet centered on the same thing - women demanding respect and freedom in the face of violence visited upon them. Unlike the "Night" walks, which seem so "Kum-Bay-Ya"-ish to me, the Slutwalks are more along the lines of a glorious middle-finger to the powers that be, insisting that violence against women no longer be linked in any manner, fashion, or form to the alleged appearance of the victim.

What is so striking, of course, and attracted all the attention is the use of the word "slut". As Jessica Valenti noted in her Outlook piece in yesterday's The Washington Post, the Slutwalk movement is not without its feminist critics:
Some feminist critics think that by attempting to reclaim the word “slut,” the organizers are turning a blind eye to the many women who don’t want to salvage what they see as an irredeemable term. As Harsha Walia wrote at the Canadian site Rabble: “I personally don’t feel the whole ‘reclaim slut’ thing. I find that the term disproportionately impacts women of color and poor women to reinforce their status as inherently dirty and second-class.”

Anti-pornography activist Gail Dines argued, along with victims rights advocate Wendy Murphy, that the SlutWalk organizers are playing into patriarchal hands. They say the protesters “celebrating” the word “slut” and dressing in risque clothing are embracing a pornified consumer sexuality. Frankly, I don’t think any of these women will be posing for the “Girls Gone Wild” cameras anytime soon. Yes, some protesters have worn lingerie, but others have worn jeans and T-shirts. Organizers encourage marchers to wear whatever they want because the point is that no matter what women wear, they have a right not to be raped. And if someone were to attack them, they have a right not to be blamed for it.(italics added)
It is the highlighted section that is the nub of the argument for organizers and participants. Rape is not about sex, but violence and control. Rooted in rage, it is the desire to dominate and control, not any sexual urge. Rapists will attack women regardless of how they dress, they're age, or anything else. The attire women choose to wear is not a trigger.

Is it right for young women to take back the word "slut" and all its assorted connotations in order to make the point that they should not be considered fodder for violence because of their appearance? I have no opinion on this matter, to be honest. "Slut" is certainly a slippery term, used by men to degrade and denigrate women, objectify them as being of less concern because they are free with their sexual favors. How one dresses like a slut is a matter of opinion, I think. All the same, there is something empowering in young women insisting they should be free to dress in ways others find inappropriate or provocative because they want to, or because it makes them feel attractive or sexy without the fear of being attacked and raped, then being told they somehow were partially responsible because of their appearance.

Reappropriating images and words that have negative connotations has a long history, particularly in the United States. African-Americans took back the word "black" from racists. Taking from one's oppressors the power to name is an important part of standing on one's own, becoming fully human in the face of all efforts to deny that humanity.

Yet, it isn't just words that can be reappropriated. Symbols, too, can become redefined as a way of giving them life-giving power. Christians did this with a long-time symbol of evil, the realm of evil spirits, the place of the dead - water. It is never explicitly stated in either Testament, yet bodies of water are the abode of evil and death. In Job, Leviathan, the dweller of the deep, is more than just a whale or large fish, but a creature of violence and destruction. When Jonah is swallowed by the fish, this is more than just Jonah becoming part of the food chain; when Jesus speaks of "the sign of Jonah" both he and the readers of that Gospel would have understood exactly what was meant - he was talking about death.

It was not for nothing that some of the disciples of Jesus were fishermen. As the scenes of the storms on the Sea of Galilee, as well as Jesus telling people to take a coin from a fish taken from the Sea to pay their taxes make clear, the sea is the dwelling place of death. When Jesus casts out the demons in to the herd of pigs, they rush to the sea and drown; that is because the sea is where the demons dwell.

Even rivers are not excluded. Passing over Jordan has long been understood as a code for death and dying. When the children of Israel cross the parted Jordan River in to the Promised Land in a recall of passing through the Red Sea, both events are about passing through the place of death.

As the initiation rite of the Christian Church, baptism takes this symbol of death and gives it new meaning, new power - the power of new life. In the New Creation, water will no longer be a dwelling place of monsters and demons, it will no longer bring fear. When the catechete is lowered in to the water, it is in to the death of Jesus; brought back out, the new Christian is reborn in to the resurrection. Water, once a source of fear, is now a symbol of new birth, new life.

My guess is some folks didn't take kindly to the way Christians did baptism. Of course, it wasn't unheard of. John was baptizing people in the Jordan before Jesus even started his ministry, yet this was not the baptism we receive. By taking a symbol of evil and death and giving it the power of new life and rebirth, I have little doubt that many were as offended as are some who think taking back the word "slut" may not be such a hot idea. Yet, it is empowering to stand in the face of fear, in the presence of that which is dangerous, perhaps even understood as evil, and refuse to be dominated by it. Water, a name some think is bad, a device used for torture and execution - all these things have been reimagined by groups who insist they are not afraid of how others use them. To these groups, in making their own meaning they are already making clear they are not afraid anymore.

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