The Glamour of Evil
by Brent Kallmer
MAY 29, 2008 (www.catholicculture.org) - There are few forces in the universe stronger than the gravitational pull that draws in young women at the checkout line of supermarkets and drugstores. Few members of the fair sex can resist the urge to pick up, with a breezy nonchalance, the glossy volumes that promise to impart such timeless wisdom as "how to tell what he's really thinking."
This phenomenon is similar to what might be called "the spell of the blank wall" that afflicts toddlers everywhere. There is that age at which no child is immune from the beckoning voice — one they alone can hear — that says, "pick up the crayon . . . yes, yes, that's good . . . now go, go draw on that wall, I command you." And so they do. The parents always seem mystified at the conviction with which the little one carries out this mission.
That the toddler is drawn as irresistibly to the wall as the young woman is to the latest issue of Cosmo, Glamour, or People may be a mystery for the ages. But there is an economic rationale behind this. Placement of merchandise does not happen by accident. So, one must wonder, why is it that only women's magazines appear by the checkout stands? The answer, of course, is that they sell.
For most, I suspect that these magazines are conscious escape and little else. No woman honestly believes that this month's issue of Glamour will really change her life. She does know that it may provide some respite from her wearying routine, from the burden of her daily sadness and anxieties. But even more than this, it may be a way of assuaging the overwhelming loneliness that is the reality of city life for so many young women.
It all points to the fact that today's "successful woman" is a tangle of contradictions who suspects in her heart that something is wrong with what she has been told about herself, but can't say exactly what. She can't be vulnerable and she is not allowed to be lonely, even as she is urged to be "empowered."
When we are young, we tend to believe that only two outcomes are possible in life: success or failure. In general, success means a high-powered career, a spouse, and a family. Failure means unemployment or a dead-end job, loneliness, and isolation. In this view, success begets success — academic success leads to career success, and career success makes one appealing to members of the opposite sex, inevitably leading to a successful family life.
Paradoxically, however, upon reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — the job that follows years of schooling — many young people discover that career success does not automatically lead to that special romantic relationship, and very often it seems to do more to cut one off from others. For young people working ever-increasing hours, social life is a mercenary activity reserved for weekend nights at the bars. Those in their peer group — who share their own level of involvement and accomplishment but often precious little else — become friends by default, either because they work together or know each other by some other professional association.
Along with this dubious kind of career success, something the great philosopher Josef Pieper called "total work," has arisen a phenomenon known as "raunch culture." From the omnipresent "Girls Gone Wild" series of videos to HBO's wildly successful "Sex and the City," it is a pop culture movement whose premise is that a successful, independent woman is characterized mainly by her casual approach to sex.
But it is a bizarre kind of "empowerment" that promises authenticity in the most denigrating presentations of female sexuality. Indeed, if there is anything that "Sex and the City" taught anyone, it is that women can be as dumb and dehumanized in their approach to the most intimate human experience as so many men are.
The number of women I have known personally who considered the pathologies on display in "Sex and the City" worthy of imitation is sobering. Still, sexual libertinism hasn't quite brought the liberation it promised, probably because it tends to turn people, sooner or later, into the thing they hate. Despite the relentless glamorization of casual sex foisted off on young minds via television and movies, there is no getting around the fact that sexual intercourse creates a spiritual bond between people, and to revel, as so many do, in a deafness to the promptings of conscience on this matter is a recipe for despair.
Women taught that they should be just like men in every respect are rarely also told that this tends to make them unappealing and superfluous to males. This is not necessarily because men are threatened by a woman's accomplishments, though they may be (which is a separate matter), but because of the simple fact that both men and women instinctively seek someone who is not a carbon copy of themselves.
They seek, in short, someone who is other. Once this otherness is taken out of the equation, the mating game becomes a kind of vulgar cost-benefit calculus, something more appropriate for a limited-liability partnership than a union of souls. But it is hard to escape the intuition that, as Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio so beautifully put it, "God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion."
Yet, some protest, it is really only power that matters. This view conceals a revolutionary expectation, one that pushes toward a humanity in which no distinction between individuals is tolerated, one where everyone performs the same functions. But this is gravely contrary to the complementarity at the heart of God's design. "The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In this regard, it is worth considering that Genesis takes pains to point out that "male and female he created them," suggesting that the image of God is man and woman, together. The Catechism states similarly that, "Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way."
In his 1995 "Letter to Women," Pope John Paul II spoke candidly of the historical contributions of women, saying, "Women have contributed to . . . history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions."
He adds that women ". . . were frequently at a disadvantage from the start, excluded from equal educational opportunities, underestimated, ignored and not given credit for their intellectual contributions." Indeed, the Holy Father did not fail to recognize that the contribution of the "feminine tradition" to art and science throughout history constitutes "a debt that can never be repaid."
"Yet," he continues,
. . . how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being!
The true realist on the contemporary scene is the Church herself, not a pop culture sliding dumbly toward an explicitly pornographic view of the woman. Later in the letter (#11), Pope John Paul II touches on the importance of men and women recognizing that which is distinctly their own:
In this perspective of "service" — which, when it is carried out with freedom, reciprocity and love, expresses the truly "royal" nature of mankind — one can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female.
History is, of course, full of strong women; St. Catherine of Siena and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta come to mind. But their strength was not an imitation of masculinity. The feminine genius is totally unique, and the view that the female should be exactly like the male is a deforming denial of the richer reality to which John Paul refers.
And lest we forget, if what we have in Jesus Christ is God telling us the story of himself, we have in Mary the medium of the message — the woman the poet Wordsworth called "Our tainted nature's solitary boast." This, at last, is the truth to which history and the example of the Blessed Virgin, the New Eve, allude: that there is nothing more beautiful in this fallen world than a woman of faith.
Brent Kallmer is a former research fellow of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Social Development and World Peace.