They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950’s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)







One Day, Three Very Different Women

Sometimes the calendar presents us with juxtapositions that, were they presented in a film script, would be dismissed as being too implausible to be believed; today is one of those days.  For not only is March 25th the birthday of feminist Gloria Steinem, it’s also the birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation,  when the Virgin Mary said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, each of these women has left us very different legacies.

Steinem’s legacy is, in some sense, being debated this very day by Hobby Lobby and others at the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of whether businesses can be forced to pay for contraceptive devices such as IUD’s which they find morally objectionable on religious grounds.  One can imagine Steinem’s opinion of this court case without even having to look it up.  Steinem has entered her twilight years with what could charitably be referred to as a checkered and hypocritical legacy, at best.

Of course, Steinem leapt to fame in 1963 for doing a good thing: exposing how women were abused by the Playboy organization.  The problem is, the pornographic world we now inhabit, as a result of the so-called liberation which she helped usher in, is unquestionably more degrading and abusive in its objectification of women than what preceded it.  Steinem’s efforts have led to the enslavement of millions of women AND men to the recreational sex and pharmaceutical industries, the spread of sexually transmitted disease to a staggering 1/3 of the U.S. population, the creation of countless commitment-free relationships, and the explosion of illegitimacy across all levels of society.  Not to mention, of course, that as she marks her 80th birthday, and wipes away the hoary cobwebs from her mind, one suspects Steinem will not pause to think about the millions of American children who will never see their own birthdays, thanks to her efforts on behalf of legalizing abortion on demand.

Flannery O’Connor is someone altogether different: not just from Steinem, but indeed from most people.  Her fiction is not easy to read, in that it is sometimes violent, strangely mystical, and can involve unusual sentence constructions.  There is also a dark, wry humor in her work, which takes some getting used to.  My most beloved professor in college loved Flannery O’Connor, and she tried desperately to get us to like her writing also.  However whether because of being a Yankee rather than a Southerner, or having a deep-seated aversion to reading about physical violence, for years I was unable to understand or appreciate her work.

Then recently, I read reports of the publication of a newly-discovered prayer journal from O’Connor’s student days in Iowa.  This piqued my interest, not so much because I was interested in changing my mind about her as a fiction writer, but because some of the excerpts struck me as being those of a kindred soul.  I read quotes such as, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story- just like the typewriter was mine,” and I thought, “I *get* that.”  So I did what any sensible fellow should do under the circumstances: I bought a copy, and hopefully will be reading it a bit later on this Lenten season.

Finally we get to the great Feast of the Annunciation, on which Flannery O’Connor was born, and because of which her first name was actually “Mary”, in honor of the Blessed Mother – who as we know from St. Luke’s Gospel, said “Yes” when asked to become the mother of the Messiah. The Annunciation was a hugely popular subject in the history of Western art, as anyone who has studied art history knows.  One reason is that it allowed the artist to imagine what an angelic messenger appearing from Heaven might look like, as opposed to simply painting the humdrum and everyday.

Yet portraying the Annunciation also allowed a creative mind to consider what sort of person Mary herself was, at the moment she appeared on the stage of world history.  Keep in mind that, apocrypha and pious legends aside, other than Isaiah’s prophecy about her we really know nothing at all about Mary from Scripture up until this very moment when she consents to follow God’s Will for her.  What came after, of course, happened because she chose to cooperate, instead of trying to defeat or resist His Will.

In his “Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” of 1333, the Sienese painter Simone Martini portrayed the Virgin Mary not as a cowering, uncertain and now-pregnant teenager, nor as a self-confident queen setting out to conquer the world, but as a woman who has just been presented with some very unsettling news by an unexpected visitor.  Had Steinem been present she would have called Gabriel all sorts of names culled from reading too much Simone de Beauvoir, and rushed the Blessed Mother off to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.  Yet there is a timeless humanity here, in this nearly 800-year-old depiction of Mary, which I suspect O’Connor, who was so often presented with unexpected and indeed unwanted news in her own life, would have related to.

The difference lies in the reaction of each of these women to what they are being confronted with.  Whereas Steinem’s choice has always been to blame others for her own misery, and to try to drag down as many into misery with her as she can, O’Connor’s decision was to follow God’s Will in her life, no matter how difficult that might have been.  In this, she had a deeper understanding of the “Yes” to God’s Will, given by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the implications of such consent, than do those of us who live lives of relative comfort and good health.

In her story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”, O’Connor describes a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, who worries that she can never become a saint.  Through some unusual and unexpected events, she experiences a profound spiritual revelation about the Will of God, even though that lesson is not apparent to those around her.  As the story ends, one senses that she has begun a great spiritual journey, as did the Virgin Mary, beginning on this Feast of the Annunciation, and as did Flannery O’Connor, who grew as both a writer and a woman of faith.  These are the two women among the three whom we should celebrate, even as we pray for the conversion of the other, who will no doubt be receiving the lion’s share of attention on this day.

Detail of "The Annunciation" by Simone Martini (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Detail of “The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” by Simone Martini (1333)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Where Have All the Men Gone?

Like many intelligent men of my acquaintance, I’ve always carried something of a torch for Nigella Lawson, the well-known British television cook, popular author, and media personality.  I’m not sure whether it’s her exotically maternal beauty, or the way she brings an intelligent sensuality to the enjoyment of good food, or just that slightly husky, posh voice that sends the heart a-fluttering, but there you are.  If, as has been commented before, Dame Helen Mirren is the thinking man’s actress, then Nigella is clearly the thinking man’s foodie.

Thus when I learnt of what took place recently between her and her husband, PR guru and promoter of exceptionally bad art Charles Saatchi, at my favorite restaurant in London, I was absolutely appalled.  If there were no pictures of the event, one simply would not have believed it.  Mr. Saatchi, who is 70, is not exactly superhero material either in size or anything else, and one would think that a lady as intelligent as Ms. Lawson would not have allowed such an event to take place.  If someone had asked me what I thought would have played out in such a scenario, my prediction would have been that the moment the bounder reached to grab his wife’s throat, she would have jumped up from the table and left.  Instead, she simply took the assault he dished out.

Ms. Lawson and her children have apparently moved out of the home she shared with her husband, who has been cautioned by the police.  Fortunately she is in a position with respect to family, friends, and resources to get help, which sadly many victims of domestic violence are not.  I hope that both of these people get the help they need, since as we all know these cycles of abuse tend to repeat themselves.

Yet what I want us to think about in this situation is not why these incidents of domestic violence happen among supposedly educated people, or how to address them, since to that end I would direct you to an excellent piece on these questions by Conservative MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston in today’s Torygraph.  I want to ask a different question raised by the incident and specifically by these photographs, which might not occur to you at first glance.  Specifically: why did not a single man in that restaurant stand up to defend Ms. Lawson?

In asking this question I am not in any way discounting the ladies among my readers, who of course have an equal moral obligation to do something to aid someone in distress if they are capable of doing so.  After all, we only recently saw the incredible bravery of three British women who tried to aid the victim of a brutal murder carried out on a British soldier by Muslim fundamentalists in London.  Nor am I advocating a change to the judicial code, whereby one has a legal obligation to involve oneself in other people’s domestic disputes.

Yet we should not need a written code provision to tell us that when he sees someone physically assaulting a lady in public, no matter the identity of the assaulter, a gentleman intervenes.  How a restaurant full of management, waitstaff and patrons, let alone passersby outside where the couple were sitting, could simply stand there and do nothing EXCEPT TAKE PICTURES, simply boggles my mind.  It is clear that many of us men need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and ask what has happened to our sense of honor, in standing up for those who are not in a position to do so for themselves, particularly women and children.

If this attitude strikes you as rather old-fashioned, then good: it’s meant to.  It seems we have so emasculated ourselves as a culture that, bizarrely enough, treatment of women has grown worse, not better.  She has become simply another sack of finite genetic material, and not a beautiful gift from God, as Eve was to Adam, meant to be treasured and protected.  Whatever our supposed multi-cultural sophistication today, the fact remains that if you choose to stand by and do nothing in a situation like this, then please do not have the gall to call yourself a gentleman, let alone a man. A real man does not allow weaker people, particularly the ladies, to be taken advantage of by bullies.

A society which does nothing to help its weakest members is one riddled with relativism and sophistry, which Edmund Burke would recognize as lethal to its survival. So yes, fellow, you should open AND hold the door for women; allow them to go through the doorway ahead of you; pull out their chair for them when they want to sit at table, and so on.  Most of all, however, you should never look the other way when you see your sister in distress.  For even if no one sees you walk by or avert your gaze, you can be sure that the Man Upstairs certainly has seen it.  And He is the most impartial of all judges.


This should never have happened.