This is a timeline we use in White Noise workshops to help make visible dominant representations of white women that have historically served to reinforce, normalize and naturalize forms of racist violence and patriarchal oppression. How do these narratives of white female sexuality and identity (re)appear in the present? How do they continue to live in our imaginations, bodies, dreams, media, collective consciousness, politics? By no means attempting to be some kind of comprehensive history, but rather pulling out some key threads in the unweaving of structures of domination. Here we go:
Captivity narratives, stories of women and men of European descent who were captured by Native Americans, were immensely popular in in both the US and Europe from the 17th century until the close of the United States frontier in the late 19th century. A defining genre of American literature that told tales of Indian savagery, the bravery of white male settlers, and the vulnerability of white women in need of protection and rescue. How does the US keep looking into this mirror to define itself, project moral superiority, and justify violence against men and women of color? How does white male sexual anxiety continue to occupy such a powerful position in the national psyche? How are white women used to uphold national mythologies and rationalize domination?
Hysteria and the birth of psychoanalysis. In the Western world up until the 17th century, “hysteria” referred to a medical condition thought to be particular to women, caused by disturbances of the uterus (Greek, hystera = uterus). By the mid-19th century, hysteria came to refer to sexual and emotional dysfunction, mostly associated with “civilized” women. In this famous painting, French neurologist Charcot is giving a demonstration of female hysteria, with a fainting woman as the key object under study by European male eyes. Freud incorporated Charcot’s views on “traumatic hysteria”, combined them with forms of “talking cure” and techniques for reconstructing repressed memories, and the field of modern psychoanalysis was born. Its main patient: the figure of the hysterical woman, unable to control her body or emotions, irrational, delusional, weak, violent, insane. Common earlier treatment for female hysteria was to induce “hysterical paroxysm” (i.e. orgasm), through manual pelvic stimulation, water sprays, or vibrators. Yes, that’s what the doctor ordered.
Anti-miscegenation laws were laws that banned interracial marriage between members of two different “races” (in practice this mostly targeted intimate relationships between white and Black people and between white people and Native Americans). Laws (created by white men) criminalizing interracial marriage, sex and cohabitation existed and were enforced in the thirteen colonies from the 17th century onward. The frequent “reason” for lynching men of African descent was the accusation of sexual assault against a white woman. At the same time, the frequent rape of African-American women by white men went unpunished. Many states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws after World War II. 17 southern states (all the former slave states plus Oklahoma) still enforced laws prohibiting marriage between people of color and whites. In 1967, with the historic case of Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled the remaining anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional, saying that these laws “are designed to maintain White Supremacy”. Though this ruling nullified the remaining laws, it took until 1998 for South Carolina and 2000 for Alabama to officially amend their states’ constitutions to remove language prohibiting miscegenation.
1933. The film King Kong sweeps theaters, in which a film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla, who becomes terrifyingly enamored of their female blond star. Acclaimed for its breakthroughs in special effects. What were the effects of this iconic image on the national psyche? How does this familiar image of the non-human dark monster preying on a defenseless fair damsel replay itself in other contexts that we are then conditioned to read with certain racialized and gendered meanings?
U.S. Army military recruitment propaganda from World War II. The nation as pure, virtuous white female, needing white men to protect her from the sub-human Other.
Barbie, full name Barbara Millicent Roberts (who knew?), made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9th, 1959 (this date is her official birthday). The creation of Ruth Handler, daughter of Jewish-Polish immigrants, Barbie (named after her daughter Barbara) became the best-selling doll of all time, and an icon of American popular culture. Barbie has undergone many changes, notably in 1971 when the doll’s eyes were adjusted to look forwards instead of the demure sideways glance of the original model. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that 3 Barbies are sold every second. With her form inspired by the German sex doll Lilli, Barbie has been a symbol of American femininity, fashion consumer culture, a standard of wildly unattainable beauty norms, a sexualized focus of young imaginations, and an inspiration for body-loathing and eating disorders. Barbie turned 50 a couple years ago. She now officially occupies cougar status.
In 1967, the same year the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws, the film “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” caused a nationwide stir. Portraying a young white woman bringing home her African-American fiancé to startled parents, whose attitudes are challenged and changed, this film broke the barrier of representing interracial romantic love. Black man with white woman, the ultimate taboo.
In 1992, Rush Limbaugh coined the term “feminazi”, a perfect label to give voice to the growing backlash against waves of feminist movements that had challenged male supremacy (though often failing to challenge white supremacy/privilege or heteronormativity). Male resentment of women was increasingly legitimated in the face of historic shifts granting women more power in society. How effective was this term? How many people do you know who use it? Proudly? Loudly? At all? Without the qualifier, “but i don’t mean that i’m a militant, hairy, bra-burning lesbian separatist witch or anything”. Really effective. 2011, Rush is still at it.
“Missing White Woman Syndrome” or “Missing Pretty Girl Syndrome” is a vernacular term for the disproportionately greater degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, middle-class (or above) woman or girl. In comparison with cases concerning a missing male or missing females of other ethnicities or economic classes.
In 2003, Hollywood and the Pentagon teamed up to stage a drama that would symbolize the moral duty and nobility of the US military occupation of Iraq. The highly sensationalized “rescue” of Private Jessica Lynch from a brutal Iraqi ambush captivated American audiences. Immediately, the movie “Saving Jessica Lynch” was released to air on NBC. A beautiful, young white American woman. Demonized Arab male predators. Heroic US male military rescuers. The story was headline perfect. Except that it never happened. Private Lynch was indeed injured. In a automotive accident, and was then given the best possible treatment by Iraqi doctors at a hospital. The BBC ran an expose on the staging of the rescue operation, interviewing stunned Iraqi doctors who explained how while caring for her as one of their own, US soldiers broke down the door of the hospital, shouting, with a camera team shooting constantly, treated the medical staff as if they were attacking her, and whisked Jessica away to “safety”. Even when Jessica Lynch publicly told the truth of what had happened, it was too late. No one wanted to hear anything but the story of American male bravery, Iraqi evil, and the rescue of a vulnerable, grateful, innocent white woman. According to Jessica, there was actually one person who immediately came to her rescue and took her to the hospital, not male soldiers, but a Native American woman, Lori Piestewa. In 2007, Jessica Lynch gave birth to a baby girl and named her Dakota Ann, in honor of the Indian woman she regarded as her true protector and comrade. “Ann” was Lori’s middle name, and “Dakota” is Sioux for friend or ally. Lori Piestewa was killed in Iraq, the first time in history a Native American female soldier was killed in a war on foreign soil. There was no media coverage.
Why was the story of saving Jessica Lynch so powerful, circulated with the full force of the corporate media? Susan Faludi, in her phenomenal book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America extensively documents the particular gendered response to the trauma of the Sept. 11th attacks, with calls for a return to traditional sex roles, for men to be more cowboy masculine, guarding the defenseless, toughening up, and for women to nurture the hearth, and seek comfort in domestic realms. Of all the ways that our nation could have responded, why this way? And why was the story of Jessica Lynch so familiar, so compelling, so perfectly scripted? To answer this question, she looks back to the original “War On Terror” at this country’s founding with violent settler expansion into indigenous territories. Please cycle back up to the first image on captivity narratives. Beware: may cause historical dizziness and/or severe nausea.
Back to the future. Osama bin Laden, the mobilizing, unifying face of nationalist hatred, has recently been killed. The death of the US’ public enemy #1 has been made to signify everything from a retroactive justification of the use of torture, rationalization for wars that have long since lost their meaning, closure for family members of victims of 9/11, a call for peace.
The military code name for bin Laden was Geronimo, a prominent Chiricahua Apache leader who fought against the United States and Mexico. Military leaders and government officials speak of Iraq as “going into Indian country”. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, signs with bin Laden’s face and the print “Wanted Dead Or Alive” in Wild West font appeared everywhere.
Our national psyche is on display. What needs to be healed? How can we subvert, challenge, and turn inside out these dominant narratives that have shaped our collective consciousness for so long? What leverage do white women, as white women, have in challenging representations that uphold virtuous victimhood in order to demonize, exoticize and dehumanize men and women of color?
History doesn’t need to keep repeating itself.