Narratives of White Women Used to Uphold Racism and Patriarchy: A Partial Timeline

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.

Visual echoes.

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.

19 thoughts on “Narratives of White Women Used to Uphold Racism and Patriarchy: A Partial Timeline

  1. I was attempting to write about this in my own blog, and in researching found yours. It is really good. The parallels are very precisely and concisely drawn and I love that you ask questions right after you develop a point, “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?” These are all amazing questions, and it was great how they build up to the most hardcore at the end, as if preparing our brains to make these leaps of cognition.

    • thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and enthusiasm – greatly appreciated! please let me/us know if you write more on these themes – would love to read it.

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  3. You are setting yourself up for being sued for discrimination with this article, and by that I mean by how you spell “White Woman.” In the same way you capitalize the letters in [A]frican [A]merican, [B]lack [M]an/[W]oman, [N]ative [A]merican, you need to correct your entire article to correctly give the same consideration to [W]hite [W]oman, or when using white in this manner for gender/race in general, capitalize white. You are offensive and discriminatory, and rightly so, you should be sued for discrimination to the fullest extent of the law. I hope to soon find a correction to this article giving equality to all races.

  4. While the emotional intensity of this response certainly comes across in all caps, fortunately there do not actually exist grammar police that could arrest someone or take them to court. In this one particular written piece, all hyphenated identities and places of descent are in fact capitalized, i.e. Native-American, European, Iraqi. No capitalization of gender is used for any identity. In general it seems rare for people to capitalize “women” and “men”, unless it is a title like Women’s Studies.
    What appears to be the real issue of differential grammar, is specifically, and only, the upper case “Black” and the lower case “white”. There are reasons for which i chose to do this in this piece, which do point to differences in the histories of these two racialized identities in this country. There are debates about whether to capitalize these two terms or not, and while typical grammatical style guides counsel consistency, or uppercase if it’s a noun and lowercase if it’s an adjective, it just did not feel right to write “black” or “White”.
    Why? This is a piece that is attempting to shine a light on dominant historical narratives about women of European descent that have been used to justify discrimination, oppression and violence against men and women of color, and to normalize patriarchal domination and control. Times in the article when “White” is capitalized is when it is describing a phenomenon, or in direct reference to the system of white supremacy. And indeed, it seems that most of the times when white is capitalized is by white supremacists, as the race against which all other races have been defined as “other” and “lesser” in the history of this country from the birth of the nation to the present. While choosing to write the racial signifier “white” as a lowercase adjective is obviously not the most important or relevant arena of fighting the structural injustice of white supremacy and privilege, it is a small move to de-center whiteness. It may be useful to debate that choice, and i’m writing this response to make clear where that choice was coming from. There is also no one right way to write “black”, and in choosing to write “Black”, i am taking my cue from African-American authors who have made variations on this argument:
    by Touré:
    “I have chosen to capitalize the word “Black” and lowercase “white” throughout this book. I believe “Black” constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese. I don’t believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization.”

    For these reasons, the article will stay as is, and this response may serve as an explicit footnote about the rationale for this grammar choice.

  5. This is subject matter that particularly interests me–as Black people are constantly told through subtle imagery and language that it is only white men who are racists and uphold white supremacy.

    Now i do have a question(s) Zara:
    1. I am wondering if this is a critique on white female racism?
    2. Why are white women constantly used with images and ideas reading interracial romantic relationships? (this is more of what you personally have observed)

    Lastly, great article!

  6. I’m glad you found this piece interesting!
    Definitely some of the main animating reasons why the White Noise Collective exists is to look at how, to use bell hooks’ term, race is gendered, and the complexities and common patterns at this intersection for people socialized as white and female. While this timeline is looking at dominant recurring narratives about white women, you can see the white male views throughout in terms of how they are strategically used – white women participate in, perpetuate, internalize and also resist and subvert these narratives. So yes, this is a critique trying to make some of these histories that continue to haunt the present, more visible.
    For example, how does the very old portrayal of white female sexuality as pure, virtuous, valuable and in need of protection, used to demonize and dehumanize men and women of color, continue today? And how does white female racism and unconscious race privilege continue in feminist spaces and movements?
    This excellent article “If Sandra Fluke Were Black” comes to mind, which both affirms the need to fight against sexism in its current “War on Women” incarnation, and names how racism and white privilege function to target and represent women very differently:
    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this second question, which is a huge one – and again, goes to the depths of certain national obsessions that go way, way back. I think it continues to play into these power dynamics around sexuality and control and (white male) anxiety of losing it. And perpetuates oppressive notions of the “white beauty standard”. And may still be used to stir an emotional response or slight shock, always helpful if the goal is to sell something.
    Thank you for your questions!

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  8. Hello! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay.
    I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

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