|Artwork from the seminal underground publication International Times which used Theda Bara's bewitching gaze as it's icon.|
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Ishtar Rising Chapter Three: The Breast Repressed
I well remember the anxieties of being a preteen boy that we all experience; curiously conscious of the changes my body and those of my classmates were going through and anxiously wondering if finding Louise Brooks attractive made me gay.
Like any sweeping model for looking at the world/psychology/sexuality/culture, the matrist/patrist can be overreaching and based on cherry-picked ideas. For me, the 1920's were hardly a decade of sweeping, desexualized repression. Granted, all the ideas that Wilson brings up are true; the Republican administrations drove our country straight into the ground, it was the era of the United States' disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition, and women's fashion, at least for those women who cared to be fashionable, trended towards a "boyish," androgynous elegance. Yet, let's consider our century-ago chronological counterpart from another perspective.
The Twenties were a time of sexual freedom for many women- as the gorgeous nude photos of Louise Brooks show, whether or not large breasts were as present on the silver screen, the female form was still very much appreciated. Brooks and Theda Bara brought an air of mystery and exoticism to the world with their beauty and acting skills. Brooks' dazzling array of emotions communicated without sound in silent film was enough to inspire Adolfo Bioy Casares' eerie masterpiece, The Invention of Morel. Theda Bara somehow transformed herself from an Ohio girl into the daughter of a French dancer and a Sheikh. Her costuming was so revealing that it was used as one of the reasons for the Hayes Code. Across the pond, despite being unable to perform in her racist homeland, Josephine Baker's "wild" dancing style brought her acclaim on the Continent as "the Black Venus." She would go on to be an instrumental part of the French Resistance and be a spiritual grandmother to the American Civil Rights Movement. (Coretta Scott King even offered Baker the metaphorical reigns of the movement after the assassination of MLK; Baker declined because of her age. She had fought the good fight for most of her life by then.) If these women are only appealing to repressed, plasticized homosexuals I guess you can consider me pegged.
In an interview from the late Seventies, Wilson recommends that then-younger readers seek out the fiction of Thorne Smith. Smith, a hard-drinking author whose fantastic romances are formulaic but incredibly affecting, published his best novels at the end of the Twenties. Indeed, the presence of Prohibition and the fact that Smith's characters loved the bottle as much as he did is responsible for most of the comedic set pieces in his work. These bits of cherry-picked fact don't take into account the "bright young things" of Britain chronicled by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies, the artistic exuberance of Weimar Germany or the myriad of other works that chronicle the Roaring Twenties and its proto-counter culture. Nor does this take into account the lives and preferences of the folk who lived away from the big cities where fashion and trend are the rule of the day (if one can afford it): as someone who was reared in a rural area, I find it hard to believe that farmers were ever turning their noses up at plump women with big bosoms.
The 1920s were a time of shifting sexualities and shitty government, how the times do change.
I realize that these blog posts might seem to be quibbling or focused on what I don't agree with in Wilson's book. I guess I am trying to build a counter-narrative to Ishtar Rising, perhaps trying to build a counter-melody would be more accurate. There wouldn't be a whole lot of new information if I spent the posts repeating Wilson's points and saying "I agree with this." I agree or sympathize with the majority of Wilson's ideas, so assume the parts I don't pick at I more or less agree with. If that makes sense.
I figure no one needs me to explicitly point out the relevance to the anecdote about arguing with Nazis from Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism.
I have no interest wading into the still-raging debate about breast feeding. While I somewhat understand Wilson's concerns about "the plastic nipple," the person I know best who wasn't breastfed is still one of the most oral personalities in my life.
It is interesting that Wilson never wrote much about male circumcision (he briefly mentions female circumcision in the chapter), which should properly be deemed male genital mutilation. I guess that Wilson was from an earlier generation than the ones that had their dicks slit as infants in masse. Talk about a traumatic experience that could possible warp someone's early psyche. I am still pretty annoyed I had a barbaric surgical procedure performed without my consent.
I always loved the detail about Cretan women. In Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gloriana (the fictional counterpart to Queen Elizabeth I) is depicted as wearing clothes cut in the Cretan style. According to Moore, this is to symbolize the reign of Elizabeth as being another example of a female led society on an island. While Elizabethan society wasn't matriarchal by any meaning of the word, we can find evidence to fit the idea that it was a more oral time period in English history after the brutal, bloody reigns of the Plantagenets and Lancasters.