Tuesday, November 12, 2013

That Scarlet "A" Thing Has Never Really Gone Away

Have you read "The Scarlet Letter"?  I'm assuming you've at least heard of it, so I'm not going to recount the whole story here.  The main character's name is Hester Prynne, and she gets caught committing adultery with some dude.  As a punishment, she is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her  breast.  She is scorned and derided and ostracized by her community.  Meanwhile, the dude basically gets off scott-free, as I recall.

I read this book in one of my high school English classes.  The teacher was a 60's-era feminist, so she really hammered home the idea of how the book was an illustration of sexual inequality.  I didn't really think of myself as a feminist at the time, although I probably was, more or less.  When I was in high school, you basically didn't count as a feminist if you were a church-going Catholic, who wanted to eventually get married and stay home with her kids.  The things is, I also believed women should go to college and have a profession before getting married and having kids.  I thought women should be paid equally for equal work, and not be barred from professions based on gender.  And I really felt for Hester Prynne and the way she was screwed by the culture of her time.  I was quite thankful that I didn't live in such a chauvanistic, discriminatory, unjust society.  Not that I thought adultery was at all a good idea.  Not that I was planning on ever committing adultery.  But, I hated to think of women being treated in such a way.  I hated the double standard.  I hated the lack of mercy.  "I'm so glad I live in such an enlightened era," I thought to myself.

Boy was I wrong.

We still have our version of the scarlet "A".  We still have the double standard.  We are still a people who accuse, who judge, who scorn, who publicly deride and shame women, especially for what we consider to be sexual missteps.

I am -- as you may have guessed -- thinking of Miley Cyrus.  Do I think she should have done that whole twerking thing?  No.  But, she's certainly paid for it.  We've certainly branded her with today's version of the scarlet "A".  What is today's version.  It's the scornful Tweets, the mean internet comments, the blog posts of self-righteous mothers, the constant replaying of the whole incident via television and You Tube, the joking (yet not kind) remarks of popular radio hosts.

And do we hear anything about the man in the striped suit?  Do we hear any criticism of the individuals who participated in planning Ms. Cyrus's act and who gave it final approval before it was aired?  Miley was not alone in this.  She had plenty of company.  And her company was most likely media people who were older and more experienced than she.  Are any of them paying a price?  Maybe they are.  But, they are not being continuously and publicly ridiculed.

Miley is also quite young.  She's not even 21 years old yet.  There are some who feel that age is not an excuse.  There are those who feel that they would never do such a thing, even if they were 20 years old.  And, perhaps, they wouldn't.  It has been my experience, though, that one should "never say 'never'."  I think about being 20 years old.  I think about the stupid things I did.  I think about the stupid things I might have done, if given the opportunity, especially if those I trusted to advise me were cheering me on.  I think that I was very fortunate -- and I think many of you were also probably very fortunate -- not to have been celebrities whose every move was being watched by people ready to pounce and publicize.  Age is, perhaps, not an excuse.  But, it is a reason.  Young people often have poor judgment.  They do dumb things.  We should allow them to learn and recover from these missteps.

Ben McKenzie recently did an interview with Riki Lindhome.  She is an actress who has a large body of work, but I most recently saw her in Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing."  She and Ben have known each other for many years, so the interview she did with him was especially insightful and heartfelt, on the part of both of them.  They just sat in her living room and drank wine and talked about their experiences "coming up through the ranks."  Ben discussed being a young celebrity, who achieved pretty much overnight fame playing one of the main characters on "The O.C." when he was about 24 or 25 years old.  He spoke a little bit about how being a famous Hollywood person at a young age can affect you.  He remarked on how -- as a young celebrity -- he had to take time to reflect and decide if he was living the kind of life he believed in and being the kind of person that he truly wanted to be.  Of course, that kind of reflection is something we all have to engage in from time to time, throughout our whole lives.  But, I think young people are more prone to exercise poor judgment -- especially in an atmosphere such as Hollywood -- than older people.  Older people have experiences and more fully-developed brains, which enable them to better see the consequences of their actions than young adults.  And part of the reason that we older people tend to have better judgment than our younger counterparts is because of our past SCREW-UPS.  You learn from your screw-ups.  Hopefully, at least.  And if you are fortunate enough not to have your very worst screw-ups recorded and played ad-infinitum on the internet, then count your blessings.

My youngest child is just about the same age as Miley.  He would probably not be prone to twerking.  But, if he should falter and misstep, I think about how I would want him to be treated -- with a little compassion.  Yes, I'd sit him down and give him a good talking to.  I would attempt, in my role as his mother, to take steps to ensure that he would use better judgment in the future.  But, I wouldn't want him to be repeatedly and publicly shamed.  I mean -- for Heaven's sake -- there's all this talk about bullying these days.  There is a major crusade against bullying.  And that's a good thing.  When I think about it, though, the way Miley is being treated could be considered bullying.  And we've all heard of some of the extremely tragic results of young people being bullied, haven't we?

And to all the moms who say chiding, mom-like things to Miley -- via various means of social networking and such -- trying to make her ashamed of herself, trying to teach her a lesson, I would like to remind you that you are not Miley's mother.  And part of the reason that motherly correction works is that it is filled with a mother's love for her child.  Motherly correction -- however well-intended -- does not work in the absence of mother-love.

So, let's think a little about Hester Prynne and her scarlet "A".  Is that the kind of people we really want to be?  Because maybe -- shamefully -- we still are.  


  1. Hi Marla, I enjoyed you post about the Scarlet Letter. I do think that maybe it's worse today because of the proliferation of the social network and the instant "news". We all need to be kinder. Love to all, Gail

  2. It was so nice to have Chris visit. I know how much you all love it in Poway, but we do miss you. Have a lovely Thanksgiving with family and friends. I think this past weekend was Thanksgiving for me. In fact, at 82, everyday is Thanksgiving.
    Love, Gail