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April 15, 2015 11:59 AM   Subscribe

"The lack of female genitals on statues seems thoughtless until you see it repeated."--Syreeta McFadden, noticing that Greek and Roman statues of women don't have genitalia.
posted by Pater Aletheias (91 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
pudenda
the external genital organs of a human being and especially of a woman —usually used in plural
Origin of PUDENDUM
New Latin, singular of Latin pudenda, from neuter plural of pudendus, gerundive of pudēre to be ashamed
posted by benzenedream at 12:22 PM on April 15, 2015 [25 favorites]


"Rare is the graffiti of vaginas even today. " ..

Oddly, the graffiti of bathroom walls has changed. In the 80s were lots of vaginas.. Now it's all dicks (or worse, dickbutts).
posted by k5.user at 12:32 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


My first visual of female genitalia was the "wide open beavers" from Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. Not exactly respectful, but maybe better than erasure?
posted by rikschell at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


That which is not valued is not represented.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:39 PM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


I contend that this (link to personal Flickr account) is a semi-abstracted representation of female genitalia, seen in a Hindu temple complex in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, India. Struck me as odd, because lets face it, phalluses are always in our face all over western culture, but the female equivalent is far more rare.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:41 PM on April 15, 2015


Considering that most of these works of art were originally painted in the genital area as well as the nipples, I'm not sure that her premise is correct.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:45 PM on April 15, 2015 [15 favorites]


The male genitals on these statues are usually tiny too - we've discussed that before.
posted by Segundus at 12:46 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


lets face it, phalluses are always in our face all over western culture

Oo er missus
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:50 PM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


The author, who's not an art historian, might want to take a look at the erotic art at Pompeii.
If this man is anatomically correct, I'm stunned.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Considering that most of these works of art were originally painted in the genital area as well as the nipples, I'm not sure that her premise is correct.

There's a lot of very subtle details on many of these statues that are sculpted rather than painted. Why would the genitalia be the only area left smooth to be rendered in paint when every ringlet of hair is carefully carved in stone?
posted by phooky at 12:58 PM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


You kind of have no choice but to sculpt the penis etc. It's all hanging right out there, and it'd seem a bit odd to leave it blank or just do a blob when you'd put so much work into making the other bits look realistic, whereas you pretty much can't see anything of female bits in your typical classical pose. Why make work for yourself if a simple little groove will do?
posted by Flashman at 12:58 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


shout out for my girl Sheela na gig
if you've got it, flaunt it honey
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:01 PM on April 15, 2015 [33 favorites]


Ideefixe - that's Priapus, I believe, so the knob is kinda obligatory. Otherwise even Hercules had a tiddler.
posted by sobarel at 1:02 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Genitalia were not emphasized on Classical statuary, unless they depicted a hypersexualized mythical creature--a satyr or a Priapus. Otherwise genitals were soft-pedaled, if you will. Not even Hercules got equipment to match the rest of his physique, so that to get any attention in the baths he would have to show up and say (per Ringo Starr in 200 Motels) "Oi've got three sweatsocks and a bar of beauty soap down my pants.". But male genitalia are naturally a good bit more evident than female. When male sexual anatomy is de-emphasized in art you can at least tell that it's there, while female sexual anatomy de-emphasized to the same (but no greater) degree is scarcely there at all.
posted by jfuller at 1:05 PM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


The Veiled Women of Ancient Greece. In everyday life, the ancient Greeks had strong taboos against exposing women's bodies.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:23 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ideefixe beat me to both Priapus and Hercules. Serves me right for being long-winded.
posted by jfuller at 1:25 PM on April 15, 2015


What about hearts? I thought the heart was a stylized vulva symbol? And you see that everywhere.

But on the other hand, it's a symbol, not an obvious depiction.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:28 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


To their credit, I suppose, the Romans of Pompeii had a penchant for setting dick art on fire.
posted by plinth at 1:45 PM on April 15, 2015


Baubo
posted by goethean at 1:50 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Kind of hard to actually see female genitalia (compared to their male counterpart). I would hazard a guess that not many sculptors had actually seen them up close.

It also seems like a no-brainer that ancient Greece and Rome were patriarchal societies, and that patriarchal attitudes would have placed less emphasis on capturing the essence of the female form. It's amazing that the Guardian pays for writing like this. It's like a student newspaper opinion column.

Speaking of "Patriarchy has tried to erase imagery of the feminine since time immemorial", is there any reason why the writer has to use a deliberately "soft" term for female anatomy?

her hoohah is smooth. In fact, all the hoohahs are smooth:

She also uses the term "vagina" five times.

And why do the Guardian profile picks always make the writers look so bloody cross all the time?
posted by Nevin at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


To their credit, I suppose, the Romans of Pompeii had a penchant for setting dick art on fire.

Eventually bringing us the works of Kevin Smith.
posted by phearlez at 2:04 PM on April 15, 2015


Male sexual anatomy in a Classical Greece and Rome was small because the Greeks thought that having a small phallus was more attractive than a big one. Satyrs and other creatures differed in that area because they were supposed to represent hyper masculinity, and their ginormous penises were more symbolic, not coveted. Vaginas weren't represented because generally speaking the Greeks didn't value female genitalia at ALL -- the ideal relationship was between two men, and women were ornamental objects, not actual people whose various parts had real worth.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:05 PM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


oddly ignorant, would it hurt to spend 5 minutes at wikipedia. greece is conflated with athens and greece and rome identified as classical despite being pretty widely divergent cultures.

women were veiled in Athens (think: saudi arabia) but in Sparta they wore short-shorts and teens competed in naked athletic competitions.

in conclusion: ancient greece is a land of contrasts.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:26 PM on April 15, 2015 [24 favorites]


Ideefixe: The author, who's not an art historian, might want to take a look at the erotic art at Pompeii.
If this man is anatomically correct, I'm stunned


The search results I see from your erotic art in Pompeii link seems to demonstrate what the author was talking about; male genitalia are on display, female genitalia are not.

I see one statue with visible female genitalia; this is clear because it shows penetration. Plenty of other statues show (or are) male genitalia. The paintings are similar; I see one painting where I can pick out female genitalia, again because it shows penetration. And again, several of the other paintings clearly show male genitalia.

You are correct that the male genitalia are not all anatomically correct, but I don't see what that has to do with anything. It is not counter to anything claimed in the linked article.
posted by mountmccabe at 2:33 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


This may be speculative on my part, but look at the classic "bathtub Madonna" found in the front yards of Catholics across America, and imagine how evocative the sculpture would be if it were a nice deep pink overall.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:47 PM on April 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


We have a statue of a horse in a local park who is most definitely female, with genitalia in anatomically correct detail. It is some kitschy thing about the Revolutionary war soldier leaving his family and going off to war, as this was a big Washington's Headquarters area. But it is also known as the Horse's Ass for its clear depiction of such.

Interesting, I never thought about the lack of genitalia on classical female nudes, but once made aware it is glaring, especially given all the male statues with their junk proudly displayed.
posted by mermayd at 2:49 PM on April 15, 2015


I noticed this phenomena when I was in Rome last year. Remarkably, I did see one vulva on a statue when touring a museum in Florence a week or two later, the most interesting thing about this was a) Although I had seen something like 200 dicks during the trip, this was the only marble vulva I would see the entire month I was in Italy, and b) it was approximately 6 inches from where a real woman's genitalia would actually be. It was like someone trying to carve a statue of a nude woman who had never actually seen a nude woman.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 3:14 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The point is, overall, poses of feminine bodies in Greco-Roman statues, even goddesses of fecundity and sexual desire, *hide female genitalia*. What would Hera/Juno
Ir Aphrodite/Venus have to be ashamed of? Poses of masculine bodies do not hide penii.

You can't paint in what there's no space to paint.
posted by Dreidl at 3:18 PM on April 15, 2015


Also, how exactly do figleaves stay on and why do they look like early-season grape or maple leaves?
posted by Dreidl at 3:19 PM on April 15, 2015


> you pretty much can't see anything of female bits in your typical classical pose

> Kind of hard to actually see female genitalia (compared to their male counterpart)

That's not true. I don't particularly feel like doing the relevant Google Images search, but look at the photo that goes with the post. Those statues are clearly missing something; women aren't smooth all the way down, like Barbie dolls. Of course there's great variety in how people are shaped, but for many (most? I don't really pay attention in the locker room) women if you look at them straight on, you're going to see something other than a featureless expanse.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:24 PM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


A writer in New Scientist (probably Daedalus, but don't hold me to that) once pointed out that there is a missing detail in the Pioneer plaque. The Wikipedia article discusses it a little, and has Carl Sagan referring to ancient statuary.
posted by StephenB at 3:26 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Backing up St. Peepsburg with a pageful of sheilas.

Now when I first read about them they were theorized to be a threshold figure and a guardian, but I can find precious little to back that up online. There's a tangent to be taken here about women in folklore showing their naked bits to have rather the effect of Rowling's Patronus, quite a powerful banishing gesture. From Wikipedia, There is also some folkloric evidence of anasyrma being used by women lifting up their dresses to curse evil spirits. Andersen reproduces a plate from La Fontaine's Nouveaux Contes (1674) showing a demon being repulsed by the sight of a woman lifting her skirt to display her genitals.

I remember a general sense in popular culture say 40 years back that lifting your skirt and showing either bottom or fanny was seen as the last word in any argument, definitely a winning (female) move and an unanswerable riposte. Dandy Nichols, who perfected an eloquent kind of silent reaction shot, was once goaded beyond endurance by Warren Mitchell in TV series Till Death do us Part and did it to him. I mean, fictionally.

Some years ago there was a demonstration of naked rural Kenyan women protesting land rights, and I remember the local police were scared of the nakedness because it implied a curse on them. Again, I can't find the reference I want online, though there are references to nakedness as protest (see Fremen also.) So, historically and currently I think there's been more agency around female nakedness than our sources are perhaps letting us see. And yeah, I have read Sparta was a much much better place to be female than Athens.

another tangent: I think it's getting harder and harder to find things online that don't fit in with the mainstream, constantly renewing narrative we all have a hand in reinforcing through all our echoing platforms. It's like the medium itself now generates and curates it's content so that we're all talking about the same thing, on the same terms.
posted by glasseyes at 3:34 PM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


I mean just now I did a Google search on "insult by showing bottom" which is such an ordinary banal common thing that Google knows nothing about. And earlier I was looking for some info on the colloquial phrase "cannot be having with" - no luck there either.
posted by glasseyes at 3:41 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I contend that this (link to personal Flickr account) is a semi-abstracted representation of female genitalia, seen in a Hindu temple complex in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, India. Struck me as odd, because lets face it, phalluses are always in our face all over western culture, but the female equivalent is far more rare.

I grew up in the region, that's not really meant to represent female genitalia, and is actually the caste symbol of a particular sect of Brahmins. Men from this caste wear the symbol on their foreheads. The explanation for the symbol is gone over in much detail in this Wikipedia article.
posted by peacheater at 3:48 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a fairly quick read on the attention paid to genitalia in Greek and Roman art but very accurate according to the research presented in most of the Classical Greek courses I took in college while studying art history. I have to dig through my stuff a bit but I have Jstor articles somewhere about why women were treated as they were in sculpture and friezes.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:58 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Man I forgot how much of an opinion I have on this particular topic

Why can't I trot this stuff out at parties without sounding like a creep

Sigh

All I want to do is talk to you about how funny Priapus's dick is
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:00 PM on April 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


As to the curse of women showing their bare bottoms in an argument, my mother told me that when she was a little girl in the 1920s, the local Ukrainian women would lift their skirts in disdain and show their bare sans-underwear butts to other women they were fighting with. It was considered the ultimate put-down.
posted by mermayd at 4:03 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


The author, who's not an art historian

Nonetheless, I am astonished that someone can go into a museum and become more ignorant.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:16 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Priapus' funny dick hmm - now in that dreadful film Caligula, unless I'm misremembering, when they bring the Roman wedding cake out, there's penis cake and vulva cake.
posted by glasseyes at 4:29 PM on April 15, 2015


Also since women's underpants are a fairly recent invention, that bottom-baring gesture would have been easier to do.
posted by glasseyes at 4:39 PM on April 15, 2015


At the risk of NSFW posting, I was somewhat thrilled to find this lovely statue of a nude woman doing sort of a vertical standing split. What it says on the tin, folks, don't click the link if you don't want to see sculpted, idealized external female genitalia.
posted by which_chick at 5:39 PM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's funny, but the majority of the Sheela Na Gigs on the page glasseyes links don't look like a woman holding her own vulva open so much as they look like a baby or homunculus holding a vulva open.

Which reminds me of a bit of folklore I've seen in a number of places over the years, including the letters column of a Penthouse someone had in his dorm room back in college, to the effect that if a man watched his wife give birth, he would be rendered permanently impotent.

Lots of Greek statuary came out of temples, and I wonder whether the vulva was just too profanely powerful to be openly alluded to there.
posted by jamjam at 5:57 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]



Which reminds me of a bit of folklore I've seen in a number of places over the years, including the letters column of a Penthouse someone had in his dorm room back in college, to the effect that if a man watched his wife give birth, he would be rendered permanently impotent.


All the men in my family were at the births of their first child, and all of them went on to have more kids. That has the flavor of misogyny more than reality.

I can remember seeing one or two marble statues in some museum in Europe that had at least a vulvar cleft, though nothing like anatomically detailed genitals. All of the others were perfectly smooth. The male statues had very small but perfectly detailed peens; if even a fraction of that attention had gone into the the females there would have been a lot more to see.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:33 PM on April 15, 2015


Related: Megumi Igarashi is a Japanese artist who is on trial for creating vagina themed art.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 6:37 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


That has the flavor of misogyny more than reality.

Did you honestly think I could possibly be nominating that obviously absurd belief as a real thing, Dip Flash?
posted by jamjam at 6:42 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


> if even a fraction of that attention had gone into the the females there would have been a lot more to see.

What's a male sculptor going to pay attention to? For weeners he has a built-in model he can examine for nothing. For the other he has to hire somebody.
posted by jfuller at 6:43 PM on April 15, 2015


Did you honestly think I could possibly be nominating that obviously absurd belief as a real thing, Dip Flash?

Tone (and humor) are easy to miss in text, and I read that as more serious than you clearly intended it to be.

What's a male sculptor going to pay attention to? For weeners he has a built-in model he can examine for nothing. For the other he has to hire somebody.

The statues all seemed to be based off of models, with detailed breasts and hips and faces, so if accurate genitals were a priority I think they could have managed.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


It isn't usually shown in photos, but the Venus of Willendorf has a defined vulva.

She also has a room to herself at the Naturhistorisches museum in Vienna.
posted by brujita at 7:14 PM on April 15, 2015


For weeners he has a built-in model he can examine for nothing. For the other he has to hire somebody.

Right, that explains why female statues don't have boobs or hips either.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:54 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


People are often scandalized by an artwork's symbolism. But this is the first time I have ever heard someone complain that an artwork was insufficiently vulgar.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:57 PM on April 15, 2015


It's not about wanting more vulgarity, it's why should a vulva be more vulgar than a penis?

We demand equal vulgarity!
posted by LizBoBiz at 8:50 PM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


Ugh. Did this woman never take an art history class? I gotta admit, her recommendation makes me look askance at the books she endorses — I mean, to start with, the claims about writing coinciding with diminished female sexuality is extremely dubious given how little we know about most Greek religions. They were mystery cults, and there were state cults for both Pudicitia and Venus. And Hermoine Granger is right on about the animalistic and barbarian cocks thing — minimizing genitalia is the deliberate style of Hellenist Greek art. (Not that it always worked.)

It's also worth noting that the dicks on the majority of Greco-Roman statues aren't original. They tend to the same difficulties that fingers do and most are later reconstructions.

This is like the third Mefi story from the last couple days where someone takes something broadly true (e.g. that misogyny was a significant factor in Hellenistic Greek art's portrayal of female genitals) and trumpets it with an argument that makes them look embarrassingly out of their depth.
posted by klangklangston at 12:27 AM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Further reading:

Re: Ancient mooning.
Re: Greek vulva chibi.
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Barley water, huh. In spite of Wikipedia, might that be strong liquor (goes better with the dirty songs?) Didn't the women who went up the mountain to celebrate Bacchus claim the drink they were carrying was milk? The page full of Baubos is as instructive as the sheila ne gigs, and certainly is corrective of the Guardian article though I suppose there's a case to be made about different rules for elite and for popular art.

Ooh, super link about mooning, klanklangston. That's what I was trying to get at without knowing the correct technical term (even tho I quoted it).
Anasyrma: The act of lifting up one’s skirt to display the genitals can be an apotropaic device; it can, in circumstances of war, evoke the fear of the enemy. It can also be an act which evokes surprise and subsequent laughter and a letting go of sadness. What is significant about anasyrma is that it reflects the numinous quality of the female genitals and the genital region through which birth ensues. In several cultures, there is a myth of anasyrma used for emotional healing.[2]
And I think it's time the Empress paid a visit to the thread.

From an Edwardian point of view I'm not seeing any vulgar symbolism in that photo of E. Nesbit.
posted by glasseyes at 2:41 AM on April 16, 2015


> From an Edwardian point of view I'm not seeing any vulgar symbolism in that photo of E. Nesbit.

I'm guessing the shape of the opening and position of that small teapot or creamer she's holding is considered vaginal. It seems pretty subtle to me, though.
posted by gilrain at 5:23 AM on April 16, 2015


I mean, aside from the alluring dress, pose, and expression... but that's not symbolism.
posted by gilrain at 5:25 AM on April 16, 2015


Yeah, it's all overtext these days but pretty sub then. I think we've lost a rich seam of nuance.
posted by glasseyes at 5:50 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's nothing vulgar about nudity.
posted by agregoli at 6:01 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


minimizing genitalia is the deliberate style of Hellenist Greek art.

Not necessarily.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:57 AM on April 16, 2015


If this man is anatomically correct, I'm stunned.

I was young, I needed the denarii.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:28 AM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


That which is not valued is not represented.

The problem with this sort of claim is that it just can't be held up as some sort of inherent, cross-culturally universal fact. The refusal to represent is often, in fact, evidence of the highest respect (think of Islam's prohibitions on the representation of Muhammad and God, for example, or the frequent waves on iconoclasm in Christian and Jewish history).

If we think of our contemporary cultural practice, who would look at a photo that had a bunch of clothed men and a naked women with their genitalia exposed and say "oh yes, this is clearly a powerful feminist statement"?

To understand exactly what the cultural implications of Greek and Roman artistic conventions were requires some really subtle and complex exploration of their particular understandings of the meaning of representation, of the nature of sexuality, of gender roles, of mortal relationship to divinities etc. etc. etc. This piece is not that.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


To understand exactly what the cultural implications of Greek and Roman artistic conventions were requires some really subtle and complex exploration of their particular understandings of the meaning of representation, of the nature of sexuality, of gender roles, of mortal relationship to divinities etc. etc. etc. This piece is not that.

My assertion came out of having done the exact research you describe. Have you done your own research on the topic that contradicts the evidence and talking points provided up thread? If so please share. It would definitely add to the conversation.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:30 AM on April 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


My assertion came out of having done the exact research you describe.

You're saying it's universally the case in ancient Greek and Roman artistic practice that the more something is 'valued' the more it is represented and vice versa? If so, I'm afraid you didn't research the topic very carefully.

I assume we're to understand from your findings that the Eleusinian mysteries were very unimportant to the Greeks, because they're so seldom and so fragmentarily represented in Greek art, right?
posted by yoink at 9:48 AM on April 16, 2015


Hey, if you're a Greek/Roman historian and want to add your research to this discussion, please do so! Of course there are nuances to the ways in which gender and sexuality were represented in ancient art, and given how lackluster the original article in this thread is, I think we'd all love to hear your take on the topic at hand, particularly if this is your Thing. It's my Thing too, but I am not here to get in a pissing contest with you about who knows more about it all. What in your opinion is the reason for the disparity between male/female genitalia appearing on sculptures, and why do you feel that way?
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:00 AM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


This article isn't fantastic, but the assertion that female genitals were omitted because they're so terribly difficult to see is bizarre.

Well, it's not bizarre so much as sexist. But I digress.

The part of the female genitals which are readily visible if a woman were to stand in that classic pose, THAT is omitted. I'm not suggesting a full-on clinical rendering of all of the bits of the vulva in a level of detail disproportionate to that spent on men's gentials or any other part of the sculpture. But, the basic shape of the mons and outer labia is notable in its absence.
posted by desuetude at 10:26 AM on April 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


(I am not arguing that the missing vulvas are a simple case of misogyny either. I'm just pointing out that they're missing in a way that is surely intentional.)
posted by desuetude at 10:29 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]



Even a society with a heavily weighted patriarchy may still realize which side of its bread is buttered, so to speak. Take a run at "Erotic art in Ancient Japan" for lessons in gynecologic excess. Historically, men's appendages were well-represented too.

Granted that these displays were relegated to paintings, and their statues were generally clothed.
posted by mule98J at 11:36 AM on April 16, 2015


Even a society with a heavily weighted patriarchy may still realize which side of its bread is buttered, so to speak. Take a run at "Erotic art in Ancient Japan" for lessons in gynecologic excess.

Japan is a matriarchy.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:07 PM on April 16, 2015


"Not necessarily."

Yeah, actually. The piece you link isn't from Hellenist Greece.

"Japan is a matriarchy."

o_0
posted by klangklangston at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Patriarchy has tried to erase imagery of the feminine since time immemorial. Destroy the image and you can control the narrative. Easter was appropriated from the pagans celebrating the return of Astarte.

Godsdammit NO. Eostre and Astarte are two entirely different mythological roots.
posted by FatherDagon at 2:08 PM on April 16, 2015


The piece you link isn't from Hellenist Greece.

Sure it slightly predates the era. I linked to that specific herm because it is on display at the Met, where the author might have seen it .

Here is another herm definitively dated to the Hellenistic Era.

o_0

Yes, Japan was a predominantly matriarchal society until modern times. Many people (including me) would assert that it still is matriarchal. I sought out a Japanese sociologist to cite:

The lives and attitudes of Japanese women have undergone tremendous changes in the past 15 years or so [as of 1998]. The younger generations, in particular, enjoy unprecedented freedom and diversified options, and the relationship between the sexes is described by some as "dansei joi, yosei yui (men superior, women dominant)." But this is nothing new.

Amaterasu, the Japanese deity of the sun in indigenous mythology, is female (in contrast, for example, to the male Apollo of Greek mythology), and women were considered from ancient times to have a special supernatural power, with which men were not endowed, to communicate with the divine. Moreover, until the beginning of the Muromachi age (1336) Japan was a matriarchal society. Among the farming, fishing, and merchant folk who made up 80 percent of the population throughout premodern times, commoner women enjoyed freedom (including freedom in such areas as love and marriate), equality, and power as they worked under much the same conditions as men. The lives of women of the elite (primarily samurai) classes were defined throughout many centuries by the Confucian ethic (in which women's lives were bound by the "three obediences": obedience to fathers when young, to husbands when married, and to their children in old ate) and were subject to many other constraints. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), marking the beginning of Japan's modernization, however, the samurai class culture of premodern times penetrated throughout the entire society as rigid class distinctions were officially abolished. As a consequence, women as a whole lost the power and equality they had enjoyed.


That chapter goes on to describe a modern return to matriarchal power:

What ultimately provided Japanese women with increased options, ironically, was their position outside the mainstream of society. They have not occupied positions of significance in policy-making and business and their existence and voices have been pretty much ignored by men in formal arenas, but there has been some advantage in this state of "inequality." It has exempted women from having to fit into the frameworks set down by the public or private organizations (corporations) of society and has allowed them the margin of freedom to explore their individuality in ways not permitted to men..

..Today it is, in a sense, the husbands who are being controlled and the ones to be pitied. The typical Japanese man depends heavily on his wife to look after his daily needs and nurture his psychological well-being. The Confucian ethic of the three obediences formerly binding women could be rewritten today as the three obediences for men: obedience to mothers when young, companies when adult, and wives when retired.

posted by charlie don't surf at 4:04 PM on April 16, 2015


I can't speak to pre-Confucian Japan, but that modern Japan is in any sense a matriarchy is straight-up sexist bullshit.

"You see, ha ha, our wives rules over us with iron fists! Hee hee, we would probably just die if they weren't around to do all the shitty chores! Pay no attention to the fact that they have disproportionately little power in business or government!"
posted by gilrain at 4:30 PM on April 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


Have you ever lived in Japan? Even casual observation would reveal matriarchy. Hard data supports it. Japanese households are run by women. Household savings are controlled by women. Japanese household savings are more than 50% liquid assets, mostly savings accounts at the Post Office. Aggregate household savings far exceed the national debt. Women could buy Japan if they decided to. They could pay with cash.

Anyway, this digression started with "ancient" Japan and shunga, which pre-dates the modern era and patriarchy.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:56 PM on April 16, 2015


glasseyes: Also since women's underpants are a fairly recent invention, that bottom-baring gesture would have been easier to do.
That's an unproven assertion of "historians", from the era when such also claimed the heraldic epaulets on memorial brasses were "protective shoulder armor" (they would actually catch, rather than deflect, blows - if they had actually been made of something stronger than paper mache).

I have a good number of depictions of medieval women wearing underpants; some depict women upsetting the "natural order", and therefore may be a bit of visual "look who wears the pants in this family"joke, but others have no such implications.

In short, there's no proof of that assertion, and some proof it is wrong.

Why, yes, I have spent many years researching medieval underwear; why do you ask?
posted by IAmBroom at 7:48 PM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Why, yes, I have spent many years researching medieval underwear; why do you ask?

If you do not turn this into an FPP, I will be sorely disappointed.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:06 PM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Sure it slightly predates the era. I linked to that specific herm because it is on display at the Met, where the author might have seen it .

Here is another herm definitively dated to the Hellenistic Era.
"

… right, with relatively minimized genitals. Your links are not supporting your argument.

"Yes, Japan was a predominantly matriarchal society until modern times. Many people (including me) would assert that it still is matriarchal. I sought out a Japanese sociologist to cite:"

That cite contains no actual supporting evidence of its own, and is a bare appeal to authority. The matriarchy of ancient Japan is generally held to be "legendary," and in the very same passage she defines elite women as being bound by their obedience to men. And arguing that Japan continues to be a matriarchy is derangement or delusion.

Even casual observation would reveal matriarchy. Hard data supports it."

That's flat bullshit. Seriously. Seriously. Seriously.
posted by klangklangston at 8:20 PM on April 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


That's flat bullshit. Seriously. Seriously. Seriously.

That obviously bogus assertion gets refuted (with links and facts) every time he makes it, but he just brings it up again later.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:27 PM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


What's Mr. Boppo in Japanese?
posted by klangklangston at 8:44 PM on April 16, 2015


>Here is another herm definitively dated to the Hellenistic Era."

… right, with relatively minimized genitals.


It was vandalized and the penis was removed. I don't know how you can consider the genitals minimized when it is the only feature of the body that is represented other than the head. That seems rather maximized to me.

The matriarchy of ancient Japan is generally held to be "legendary," and in the very same passage she defines elite women as being bound by their obedience to men.

It's like you didn't even read the excerpt. The elite classes attempted to impose patriarchy during the Meiji era, modern times. She then goes on to assert modern men are now bound by their obedience to women.

If you want sourced data, I would suggest reading Japanese Cabinet Office white papers. Their Lifestyle Survey reports consistently indicate the strongest index of life satisfaction and happiness is gender: female. You might also be interested in the Gender Equality Bureau of the JCO, they track gender inequality of both women and men. Japanese women dominate the consumer economy. Social change is driven by consumer behavior, not political power. Employment and income of women is closely correlated with overall economic improvement. Probably the single most significant crisis facing Japan is the falling birth rate, which is correlated to improved lifestyle choices for women other than housewife, and exacerbated by the lack of child care options for working women.

Look, we can bat around facts back and forth but the facts aren't on your side. I could keep going, I read white papers in Japanese for entertainment. And you didn't answer my question. Have you lived in Japan and experienced Japanese society firsthand? Sure there is plenty of horrifying gender discrimination against women, which is largely conservative and reactionary against women's overwhelming social power.

And ultimately none of your derail is relevant to the point I originally responded to, shunga in the matriarchal pre-modern Japanese society.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:35 PM on April 16, 2015


Oops, I dropped links, I will post separately in deference to cortex's admonition not to abuse the edit window:

White paper on women driving economic growth.

Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office White Papers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:38 PM on April 16, 2015


I live in Japan currently. There are women-only cars on the trains in case they want to ride without getting groped. That doesn't sound like power to me.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 12:13 AM on April 17, 2015



I have a good number of depictions of medieval women wearing underpants


For God's sake man, have you no links?

/end Dr. McCoy voice
posted by glasseyes at 4:43 AM on April 17, 2015


No no, buriednexttoyou, you see, all of the gendered abuse, discrimination, disenfranchisement, wage gap, and whatnot is simply conservative pushback against women's awesome power over men. Hell, I'm beginning to suspect the US may be a matriarchy, too!
posted by gilrain at 5:17 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


Yep, I'm right: here's a link which says women control the majority of US household finances. Ipso matriarcho.
posted by gilrain at 5:20 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, "control the household finances" is code for "does the household accounting", which is just another chore often foisted on women. You can't draw actual power conclusions from that any more than you'd say the CEO of a company has less power than its comptroller.
posted by gilrain at 5:27 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


charlie don't surf: Have you ever lived in Japan? Even casual observation would reveal matriarchy. Hard data supports it. Japanese households are run by women. Household savings are controlled by women. Japanese household savings are more than 50% liquid assets, mostly savings accounts at the Post Office. Aggregate household savings far exceed the national debt. Women could buy Japan if they decided to. They could pay with cash.
If so (I have never been there), it's a WEIRD matriarchy where the women hold almost no power in business and government (as gilrain noted). The misogyny and blatant cheating of Japanese men (who run the actual country and economy, household pursestrings notwithstanding) is fairly well documented.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:14 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I live in Japan currently. There are women-only cars on the trains in case they want to ride without getting groped. That doesn't sound like power to me.

Were you there when women exerted pressure on JR to create the women-only cars? As I said (citing the Cabinet Office) social change is driven by consumer behavior, which is driven by women.

As a side note, I was once groped by a woman on the Narita Express. None of this stuff is as clear cut as you guys would like it to be.

If so (I have never been there), it's a WEIRD matriarchy where the women hold almost no power in business and government (as gilrain noted). The misogyny and blatant cheating of Japanese men (who run the actual country and economy, household pursestrings notwithstanding) is fairly well documented.

Yes, it is a very weird matriarchy indeed. There are some exceptional work structures, for example, men are expected to transfer to other cities for years at a time and work at other branches within their company, while the wife runs the household by herself, and has freedom for self-directed action that men do not. Women have traditionally avoided working directly within the political system, but informal coalitions of women (from the kyouiku mamas at the local playground to buddhist lay groups) and organized activist organizations have the ability to exert considerable force for social change, and this can swing elections.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:44 AM on April 17, 2015


Look, women were able to mitigate sexual abuse using segregation, rather than effecting change of the sexist culture and behavior around them. I can only wish for such power against discrimination!

Men get groped too, so the vastly disproportionate abuse of women is a lot muddier than it appears!

Women aren't excluded from business and politics, they just traditionally avoid those spheres for some reason!

I'm not sure why these bald-faced sexist talking points are allowed on Metafilter.
posted by gilrain at 10:26 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


they look like a baby or homunculus holding a vulva open.

Good times.
posted by homunculus at 10:49 AM on April 17, 2015


[The "Japan is a matriarchy" thing is kind of a weird derail to insist on in here and should stop already.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:16 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


"It was vandalized and the penis was removed. I don't know how you can consider the genitals minimized when it is the only feature of the body that is represented other than the head. That seems rather maximized to me."

??? Because it's disproportionately small compared to that head, even as it remained a talisman. Which is in line with the general, well-documented aesthetic of minimized genitals representing virtue while exaggerated genitals represent animalistic lust (e.g. priapic or satyric statuary). This is one of the main things that differentiates Hellenist Greece from near-contemporary Roman statuary, where Hellenist Greece emphasized idealized forms and Rome emphasized a closer adherence to representation in statuary. Seriously, man, you've had the pre-Renaissance survey classes. This is covered in pretty much all of them, to the extent that I could probably place ancient statues in culture with only pictures of their dicks.

Which, to bring back to the original article, reminds me that the first time you start to see vulvas in statuary is in Rococo art, which rather diminishes the claim that vulva depiction is an accurate proxy for contemporary views on women's sexuality.

"As a side note, I was once groped by a woman on the Narita Express. None of this stuff is as clear cut as you guys would like it to be."

#thematriarchyhurtseveryone
posted by klangklangston at 1:43 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


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