Author: Marilyn Simon

University Harassment Policy and Its Problems

Chatting with a student at the end of a long day, our conversation shifts from academic matters to the personal when I mention that I have to get home to my kids. He says I look too young to be a mother. I tell him I’m so tired all the time that I feel ancient. He asks if I have any time off coming up, and what I’d like to do to relax. It dawns on me that he’s flirting. And it occurs to me that I might be flirting back, awkwardly. I certainly didn’t mean to flirt with a student. I was just, you know, being myself. He’s 23 and I—ahem—am not. He’s cute. And clever. It’s not the worst conversation I’ve had with guy. But it’s not the best, either. After a few minutes, I tell him I have to go, and that it’s been a great semester. We were just two people talking, enjoying a moment of unguarded informality in the empty halls of the academy. This kind of conversation has happened …

In Praise of Renoir’s Male Gaze

Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women. ~Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker The Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir faces stern moral criticisms in Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” for paintings deemed to be too adoring of women as soft fleshy creatures. On this basis, Schjeldahl argues, Renoir should be dismissed from canonical art. The evident pleasure Renoir took in painting female bodies represents his moral failure—the sexist and unethical “male gaze.” Renoir’s patriarchal attitudes, Schjeldahl writes, “may be worse than misogyny, which at least credits women with power as antagonists.” The scandal of Renoir’s nudes is that his canvases express his love of women’s bodies: “Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.” The man evidently enjoyed the female form, and thought that sex and art were good things. What a monster. Schjeldahl’s description …

“Unsex Me Here’ and Other Bad Ideas

“Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” This, one of Lady Macbeth’s most famous lines, is cited by Elizabeth Winkler in her recent Atlantic essay, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?,” as a thrilling instance of a woman’s resistance to femininity. Winkler then goes on to compare Lady Macbeth’s anger to women’s #MeToo “fury.” “This woman,” Winkler says of Lady Macbeth, woke her out of her “adolescent stupor” by “rebelling magnificently and malevolently against her submissive status.” Of course, what Lady Macbeth is actually about to do is help her husband murder an innocent man, the king, in cold blood while he sleeps under her own roof. Unless one aligns female empowerment with sociopathic behavior, this isn’t really a triumphant moment for women’s liberation. Nor would any reading of the text other than a willfully perverse one count her as one of Shakespeare’s admirable characters. When she celebrates Lady Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s heroines simply because Lady M has the desire to do something horrific, there is indeed something adolescent about …

A Modest Defence of the Missionary Position

In our culture of sexual permissiveness, of free and open pornography, it might do well to occasionally remind ourselves that the missionary position remains the go-to for the vast majority of us. At a time when sexuality and gender are being hotly debated in the media, across campuses, high schools, and even primary schools (my grade three daughter recently expressed anxiety about feeling pressured to decide whether or not she was bi, or rather “B. I.,” as she called it), we sometimes forget that sex is also about actually having it. And for most of us, having it means that we’re going to be in the very ordinary missionary position, at least for a good portion of the time. It’s true that vanilla is rarely anyone’s favourite flavour, but nobody dislikes it. There is of course much to be said for all the other flavours. But there is something comfortable, something honest and homely about vanilla. Comfort food. As a woman, this is especially meaningful to me. In the post-#MeToo, third wave feminist climate, it …

#NotMe: On Harassment, Empowerment, and Feminine Virtue

In the summer of 1991, I was a very innocent 15 year-old with the remnants of childish plumpness on my face and the suggestion of womanly plumpness on my figure. I had just completed grade 10 at a private Christian school and was starting my first job as a hostess and cashier at a local 24-hour restaurant. Over the next few weeks I was subjected to relentless sexual harassment: comments on my figure, sexist jokes and innuendo, and outright sexual propositions. The kitchen was staffed by coarse young men, all around their mid-twenties, who were clearly gratified by teasing a sweet young girl with their vulgar running commentary. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women’s stories such as this one have become a familiar narrative. With one important difference: after recovering from my initial sense of awkwardness and embarrassment, I found the sexual banter empowering, exciting, and even—gasp!—funny. I started to realize that if the line cooks threw a sexual joke or comment to me, I was invited to throw one back to them. …

Feminism’s Dependency Trap

Reading the news stories about #MeToo and sexual harassment, and the barrage of social media posts that accompanied these headlines, I became saddened but also increasingly frustrated. It wasn’t the reports of men behaving badly that angered me, but the despair that seemed to be the expected response to these stories, and the helplessness that my female friends appeared to attach to femininity itself that I found troubling. The unintended and painful irony of recent feminism’s preoccupation with overcoming male oppression has been to place men at the centre of female identity. This makes the feminine experience something like an echo; women’s voices seem to be little more than a response, or a rebuttal, to men’s voices, which are taken to be primarily an instrument of patriarchal oppression. But, in my own experience, men aren’t interested in maintaining power and control over women—they simply don’t see women as a group that they are oppressing, or that they would like to oppress. We hear a lot about “male privilege” but historically it has been the “privilege” of …