Author: Marilyn Simon

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or …

In Defense of Shame

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Western world, many government health agencies came out with official advisory guidelines on how to engage in healthy sex during the pandemic. They thought it first important to state that having sex is good for one’s health: “Sex can be very important for mental, social, and physical well-being,” reads the government of British Columbia’s official CDC website. “Messages that discourage or shame people from sexual contact can be harmful and may discourage people from seeking essential sexual health services.” The advice from our most serious and well-respected medical professionals was to take precautions to insure healthy sex—“social distance” during sex; “wear a face covering or mask”; avoid “heavy breathing during sex” because it “can create more droplets that may transmit COVID-19. Avoid or limit kissing and saliva exchange. Choose sexual positions that limit face-to-face contact. Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.” The expert intellects of our modern age have transformed shame from a moral problem into a medical …

The Attack on Beauty

There is a pop song by Canadian artist Alessia Cara that my daughters have learned to sing in their school choir. The song is “Scars to Your Beautiful.” It is a catchy, simple song. Many readers probably know it. The message it promotes is, by all accounts, a positive one, which is presumably why it’s being taught to children at school. The chorus goes like this: There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark, You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are, And you don’t have to change a thing, The world could change its heart, No scars to your beautiful, We’re stars and we’re beautiful. In spite of my girls’ sweet singing voices, and the intention of the lyrics, I think it is one of the most disturbing songs my kids have ever learned in school (right up there with Lennon’s insipid and juvenile “Imagine”). It is a narcissistic anthem painfully unaware of its hypocrisy. It reinforces the notion that beauty is rightfully a girl’s desirable goal, and that her …

My Own Private Chateau—Pauline Réage’s ‘Story of O’ Revisited

I’m sitting on a plane and I’m feeling increasingly excited. I’m flushed. My heart rate is up, and I can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit. My agitation isn’t caused by any nervousness about flying, nor by any fears of contracting COVID-19 during the flight. My disquiet has been triggered by the book I’m reading. The sensations it arouses almost overwhelm me. I find I have to pause every few paragraphs, close the slim volume, and rest it on my lap in order to regain some sense of personal composure. Fiction usually transports my imagination away from myself, but this book is accomplishing the opposite: I feel increasingly aware of my body as I read it, as though being immersed in fiction has drawn me into a moment of privacy with myself. It feels somehow unseemly for the public world of the airplane to intrude on my private sensations. I have to put the book down frequently in order to remind myself that it is no act of indecency for the happy family …

Long-Distance Love during Lockdown

I was going to start this essay by writing that, even at the best of times, long-distance relationships are difficult. But that’s not true at all. At the best of times, a long-distance relationship is wonderful, even ideal. After all, my boyfriend and I are both grown-ups. We have our own incomes, our own homes, and our own children. We have our lives figured out, and I am quite content to manage my affairs on my own, and to have my own space to breathe in. Spending time with him is always something to look forward to, and it is always exciting. He travels a fair amount for work, and that is usually when we see each other. What could be better for a hard-working single parent than romantic getaways to exciting cities, luxury hotels, and fine restaurants? Harried mom by day, Bond girl by night. That is how our relationship makes me feel. I’m happy with the distance, most of the time—even longing for someone who is far away has its own romance. Yet …

No, COVID-19 Is Not a ‘Disaster for Feminism’

I wasn’t especially surprised to find an essay in the Atlantic calling the COVID-19 pandemic a “disaster for feminism.” But I am disappointed. It seems that the author, Helen Lewis, undervalues “women’s work” simply because it is unpaid labour. But to undervalue unpaid labour is to reaffirm corporate ideas of what constitutes valuable work. The denigration of home economics has always been a blind spot within feminism, which often champions traditionally male markers of professional and corporate success as success itself, rather than celebrating the un-corporatized nature of traditional female work. To repeat, I am not surprised by this anti-female logic at this late date, but I still find it disappointing. There are, of course, good reasons why feminists fought to emancipate women from the home. Economic independence transformed societies, economies, and the individual lives of many women, and allowed them to pursue intellectual, creative, professional fulfillment they had hitherto been denied. However, the kind of professional and capitalistic contemporary feminism (of which Lewis is apparently an adherent) seems to require the denigration of home …

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 …