Yesterday I complained about those who, in our heated political battles, have become obsessed with women’s sexuality and who employ slanderous sexual epithets to denigrate women they disagree with. I was reminded later in the day, when I was teaching King Lear, that the practice is not new. Lear hurls the same language at his two elder daughters.
Going mad on the heath, he runs into the blinded Gloucester and begins complaining about Goneril and Regan. Now, Lear’s daughters are not exemplary characters, but their crime with regard to Lear has been humiliating him, not acting lasciviously. Nevertheless, Lear’s uses sexual epithets against them. While affecting virtue and shaking their heads at the mention of pleasure, he says, they have “a more riotous appetite” than a fitchew (polecat) or a stallion. They may be “women all above,” he notes, but below their waists they are centaurs, and in their private female parts “there’s hell [slang for female genitals], there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
to sweeten my imagination.
As I think about it, such sexual insults must grow out of men’s fear of being vulnerable. Lear’s entire tragedy arguably grows out of a fear that he is unloved (why else set up the love contest?), and if women can trigger men’s deep anxieties by rejecting them, then it may make sense that insecure men would respond by lashing out at what they regard as women’s vulnerabilities (their sexual privacy).
I’m not sure if this is at all related to attacks against birth control and measures introduced into abortion clinics with the intent to shame. I’m just glad that Rush Limbaugh isn’t using King Lear type language. At least not yet.