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Suzanne Braun Levine

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Whose Narrative Is It, Anyway? Some Thoughts On Sandra Fluke And Hester Prynne

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 10:00 am

The actress Julianne Moore recently sounded off about celebrity magazines. "They encourage young women and some middle-aged women to be interested in somebody else's narrative rather than their own," she told Moremagazine. "I don't want my daughter or her friends to be interested in Jessica Simpson. I want them to be interested in what's happening in their own lives." The message goes way beyond pop culture.

When I think about my own daughter and all the other "young women" who are the theme of this International Women's Day, I realize that I want to take Moore's message a step further: There are situations when resistance takes more than choosing to ignore a magazine story and more than the actions of any one woman. The contraceptive furor of recent weeks highlights the forces that are trying to impose another narrative -- theirs -- on us.

In the century since Margaret Sanger crusaded for birth control, women got the vote, entered the halls of higher education, broke into male-dominated professions (including the clergy), and made great and celebrated strides in sports. No one is trying to roll back those achievements. So how is it possible that anyone could argue that contraception is a matter of anyone's business other than the woman's own "moral conviction"? How can it be that a public figure can claim that using birth control makes an unmarried woman a "slut"? Why has it been so hard to establish the narrative of a woman's right to control her reproductive health?

This is a uniquely American state of affairs. Other western countries have left reproductive politics behind decades ago. But this is the home of The Scarlet Letter,and to this day women's sexuality makes some people lose all reason.

Most of us -- even those who grew up during the so-called "sexual revolution" -- have encountered one mixed message after another. When I was in college back in the 60s, the campus health service willingly dispensed diaphragms (a reward for being "responsible"), but when the one I got didn't fit properly and I became pregnant, the same health service told me flat out that I was "on my own" in terms of doing anything about it. That was my punishment.

Hester Prynne's community went all out to shame her; they couldn't -- she maintained her dignity. Today we are still trying to establish our dignity against forces which seek to punish expressions of our sexuality and undermine our self-confidence. Women of all ages are barraged with images that put our bodies to shame and sexual entertainment that bears no resemblance to our erotic lives. The older women I write about are doubly apologetic about their bodies, and many are ambivalent about the great erotic potential that is in no way diminished by menopause.

In my lifetime, the effort to claim and maintain our dignity in the face of irrational and punitive attitudes has been a climb up a slippery slope of public humiliation. But we have made enormous progress, and with the help of our daughters and such brave young women as Sandra Fluke -- the law student who refused to be shamed by Rush Limbaugh and even rejected his smarmy "apology" -- and the outrage registered by millions of women to the all-male debate about whether to "let" women have birth control covered by their health insurance (as Viagra is), this may be the moment that we take control of that narrative once and for all.

Check out the slideshow for a look at events worldwide honoring International Women's Day.

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  • Minsk, Belarus

    A Belarus policeman gives a flower to women driver in Minsk on March 7, 2012 a day before the International Women's Day, one of the popular holidays in Belarus, Russia and in other post Soviet countries. International Women's Day is a global day, observed annually on March 8, highlighting the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

  • Ankara, Turkey

    Turkish women shout slogans during a protest on the International Women's Day in Ankara on, March 8, 2012.

  • Istanbul, Turkey

    Ukrainian activists with fake injuries hold placards as they protest against domestic violence in front of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul on March 8, 2012 during the International Women's Day. The protest ended after police arrested the three activists.

  • Hyderabad, India

    Indian car designer Sudhakar Yadav sits inside a vehicle made in the shape of a ladies hand bag (R) next to other vehicles made in the shapes of a stilletto shoe (C) and a tube of lipstick (L) in Hyderabad on March, 7, 2012 on the eve of International Women's Day.

  • Hyderabad, India

    Members of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) participate in a rally in Hyderabad on March 7, 2012 on the eve of International Women's Day.

  • Kabul, Afghanistan

    Members of the Afghan Women's Olympic basketball team (R) stand by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US embassy representatives at a basketball game to mark International Women's Day at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on March 7, 2012. In Kabul and major cities in Afghanistan, enormous progress has been made in women's rights since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime that banned girls from going to school and women from working. But in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is very much the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all.

  • Kabul, Afghanistan

    Members of the Afghan Women's Olympic basketball team (in red) compete with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US embassy representatives during a game to mark International Women's Day at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on March 7, 2012.

  • Kabul, Afghanistan

    Members of the Afghan Women's Olympic basketball team (in red) hug International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US embassy representatives after a basketball game to mark International Women's Day at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on March 7, 2012.

  • Seoul, South Korea

    South Korean female workers wearing penguins costumes perform during a campaign to promote International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea on March 7, 2012. The sign in front reads "Reduce temporary workers."

  • Seoul, South Korea

    South Korean female workers wearing Penguins costumes participate in a campaign to promote International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 7, 2012.

  • Lahore, Pakistan

    Pakistani NGO activists chant slogans during a rally in Lahore on March, 7, 2012 on the eve of International Women's Day. International Women's Day.

  • Mexico City, Mexico

    A woman rides a flower decorated bike wearing a dress and high heels during a group ride in Mexico City, Saturday March 3, 2012. The high-heeled dress wearing cyclists are commemorating International Women's Day, officially set for March 8, by protesting what they say is undeserved attention when they ride bikes wearing dresses or heels while commuting through the city by bike.

  • Manila, Philippines

    A Filipino women's group lay on the ground while protesting at a rally near the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines a day before celebrating International Women's Day on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. The women's group is blaming the government for it's alleged failure in providing food, education, health and housing to it's citizens.

  • Moscow, Russia

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with women on the eve of International Women's Day in the Gorki residence outside Moscow, Wednesday, March 7, 2012.

  • Dhaka, Bangladesh

    An indigenous girl participates in a rally held ahead of International Women's Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, March 6, 2012.

  • Dhaka, Bangladesh

    Indian women along with their children listen to a speaker during a rally ahead of International Women's Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, March 5, 2012. The women demanded change in the public distribution system and a strong law for crime against women and children.

  • Rome, Italy

    An actress performs in Rome's Colosseum to celebrate the International Women's Day on March 8, 2012, in Rome. The entrance of the Colosseum and the Roman forum were free for women for the day with actresses reading texts during a guided tour focused on the status of women.

  • Berlin, Germany

    Gregor Gysi, head of the Bundestag faction of the German left-wing political party Die Linke, sits during the lunch cutting fruit for children at a daycare center on March 8, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Leading male members of Die Linke took on jobs today that are usually occupied by women in a promotional effort to show their solidarity on International Women's Day.

  • London, England

    Members of the alternative choir 'Gaggle' prepare to take part in a 'Join Me On The Bridge' event on the Millennium Bridge in central London, on March 8, 2012, as they celebrate International Women's Day. Now in it's third year, the Join me on the Bridge campaign started in 2010 when women from Congo and Rwanda joined together on a bridge connecting their two countries, sparking what has now become a global annual event.