The young actress who played Ben Hur’s sister always made something melt inside me. She was also Jimmy Stewart’s leading lady in the gritty western, The Man From Laramie. Her name was Cathy O’Donnell… or, I should say, her real name was Ann Steely: probably also Irish, but post-war Hollywood didn’t like to leave any ambiguity in the subliminal messaging of its noms d’écran. (Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Tony Curtis… Felicia Farr, and of course Marilyn… you knew they were all slated for stardom with their fake soubriquets, even if they didn’t necessarily get there.) Born in Alabama, of all places, and educated in Oklahoma (of all places), O’Donnell had a suspiciously brief career, perhaps being overtaken early by symptoms of the cancer that would allow her a mere forty-six years on earth. She left no children. Her husband, director Robert Wyler, was twenty-three years her senior. Nine months later, he also died of cancer. By 2018 standards, I suppose we must conclude that the co-director of The Children’s Hour was a child-molester.
But then, by 2018 standards, I am also strictly forbidden to melt at the sight of this innocent girl-next-door, with her incredibly poignant brown eyes and simple smile. I’m “objectifying” her: I’m forcing her to represent to me virtues like gentleness, shyness, compassion, sincerity, and—yes, most toxic of all—an innocent naïveté. I’m not being fair to Cathy as subject. The real Cathy (i.e., Ann) may have been a guzzling, swearing, rip-roaring party animal who stuffed one male conquest after another in her Tinseltown curio cabinet. How crass of me to shut her off from these possibilities, simply on the basis of an angelic face! (And I believe she once played a character named Angel.)
Yet men do such things, I’m convinced, because we must. No, it isn’t strictly fair—but it’s also not something we can resist. The female face for us is invincibly evocative of abstract character traits. The Greeks and Romans even designated most abstract qualities with nouns of the feminine gender. Women show men how high the bar is set, where the boundaries lie. Men are loners: women are social beings. Men cannot bear children: women have visceral bonds of several kinds with their offspring. Men live closer to the abyss of isolation and nullity. Women are their beacon, their oasis, their green island—their portal of readmission back into the family of humanity. That’s way marriages are public occasions: they signal to the community that a man has found his way in from the cold limbo of wandering rogues and outcasts to become a husband, a father, and a neighbor.
Again, I realize that everything I’ve just written is hopelessly outdated. I realize, even, that words such as these win one permanent exile today from elite circles in academe, government, and haute culture. I accept that. In fact, I’m trying to put distance between myself and all such places as fast as I can. But like a Parthian horseman firing arrows over his shoulder, I would leave these few words of advice behind me for the Never Objectify Us crowd.
First of all, the “putting on a pedestal” objectification of which I wrote above is really the very opposite of what feminists complain about now; and yet, the crude objectification of today is what feminists invited after thoroughly denouncing every visible trace of the chivalrous instinct. Men of yesteryear elevated the female to a semi-divine status—and again, I hasten to acknowledge that this doesn’t create the basis of sound, lasting relationships in many cases. Ariosto’s unhappy knight Orlando goes mad when forced to recognize that his plaster saint Angelica isn’t remotely an angel (far less so, I’ll bet, than Cathy O’Donnell). But the response of the Sixties feminist to suffocation within sainthood was to demand for women the freedom to behave like the lowest kind of male: to have one affair after another, to be liberated of any inconvenient consequences (such as pregnancy), and to construct a life around such egotistical goals as career advancement. By the way, what words do we use for a male who puts his career before everything and everyone?
Once the new message was broadly transmitted, Mesdames, why did you expect men not to adjust their leaps to a ground-level bar? Why be surprised that they now viewed you as tasty morsels on the dessert tray? Hadn’t you just been conditioning yourselves to view them the same way? The “object” to which you reduced yourselves was only made more graphic and less mistakable as cleavages lowered, denim molded buttocks like shrink-wrap, and female language became ever more coarse and aggressive.
Now you don’t like so much what “liberation” has wrought. You want men to recover a bit of chivalry—just a tad, enough to keep their hands off and their tongues (along with other body parts) inwardly secured. But you’ve let the genie out of the bottle, and he’s not eager to resume residence in its narrow confines.
What you need to understand and accept is that human beings always invite snap judgments from other human beings based on appearance and deportment. These judgments can be modified, but they will never be suppressed: they’re part of having a functional brain. A Middle Eastern man in flowing garb makes airline passengers feel uneasy at first glance. A shaggy fellow in soiled rags makes the pace of passers-by accelerate on a sidewalk. A woman in a pink vagina-hat isn’t likely to be asked on a date by a young man hoping to settle down and start a family.
And, yes, of all these stereotypes, the ones attaching to females are the most ineradicable in males. I’m betting that women have similar stereotypes that they apply to males, as well… but they’re probably not as severe and embedded. That’s one thing we males love about women: they’re more forgiving and less rigidly categorical than we are! You of the new female phalanx, however, have indeed become very like us. There’s no slack in your assessments. You have it all figured out in an instant—and then the problem shifts to everyone else for not meeting your standards. How very male of you, in the least pleasant sense!
When I see one of our day’s “hot chicks” posing for some feeding frenzy of paparazzi at a garish Tinseltown gala, her epidermis caked in reflective make-up, her gaze glassy and without character, and her artificially enhanced bust challenging lenses to stay in focus, I sometimes think of faces like Cathy O’Donnell’s… and then I realize what immense losses the culture wars have inflicted upon us.