January 22, 2008

VANITY OF THE FAIR:

Creative Class, Dismissed: Students take the arts' nobility as gospel until they meet a heretic named Jean-Jacques (LAURIE FENDRICH, 1/25/08, The Chronicle Review)

Tucked into the middle of Rousseau's inveighing against theater is a discussion of women that makes the remarks of Larry Summers, Harvard's former president, seem almost conciliatory. Rousseau claims that the equality of the sexes is a foolish, modern idea. The differences between the sexes are there for anyone to see, linked as they are to anatomy. Rousseau will not quarrel with nature's plumbing. Women, he argues, are not only the receivers of sexual advances, but the inherently weaker sex as well. But, he says, nature gave women a weapon to protect themselves from more powerful males: modesty.

For Rousseau, modesty is the means by which women fend off undesirable males and encourage only the ones they regard as potential mates. And once the appropriate male has been snared, Rousseau says, women employ another tool to keep their otherwise hit-and-run mates around for the long haul: love. "Love is the realm of women. It is they who necessarily give the law in it, because, according to the order of nature, resistance belongs to them, and men can conquer this resistance only at the expense of their liberty."

Rousseau turns upside down the ideas my students carry about the sexes. He seems to say that women are fit only to become dutiful, breeding Stepford wives. Most of my students are outraged when they first read this part of the Letter. During one of my seminars, students unanimously contended that modesty is imposed on women by insecure men.

As repugnant as Rousseau's precepts about women are, they're crucial to his argument about theater, and, as much as I'd like to, I can't simply sweep them under the rug. He says that going to the theater destroys female modesty and replaces it with vanity (I always bring up the irrepressible female longing for a new dress for a party). When female modesty declines, Rousseau argues, men stop loving women because they no longer trust them. Who else, the husband asks himself, is my wife preening for? Such distrust, Rousseau says, in the end obliterates love.

In class discussion, when my students invariably protest that Rousseau is an outdated chauvinist, I ask why most women in contemporary society wear makeup and most men don't, and why there isn't a store called Victor's Secret. We talk about Jane Austen's women, their trade-offs between true love and men who, however repellent, provide security, and how much of that kind of social survivalism is still practiced today. These discussions are unsettling, I admit, even to me. But whether by habit or nature, I unfailingly wear lipstick to class.


Amicable relations between the sexes require that female vanity be indulged. Amicable relations among men require that male vanity be despised.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 22, 2008 12:01 AM
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