June 9, 2005
-- Matthew C. Baldwin
Dreams are said to disguise wishes; similarly, stories and myths can encode ideological fantasies. Last month, some rhetoric used in the general context of congressional debate reminded me of a classic American TV story, unveiling ways that mythic and religious structures may influence lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
According to U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (ASC), when it comes to women, "the Army is confused." Pentagon rules limit women's involvement in warfare. Since the early 1990s, however, the Army has increasingly relied on its female soldiers. Today over 21,000 women occupy vital military jobs, including positions in "forward support companies" (FSCs). In Iraq, FSCs serve daily near the front lines.
Last month, military personnel subcommittee chair John McHugh (R-NY) initiated an effort to protect females from "direct ground combat," proposing an amendment to the 2006 military appropriations bill that would have excluded women from all FSCs.
Democrats and the Army successfully opposed the proposal. But the full ASC did pass a less restrictive version, along party lines, mandating congressional oversight of the use of female personnel. Later, in the full House, Hunter was forced to water down the amendment. On May 25, a de-fanged measure passed, along with the appropriations bill, in a vote of 428 - 1. The amendment merely requires additional advance notice from the military when opening new jobs to women.
Disappointed by opposition to his proposal, McHugh expressed resignation regarding this political compromise. On May 19, the Washington Times quoted McHugh as saying that "after a decade, you can't put the genie back in the bottle."
I think it is worth seriously considering McHugh's use of the "genie" clichÃ©, as it carries inadvertently mythic connotations.
For many Americans, references to "genies" and "bottles" conjure up images of Barbara Eden in the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Given its cultural endurance and wide audience, Jeannie -- airing from 1965 to 1970, syndicated for decades, and now being adapted for a film starring Kate Hudson -- can plausibly be labeled a modern myth.
Structurally, this myth concerns gender roles, representing the relationship between a female genie and her male master. In the show, astronaut and Air Force Major Tony Nelson possesses the eponymous genie, keeping her in his home, where she dwells in a bottle with a hidden, brothel-like interior. Veiled in sexy faux-Arabian lingerie, Jeannie is beautiful, dutiful, and available. Yet the woman and her master never become sexually involved. Jeannie therefore represents the paradoxical western ideology of femininity, which simultaneously values overt sexuality and actual chastity.
Fearing scandal, Tony the public servant wants to keep his genie a secret. A man of science and fair play, he asks her not to overuse her magic powers. But the well-meaning Jeannie is meddlesome; when Tony has problems with her independent agency, he stoppers her away in her bottle.
Farcical plots aside, Jeannie is an American version of that oppressive male fantasy which imagines women as alluring, magical, and exotic, and further wishes to confine them to the domestic, private sphere of life. Men alone serve as protectors, explorers, and leaders in the public sphere.
One could say that recent proposals from McHugh and the ASC are manifestations of this "genie dream" -- an example of myth underwriting policy. But careful interpreters of American culture and politics will also notice a correspondence with the theology of gender embraced by evangelical Christians. This raises questions about the interrelations of popular myth, religious convictions, and political power in America.
In recent years, even as many American women have taken on increasingly powerful societal roles, many evangelicals have promoted a return to Christian patriarchy. In 2000, the influential Southern Baptist Convention adopted a newer version of its confessional statement, the "Baptist Faith and Message," in part to affirm its conservative vision of gender roles. In particular, the document excludes women from serving as pastors.
Last October, former SBC president Paige Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a speech on women in Christian higher education. Wanting to answer "rumors" that he is a "misogynist," Patterson commented publicly on a controversial Biblical passage, 1 Tim. 2:9-15, which teaches that women must learn in silence, submit to male authority, and find salvation in childbearing.
After reading the verses aloud, Patterson asked rhetorically, "What can a woman do in the church?" His answer: "Anything she wants to. Anything she wants to that is not expressly prohibited in Scripture." He then discussed the meaning of voluntary submission, before concluding with this address: "Ladies, the highest and noblest calling of God is mother and grandmother. Equal to men, yes, but do what God has called you to do."
Apparently many Americans are dreaming of genies. Perhaps if we subject this dream to more deliberate analysis, we can free ourselves of the desire to fulfill its oppressive wish.
Matthew C. Baldwin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill College in North Carolina.
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