One of the most noted examples of chauvinism in the Arts is the name given by Marquis Paul de Vibraye to the little female figurine found at Laugerie-Basse. He called it ‘Venus impudique’ (immodest Venus), mocking the entire feminine world, by relating it to the so-called ‘Venus pudica’ (modest Venus) who was trying to cover her nudity.
It is this chauvinistic attitude which resulted in naming of the ‘woman of Willendorf’ as ‘Venus of Willendorf’. This small figurine, carved out of limestone, was found on the banks of the river Danube. It is not yet possible for any anthropologist to tell us who carved this figure, a man or a woman, and if it was a religious idol or just a work of art. It is possible that she represented ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Mother Goddess’, because the women who lived 24,000 years ago would not have been able to grow so obese, living the life of a hunter/gatherer.
It could be that the ‘modest venus’ was carved by a man, “to represent the Feminine, or the Female tamed, under control and civilized by the exertions of power by men” (‘the invisible sex’ Adovasio, Soffer & Page). In the same manner our Sigiri frescos would have been painted by men, to have painted only ‘semi-nude’ females (by present standards), so also the terra-cotta figurines of the Sigiri damsels, found at Sigiriya would be the work of men only.
The Woman of Willendorf came to my mind as I listened to Dr. Lakshmi de Silva about a book she was writing on the Sri Lankan Woman in Pre-colonial Times. She discusses the position enjoyed by the Sri Lankan woman, before the male dominance with the advent of the colonial culture. Dr. de Silva quotes from the Mahavamsa, “..alone she went forth, desiring the joy of independent life” (Geiger’s translation of the Mahavamsa, referring to Suppa Devi, grand mother of Vijaya).
But the Mahavamsa author Mahanama thero, has displayed his chauvinistic views when he described Suppa Devi as “Very fair was she and very amorous and for shame the king and queen could not suffer her”, thus debasing the “joy of independent life” the princess had desired. However this comment is not found in Deepawamsa, upon which Mahanama thero based his chronicle.
We find this chauvinistic attitude in the ancient epics like Ramayana, where Sita has to stay within the Lakshman Rekha, Ravana was able to kidnap her because she stepped out of the circle. Then after all her suffering, she has to prove her chastity by jumping into the fire. But Mandodari, Ravana’s consort probably enjoyed more freedom, about which we in Lanka could be proud of.
Once man managed to assassinate the Mother Goddess, and enthroned a male god, woman had continued to let man dominate her. Amanda Vickery described the 18th century English woman to have been “cramped by custom, corset and crinoline…conspicuously in need of masculine protection”.
Chauvinism had crept into Buddhism long after the parinirvana of the Buddha, when the Buddhists were made to believe that Buddhahood could be attained only by a man, even though it contradicts the term used for the Buddha as Ama Maeniyo, and in our villages we still say ‘Ape Amma Budhu Weva (may our mother attain Buddhahood).
Male chauvinism can take different forms, sometimes in the guise of showing respect, like saying “a woman is a gem and should be safeguarded like a gem”.
In “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, Nietzsche says “The happiness of man is: I will. The happiness of woman is: he wills.”
Sometimes chauvinism can outdo itself, like when they renamed Bombay and the new name is from ‘Mumba’ (a goddess) and ‘Aai’, (mother). Prof. Wolfgang Mieder provides examples that chauvinistic proverbs could be liberated. “A woman’s place is in the House.. and the Senate”, simply by changing the word home to house, with a picture of the White House in the background, as the “worm has turned”. He mentions this in support of his claim that almost all proverbs have a male chauvinistic theme, with a severe negation of the value of women in society.
Samuel Johnson, if we read his biography, the ‘Life of Johnson’ by James Boswell, is a typical chauvinist of the period, which is contradicted by Hester Thrale, who claims that Johnson advocated equal rights for women and that he thought highly of women’s intellectualism and capabilities.
In the 18th century women were ridiculed if they attempted to write their biography, or even talked about their achievements in public.
Among the English writers though the charge of chauvinism and misogyny was leveled at Lawrence by some feminists, he had portrayed young women as strong, independent and complex characters. “While D. H. Lawrence preached the sexual revolution, H. G. Wells put it into practice” says Blake Morrison, and quotes from Wells’ Autobiography, “My story of my relations with women is mainly a story of greed, foolishness and great expectations”.
Earnest Hemingway has also been called a chauvinist, but his chauvinism was against all other living things and against women. He could be considered a ‘human chauvinist’, who believed that man was the superior animal. The feminist ideas of his mother would have influenced him in his writing, as she herself had said, “Earnest is very like me”.
With the rise of western Feminism, a form of female chauvinism has encroached into the field of arts. Female chauvinism was called “a celebration of sex” by Ariel Levy, who wrote “Female Chauvinistic Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”. She also said that the soft-porn writings by these feminists is an attempt of empowerment through sexual exploitation. It is a battle now between the male chauvinist pigs and the female chauvinist pigs, all wallowing in the mud’
The Willendorf woman would have been carved by a woman. This leads to speculation of what our paintings, sculpture and literature would have been like, if woman had been able to enjoy her independence and had been free to develop her creative talents.