Is female sexuality a means by which men subjugate, objectify and oppress women or is it a weapon used by women to influence and manipulate men? That was the question that troubled me as I stood in room 29 of the National Gallery and stared in awe at the painting “Samson and Delilah” by Peter Paul Rubens. Suddenly, remembrances of things past unfolded before my eyes and I was taken back to my sophomore year in college. Professor Srinivasan was teaching a class on the philosophical alternatives to liberalism and on that particular day, the lecture centered on the body of work of a feminist lawyer, activist and scholar: Catharine MacKinnon.
Mackinnon believes that our male dominated society has subverted female sexuality to subjugate, objectify and oppress women, one case in point being pornography. Mackinnon argues that pornography divests a woman of her humanity by portraying her merely as an object of sexual desire freely bought and sold in the marketplace. Pornography also undermines the notion of female independence as it portrays women in degrading, submissive roles. As an industry, pornography preys on vulnerable young women who decide to sell their bodies primarily out of economic need. Mackinnon deems it not only a form of sexual discrimination, but also a form of human trafficking. At all times, the female figure is depicted as the victim.
Rubens, however, tells a very different story. Samson was the legendary Jewish hero portrayed in the biblical book of Judges and known for his supernatural strength. One day he falls in love with Delilah, a woman of great beauty, but of questionable moral values. Delilah accepts a bribe from the Philistines, Samson’s sworn enemies, and agrees to sell them the secret of his strength. Three times Delilah asks Samson about the secret of his powers. Three times he lies to her. Three times the Philistine unsuccessfully try to capture him based on false information.
Despite knowing that Delilah was a treacherous viper, Samson eventually bares his soul and tells her the truth. The Philistines then capture the Jewish hero, gouge out his eyes and take him as a slave, relentlessly humiliating and forcing him to entertain them on demand. In this story, the seductress is anything but a victim. The male figure anything, but an oppressor.
So now I’m back in room 29 of the National Gallery, still wondering who gives the most compelling answer to the question at hand, Mackinnon or Rubens? Perhaps, neither one. Robert Frost:
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”