At Halifax Memorial Hospital three months ago I found myself locked, without a valid avenue of escape, in a four-hour seminar on breastfeeding. Expectant mothers outnumbered extraneous fathers by a ratio of six to one, though there I was, one of those ones duly seated next to my wife and the future terror she was carrying. I wasn't playing sensitive husband. I have no illusions that men could be much more than third wheels when it comes to such things as birth and breastfeeding. The sensitivity cartel finds things for men to do, of course. But if make-work of the foot-massage and shoulder-to-cry-on variety generally makes men feel less useless, it doesn't begin to diminish post-partum agonies on the other side (nor make up for only vicariously experiencing the elation of life-giving).
The reason I was attending the seminar was mostly anthropological. I wanted to take stock of the breast in third-millennium America. If the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, as Dostoevsky may or may not have said, the degree of imbecility in a society can be judged by the way it handles its breasts. Come to find that I could have skipped the four-hour epic at Halifax for the flash of Janet Jackson's areola borealis at the Superbowl halftime show. The cultural uprising let loose by that split-second flop says more about the nation's arrested development than a year's worth of Ph.D. theses from every sociology department in the hemisphere.
First, a little tour to put the Superbowl intifada in context. Picture the tour as you would your typical planetarium's show of the history of the universe, except that instead of traveling through time and space in an imaginary spaceship -- look, Venus pre-Milo! -- you're traveling in an imaginary orb through 25,000 years of breastology. Keep in mind that 24,960 of those years are filled up exclusively with male interpretations of the breast. In other words, they are imaginative leaps usually bound by males' natural tendency to be made stupid, to quote Dave Barry, by the appearance of any breast anywhere, in any shape, in any circumstance, beginning with the stupor-inducing bliss of nursing, to quote the look of my six-week-old son.
Which explains the beginning of sculpture: The pre-historic figurine, from about 25,000 B.C., of a woman whose head is undefined, but whose breasts and thighs carbon-date the beginning of the word voluptuous. The rule seems to have been, the more breasts the better. A good thing, too. Without them, none of us would be here. They may have been cave men back then. But they knew what to worship first. Hypocrisy must have been a foreign concept. So it went through the stone age and until the Greeks replaced the celebration of the breast with the much less interesting celebration of the phallus (could the Washington Monument be any more banal?). The breast made a comeback with Christianity, oddly enough -- as long as it was copiously upholstered in clothes and symbolic of spiritual, not erotic, nourishment. Hence the classic nursing poses of Madonna and Child, which would still make perfect advertising for La Leche League. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were high points of breast-baring a-la-Timberlake, but mostly for the right reasons. There wasn't much room for false modesty in a world crowding with Reubenesque curves or busy making bare breasts synonymous with "Liberte, Égalite, Fraternite." Things went downhill from there, beginning with the unfortunate fixations of Sigmund Freud on women's alleged envies and ending with America's sexual bi-polar disorder, without which the Playboy ethic regarding all matters of sex among a world of technically adult males would not have been so richly endowed in latent idiocy.
This country hops between the Puritan and the whorish faster than Jim Bakker could unzip his pants off camera. It explains how the nation's moral mob could howl at the only glimpse of something natural in the whole halftime spectacle at the Superbowl while finding nothing offensive in the simulated orgy that had preceded it. We are the dirtiest-minded nation on Earth, peddling the sluttish and the puerile in every other frame out of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. We dress up kiddie porn in leather and croons and call it pop. We accuse a president of sneaking in a couple of pitiful extracurricular dates when the whole culture is stuck on winks and nudges. Yet when a woman's breast appears on national television for less time than it takes to say boo, we revert to being what we are most at our worst, what H.L. Mencken summed up in one word: boobs.
It's really too bad, given the seeming progress of the last few decades when words like "breast cancer" could finally be uttered without someone's obligatory titters (and when the disease could be treated more honestly), when breastfeeding is increasingly esteemed and decreasingly segregated, when women's bodies have, here and there anyway, been less worshipped than respected. The message from the Superbowl is: The breast, and by extension female "virtue," is still a political football. Two Sundays ago it was picked up, pounced on by variously opportunistic lechers, and used to score the only touchdown that counted. Score another one for the conservative rollback to Ozzie and Harriet's imaginary values.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
© 2004 News-Journal Corporation