Last night, my wife told me about a new meme that is starting to take off on the internet. It all started with a male student at Baylor University posted a Facebook message that said “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.” Apparently, the statement somehow went viral, and it is rapidly becoming the subject of unending controversy in and outside of evangelical circles. Some have even created graphics of the meme (like the one on the right) that resemble a Victoria’s Secret advertisement.
I have a brief comment to add to the controversy, but in a discussion like this I think it is first important to recognize the temptation to create two-dimensional caricatures of other people’s thoughts in situations like this. I am raising some red flags about what I think is being said by the meme’s creator. However, at the same time, I acknowledge that he and the meme’s other supporters likely have a more sophisticated understanding of femininity and sensuality than this post might infer, so I invite any supporters reading this to comment and color in the nuances of their perspectives in more detail.
Now, on to my comments:
I think it is admirable that a hormone-driven college-age male is recognizing that a culturally idealized appearance is not the only desirable trait in a potential mate, and that he is willing to communicate that to his female friends, who are probably somewhat insecure in the thought they will ever look like supermodels. That impulse, I think, is a good one, and I hope he and the meme’s supporters will stick with this theme.
Having said that, I also think that the meme implies something that is problematic: it suggests a false dilemma between sensuality and “biblical” femininity, and then, as a result, it trades one form of shallow sexism for another.
To paraphrase social researcher David Kinneman in his landmark book You Lost Me, we should not think of women as walking vaginas (as our sex-obsessed culture sometimes implies) or as walking wombs (as the reactive, conservative Christian culture often suggests). Healthy expressions of femininity ought to transcend both of these things.
Or, to put it another way, suggesting that a woman must be a “Proverbs 31 wife” is just as bad as suggesting that she is only worthwhile if she looks like a supermodel. They are both attempts to reduce and control her femininity.
The wifely ideal of Proverbs 31 is hardly a workable model for the twenty-first century. Guys, are you seriously looking for someone who will gather the raw materials for your clothes and sew them for you? Manage your servants when you are away? Take care of your business affairs for you? Make sure you have clothes so that you can be warm in your (non-gas-heated) home when it is cold? Someone to provide you with “faithful instruction”? And to give you a good reputation when you hang out at the city gates?
Of course not. While these may have been desirable traits at a time when women were treated more like property than people, they are hardly fair, desirable, or even applicable in post-modern America. It is unfair to suggest to women that they must somehow uniformly comply with this ideal.
Furthermore, Proverbs 31 is not the only place in the Bible where we find expressions of the feminine. Among other things, we also find:
- Deborah, who sat over men as a prophet, mother and judge.
- The female “voice” in the Song of Songs, whose sensuality and body are celebrated in poetry by a lover who longs for her on every page.
- Vashti, who bravely refused to allow herself to be sexually objectified, even though it meant defying the supreme authority in her culture.
- Esther, who, by contrast, seduced a king and then used her influence over him to save her people.
- Phoebe, who was a leader in the Corinthian church, a trusted supporter of Paul, and likely the first person to ever teach from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
- Priscilla, another leader in the church during Paul’s day, who was apparently more prominent than her husband Aquilla (he is generally mentioned second when the two are discussed).
- Rahab, a prostitute, who bravely conspires with several Jewish spies to help them escape from a city.
- Mary Magdaline, a trusted follower of Jesus, and apparently unmarried.
- The woman of John 4, who bounces from one bad relationship to the next, but who is still willing to engage in dialog about the nature of God, even with strangers.
On and on we could go, but the point is simple: when you look at the entirety of scripture, the depiction of the feminine that emerges is hardly a consistent picture of the Proverbs 31 wife. Not all of these women have a husband. Not all of the married ones seem subservient to their husbands. Some are wealthy. Some have made mistakes in their past. Some are still making them. Some are sexually attractive in appearance and behavior. Some probably aren’t. Some, we have no idea.
All of them are rich, deep, complex human beings.
The variety of characters and personalities that we encounter in the pages of the Bible defies the very notion that there is one and only one form of “correct” femininity, which can be boiled down to a few verses. In truth, an authentic expression of the feminine is beautiful (and, for guys, genuinely desirable) not because it fits a single ideal (whether it be the Victoria’s Secret or the Proverbs 31 variety) but because it is unique, complex and valuable in and of itself.
Healthy, authentic femininity, to me, is also dynamic – it changes from moment to moment, and day to day. It can’t be predicted or bottled. It lives, breathes, grows, reacts. In healthy relationships, things like conversation, play, power, sex, and work are always shifting, mutating, and evolving. This requires both partners to be somehow different today than they were yesterday. Photoshopped stills don’t change. Neither do bible verses. Real women do.
So I am a little leery of the Proverbs 31 meme. It has a good impulse, I think, but in the end it creates a new form of sexism that is made all the worse by implying that it is “biblical.”
There is nothing wrong with an expression of the feminine that includes the thrift and pragmatism of Proverbs 31. There is also nothing wrong with one that indulges in the coy playfulness of Victoria’s Secret. Both can comfortably exist in a single, authentic expression of the feminine.