In the second of our student work showcases, we’re delighted to introduce the work of Ruby Johnson, who is studying towards a Bachelor of Arts here at the University of Auckland. Ruby is one of our leading members of Hidden Perspectives NZ, and has been actively involved over the past year, helping us organise and host events.
Ruby’s essay comes from one of her courses this year, THEOREL 101G: The Bible in Popular Culture. She chose to look at the biblical character of Delilah, who is often (mis)presented in pop culture as a dangerous femme fatale. Ruby applies a queer critical analysis to Delilah’s biblical persona, using pop culture images in art to explore this theme in more detail. Read – and enjoy.
Straight Queers? Delilah and the Power of Non-Normative Female Sexuality
The character of Delilah as described in Judges 16 has become an archetypal figure of dangerous femininity, generally ascribed the characteristics of a femme fatale. Cultural afterlives of Delilah reflect this, presenting Delilah as a duplicitous and seductive figure who leads Samson to his doom. Paintings by various artists play further with this image, showing Delilah as not only sexually seductive, but also in some sense a figure of maternal care towards Samson. Does a close examination of Judges 16 support the images given in these afterlives? Arguably it does not, and a critical eye towards Judges 16 and the images springing from it is necessary to get a better picture of why this characterisation of Delilah is so persistent. From here, we can begin to look at what the sexualisation of Delilah represents in terms of gender politics, and begin to look through what I think is the most appropriate lens for criticising Delilah’s cultural afterlives – a queer critical analysis.
Judges 16 provides scant information about Delilah, her background, character, or indeed even her motivations (Blyth, 2011). She is introduced simply as a woman of unspecified origin, living in the Valley of Sorek whom Samson has fallen in love with (Judges 16:4). Notice, we aren’t told whether Delilah reciprocates this love- already her agency doesn’t appear to be of particular concern. We are told then that Delilah is offered eleven hundred shekels by the Philistines in order to find out the secret of Samson’s strength so that they can defeat him (Judges 16:5), and immediately following this we are given a description of Delilah trying to get this information out of Samson (Judges 16:6-15)
The typical narrative given in cultural afterlives of this story is that Samson and Delilah are in a romantic and sexual relationship and that Delilah coldly betrays Samson for ‘hard cash’. Where is the real support for this version of events though? We only know three things: that Samson ‘loves’ Delilah; that Delilah is asked to help subdue Samson and is offered financial inducement; and that Delilah does indeed assist the Philistines. There are a lot of gaps here left to fill and questions left unanswered. Does Delilah love Samson back? Are they actually in a sexual relationship? When the Philistines ask for Delilah’s help, is she actually assisting them because of the reward offered, or does she simply want rid of Samson too? Samson has already been shown to be unpopular with the people of Gaza to the point of them wanting him dead (Judges 16:2). It is entirely possible that Delilah sympathises and wants him gone for similar reasons and the fact that we aren’t told about Delilah’s ethnic origins further compounds this.
The details that have been proffered to “fill in” these gaps appear to serve another agenda apart from just fleshing out the story (Blyth, 2011). Western narratives about women typically seek to fit them into the “mother/whore” dichotomy, whereby they are sorted into those who are pure and those who are impure. The idea that Delilah is a dangerous, seductive, sexually promiscuous woman frames her as the latter and largely absolves Samson of any blame in a way which would not be possible if Delilah was presented as demure and virginal. Samson is the hero of the story and if a woman is to stand against him, then she needs to be shown in the most uncharitable light possible.
The painting of Delilah by Gustav Moreau (‘Dalila’, c.1896; see above), tellingly exhibited under the original title of ‘Biblical Courtesan’, is a good starting place when looking at how Delilah is portrayed in art. She sits reclining in luxurious surrounds, with one bared breast and jewels adorning the other bare areas of her skin – her shoulders, arms, and legs (Exum, 1996). Both the former title of the painting and the way Delilah is dressed show her to be a prostitute; the idea that she accepts money for sexual services has already been planted and it can further be assumed by the viewer that such a woman would willingly take money from the Philistines in the same way she would take money from a client. ‘Samson and Delilah’ (c.1609-10; see below) painted by Peter Paul Rubens similarly shows Delilah bare-breasted, with Samson lying in her lap in a state of undress suggestive of them having made love (Exum, 1996). The crone in the background represents the character of a brothel madam, and again makes the suggestion that Delilah is a prostitute, who, in betraying Samson, is merely performing another service for payment.
Another feature of Rubens’s painting is the sense of tenderness Delilah appears to convey toward Samson. She rests her hand gently on his back as he sleeps, her eyes fixed on him in a sort of lovingly maternal gaze (Exum, 1996). This stands in stark contrast to the idea that she is coldly betraying Samson and serves as an interesting blurring of this “mother/whore” dichotomy. There is a palpable angst here about female power; the idea that a woman’s maternal tenderness brings out vulnerability in an otherwise invulnerable man, and an acknowledgement that women, while marginalised in the public sphere are capable of hurting men intensely within the private sphere.
Solomon Joseph Solomon’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1887) furthers this anxiety by displaying the scene almost as if it were a castration; a crazed looking Delilah gleefully dangling Samson’s severed manhood in front of him. Indeed, the entire story of Samson and Delilah reeks of castration anxiety and the idea that in a moment of male vulnerability, a vengeful woman with a razor can render a man permanently impotent. Regardless of how much power men wield over women physically and socially, a man who loves and lusts after women will always be in some sense emotionally and sexually at their mercy.
Carol Smith (1997) puts forth the idea that power is itself the theme of Judges 13-16 and that Delilah’s story should be viewed through this lens. The central idea of the story, that an otherwise invulnerable man can be brought low by a woman who is his lesser in the gender hierarchy, is just one example of power dynamics at play; the Philistines hold power over the Israelites, and their gods Dagon and Yahweh struggle for dominance. Delilah’s story is remarkable precisely because it shows that she accomplishes what the Philistine men were unable to in subduing Samson. The later “filling in” of details in the story actually enhances this narrative; by making Delilah a sexually seductive prostitute, artists and storytellers have played on male fears of emasculation and humiliation by a socially inferior yet irresistible woman.
Smith’s power-based analysis of Delilah’s story brings to mind Cathy Cohen’s ideas about “queerness” as way of viewing the world in terms of overlapping structures of power and the ways in which individuals resist these structures (Cohen, 1997). While “queer” has typically been construed to be synonymous with “LGBT”, Cohen argues that such an understanding places all heterosexual people on one side of a power structure in a way which may not represent reality for some of those people. For example, a single mother who has children by two different men may be heterosexual and therefore not “queer” in a traditional sense, but she is still likely to be victimised and looked down on for her perceived sexual morality. In this sense, she is still marginalised in her relationship to the power structures of gender and sexuality and is therefore still, in a very real sense “queer”. It is the non-normativity of a person’s gender or sexuality and the relationship to power stemming from this which makes one “queer”, not necessarily the person’s sexual object choice.
The framing of Delilah as a prostitute, and therefore a sexual deviant, functions similarly to “queer” her. While the sexual encounters in her afterlives (we must remember – there is still no actually mention of her sexuality in Judges 16 itself) are explicitly heterosexual, Delilah’s implicit status as an “impure” woman still excludes her from the respectability of hegemonic heterosexual power. She will never sit on the “mother” side of the “mother/whore” divide. In their use of sexual seduction for personal gain, prostitutes are a symbol of everything that undermines male authority; the most powerful man in the world can be brought to his knees by his bedwarmer. Delilah’s sexuality is, in this view, simply her way of resisting marginalisation and leveraging the form of power which she has as effectively as possible.
Ultimately, instead of being viewed as a figure exemplifying the duplicitous and fickle nature of women, Delilah can be viewed as a figure of feminine agency. In a story which otherwise revolves around almost comically exaggerated physical strength, her afterlives represent the interpersonal dimension of power and how even those who are marginalised are able to resist by application of the forms of power which society allows them. Delilah, rather than being seen as tragically slandered by her association with the femme fatale, should be celebrated as a figure whose afterlives, however unintentionally, queer heteronormative power dynamics – she did, after all, lay low the Bible’s most masculine of men.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.
Blyth, C. (2011). Cultural representations of Delilah… a whore or more? Retrieved from https://aucklandtheology.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/cultural-representations-of- delilah-a-whore-or-more/
Cohen, C.J. (1997). Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics? GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 3(4), 437-465. doi: 10.1215/10642684-3-4-437
Exum, J.C. (1996). Plotted, Shot and Painted. London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Smith, C. (1997). Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power? Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 76, 45-57.