Queering the Bible – Pt.1

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.

Hedy Lamar Delilah (Paramount 1949)
Hedy Lamarr as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)

Straight Queers? Delilah and the Power of Non-Normative Female Sexuality

Ruby Johnson

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.

Gustave Moreau, Dalila
Gustave Moreau, Dalila (c.1896)

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.

Rubens, Samson and Delilah (c.1609)
Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah (c.1609-10)

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_Samson_and_Delilah
Solomon Joseph Solomon, ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1887)

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.

Cute S&D
A heteronormative Samson and Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 classic movie

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.

S&D poster
Desirable but dangerous Delilah

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.

 

References

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.

Queer (Mis)Representations in Advertising

As our academic year comes to an end, we thought it would be a good idea to share some of the wonderful academic work done by student members of Hidden Perspectives NZ, who enjoy integrating queer theory and issues around queer identities into their course assignments.

Starting us off is HPNZ member, Bloom, who is an international student at the University of Auckland, originally hailing from Thailand. Bloom has just completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Sociology, and  intends to continue her studies next year, taking an Honours degree in Development Studies. She eventually hopes to work in areas of social justice and advocacy back in Thailand. She wrote the essay below as an assignment for one of her Sociology papers last year, and kindly agreed to let us share it here on the HPNZ website. We hope you enjoy it.

NB: This essay includes discussions of homophobia and biphobia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and sexual abuse.

“Hot Lesbians” in Ads Are Slowly Killing Us!

by Bloom

Lesbians and bisexual women are becoming more visible than in the past thanks to the legalizing of gay marriage and the outlawing of homosexual discrimination in many countries.  Because of this, straight people may assume that we are now in a ‘safe zone’ right?  Hell no! This is not the case. There is one thing which is slowly killing us:  the mainstream media.  The media turns us into hypersexualized ‘hot lesbians’ in advertisements rather than respecting us as ‘ordinary’ human beings.  In this article, I will analyse how advertisements exploit our image to sell their products for straight men and women.   Then, I will address the consequences of portraying us in this light.

Lesbians and bisexual women are becoming more visible than in the past thanks to the legalizing of gay marriage and the outlawing of homosexual discrimination in many countries.  Because of this, straight people may assume that we are now in a ‘safe zone’ right?  Hell no! This is not the case. There is one thing which is slowly killing us:  the mainstream media.  The media turns us into hypersexualized ‘hot lesbians’ in advertisements rather than respecting us as ‘ordinary’ human beings.  In this article, I will analyse how advertisements exploit our image to sell their products for straight men and women.   Then, I will address the consequences of portraying us in this light.

For (Straight) Men: “Hot Lesbians” In Ads Are “Eye Candy”

Che men's mag
Ché Men’s Magazine

Advertisers use the ‘hot lesbians’ motifs in advertisements aimed at straight men for products including food, alcohol, and sports gear. This depiction of ‘hot lesbians’ services a male erotic fantasy and reflects heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is society’s sexist system that privileges men over women and heterosexuality over other sexualities.  It creates and sustains rigid binaries of gender and sexuality.  It instructs every aspect of life and encourages us to conform to gender and sexual norms.  According to heteronormative gender scripts, men should be active and tough, treating women as their sexual objects of desire.  Meanwhile, women are expected to be passive and to serve men physically and sexually.  Homosexuality and bisexuality are seen as deviant within these heteronormative frameworks.  However, homosexuality and bisexuality are still acceptable in some cases, as long as they remain subservient to heterosexuality. In other words, lesbians and bisexual women are ‘fine’ as long as we are objectified as ‘fun threesome sex toys’ for straight men.

Unsurprisingly, commercials aimed at men commodify us as the straight guys’ ‘eye candy’ to attract more men to buy their products.  Images of ‘hot lesbians’ reflect heteronormative ideals; the women are typically toned, thin with blonde hair, big boobs and curves. Often, they are objectified, particularly in print ads for perfume and fashion, where their full faces are not shown, but instead the camera focuses on their naked backs, legs or buttocks.  The ‘lesbians’ in these advertisements pose in an extremely erotic and sexual manner, typically kissing and caressing each other.  Their postures and behaviours are designed to arouse their (target male) audience, rather than each other.  This is the same sexual framework often used in soft pornography.

Carl jr
Carl’s Jr. burger ad

So, for example, in one advert for fast food, two ‘sexy lesbians’ are used to sell a particular cheeseburger brand. The camera focuses on the models’ breasts and buttocks, objectifying their bodies as ‘pieces of meat’ for male consumption. Consequently, straight men are invited to see lesbian or bisexual women as a source of their erotic pleasure – a fairly common phenomenon, going by research carried out by Pornhub on top US porn search terms (see Khazan 2016).  Similarly, a study carried out among New Zealand high school boys suggests that most believe lesbianism and female-bisexuality to be nothing more than a ‘performance’ for someone else’s viewing pleasure.  As one participant commented, “I think sometimes it (girl on girl practice) is not a sexual thing. It is just to get us turned on.”   In Thailand (my home country) most Thai men think lesbians and bisexual women are “sexual objects” too.  The depiction of ‘hot queer chicks’ is not just popular on the mainstream media, but also on mainstream pornographic websites.  For instance, if you’re on Google’s Thai version and you search the word ‘lesbian’ (Thai: เลสเบี้ยน), it’ll offer you hundreds of Thai porn websites.

sexist-nikon-lesbian-advertisement
Nikon ad

For (Straight) Women:  “Hot Lesbians” Are Just a Fashion

As well as being used to sell products to men, images of ‘hot lesbians’ are also used in ads as a ‘cool’ selling point aimed at straight women. In other words, our sexualities are manipulated by advertisers as a ‘fashion’ for straight women to turn guys on.  Linking this to heteronormativity, the image of ‘hot lesbians’ is promoting a new way to objectify women’s bodies.  Under this sexist cultural system, straight women are encouraged to value their sexuality and beauty as the only ways to be recognised in this patriarchal society. To put it simply, becoming sexual commodities for straight guys is the only way for straight girls to become ‘hot’ and to achieve any social or sexual power. Straight girls consume the ads’ products because ‘girl on girl’ sexual behaviour becomes a ‘style’ that will attract male attention. In the advertisements, ‘hot lesbians’ are often depicted as conforming to certain social notions of perfect feminine beauty: they are typically sexily-dressed, toned and slim. But the sexual behaviour they show towards each other (kissing, holding hands, touching each other) is not intended to fulfil their own sexual desires, but rather serves as an act to satisfy straight male fantasies.

lesbian hoover
Samsung Navibot vacuum cleaner ad

This ‘girl-on-girl’ phenomenon has also become a popular trend among straight girls in college in the US.  According to Yost & McCarthy (2012), this is ironic, ‘because they’re engaging in sexual behaviour, which is supposed to look like they make sure no one think they’re actually lesbians, it’s just turn men on  in a party’. Young women who took part in their survey described two girls kissing as ‘just funny’ or ‘because I want the guys to look at me) (Yost and McCarthy, 2012).

Lesbians & Bisexual Women Are the Victims of this ‘Hot Lesbian’ Phenomenon

Straight men view queer women as their ‘threesome sex toys’, or a source of cheap entertainment.  Meanwhile, straight girls re-appropriate our sexualities as a cool trend to turn boys on.  Our existence as lesbian or bisexual women is therefore seen by straight people as ‘fake’. One result of this is that lesbian and bisexual women are far more likely than straight women to be the victims of sexual harassment and assault (Human Rights Campaign 2017). They are also more likely than straight women to attempt suicide and self-harm, or engage in drug or alcohol abuse (see e.g. LGBTI: National LGBTI Health Alliance 2016). There are multiple factors for why this is, including stigma and discrimination, which are not helped by degrading portrayals in advertising and the media.

As a Thai woman, I have personally felt harmed by the widespread images of ‘hot lesbians’ from Thai mainstream porno websites.  After coming out as queer, I suffered all sorts of harassment and discrimination both at my home and work in Thailand. My family and colleagues thought I was just ‘seeking attention’. My parents even blamed me for not being a good role model for my younger siblings:

“Shut up! Don’t tell anyone that you’re gay! You’ve already ruined our family’s face. I’m now ashamed by you”

“I think….you should be fixed, Bloom.”

It was hell.  I was even inappropriately “touched” by a family member.  I was extremely traumatized.  Because these things happened to me, I was too terrified to spend time with my first girlfriend publically.  This caused me to experience fear, trauma and loneliness. I almost attempted suicide by jumping out of the 2nd floor of my house.  At one stage, I tried drugs to ease my emotional pain.  All of these things happened to me because mainstream society treated me as a ‘sexual object’.

Hey! Media! Stop It! That’s Enough!

I will make this bloody clear: we are NOT ‘toys’ for straight guys. Our sexualities are NOT objects to be used to sell commodities to straight girls.  Our desires are part of who we are as normal human beings.  Depicting us as ‘hot lesbians’ for straight people’s entertainment is unacceptable. Real-life lesbians and bisexual women are being humiliated by this; it is an extremely disrespectful depiction.  As a bisexual woman, I’m writing this article to speak on behalf of every lesbian and bisexual woman who has felt the impact of this media influence; I’m urging every mainstream advertiser to please, please stop portraying us as ‘hot lesbians’ on your TV ads, posters, and billboards. We already live in a heteronormative world that is slowly killing us.

 

References

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community.” Human Rights Campaign. https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community.

LGBTI: National LGBTI Health Alliance. 2016. “The Statistics at a Glance: The Mental Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People in Australia.” http://lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics/.

Khazan, Olga. 2016. “Why Straight Men Gaze at Gay Women.” The Atlantic, 8 March. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/straight-men-and-lesbian-porn/472521/.

Yost, Megan R., and Lauren McCarthy. 2012. “Girls gone Wild? Heterosexual Women’s Same-Sex Encounters at College Parties.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 36 (1): 7–24. DOI: 10.1177/0361684311414818.

A note from Bloom

I am truly thankful to Carisa Showden for all of her help, support and great advice on polishing this article. Thanks to Caroline Blyth for putting this article on the blog and supporting my Rainbow International Student Rainbow Initiative, “Queer Global”. Lastly, thanks to my lovely Kiwi sister, Caitlin for helping me polishing my article. I’ve learnt a lot about English writing skills and techniques from her, not to mention learning how to speak like a Far North Kiwi XD.

Khob Khun Ka! (means thank you in Thai !!)