The message that women are untrustworthy liars is everywhere in our culture—from TV and music, to politics and religion, says Soraya Chemaly.
Two weeks ago a man in France was arrested for raping his daughter. She’d gone to her school counselor and then the police, but they needed “hard evidence.” So, she videotaped her next assault. Her father was eventually arrested. His attorney explained, “There was a period when he was unemployed and in the middle of a divorce. He insists that these acts did not stretch back further than three or four months. His daughter says longer. But everyone should be very careful in what they say.” Because, really, even despite her seeking help, her testimony, her bravery in setting up a webcam to film her father raping her, you really can’t believe what the girl says, can you?
Everyone “knows” this. Even children.
Three years ago, in fly-on-the-wall fashion of parent drivers everywhere, I listened while a 14-year-old girl in the back seat of my car described how angry she was that her parents had stopped allowing her to walk home alone just because a girl in her neighborhood “claimed she was raped.” When I asked her if there was any reason to think the girl’s story was not true, she said, “Girls lie about rape all the time.”
She didn’t know the person, she just assumed she was lying.
Fast-forward three years, again in a car. This time a 13-year-old refused to believe that when the newly appointed pope was 12 he’d written a “love letter” to the girl living next door. The child insisted stubbornly that the woman, now in the news, had to be a liar because the pope, even as a boy, would not have written a love letter.
In both cases, to my children’s bottomless pool of chagrin, I pulled the car over so I could ask the girls why they were so sure that the women’s accounts were not credible. We talked about their assumptions, about who gets to be believed, double standards regarding sex, and how culture portrays women. Fun times with Mom.
No one says, “You can’t trust women,” but distrust them we do. College students surveyed revealed that they think up to 50% of their female peers lie when they accuse someone of rape, despite wide-scale evidence and multi-country studies that show the incidence of false rape reports to be in the 2%-8% range, pretty much the same as false claims for other crimes. As late as 2003, people jokingly (wink, wink) referred to Philadelphia’s sex crimes unit as “the lying bitch unit.” If an 11-year-old girl told an adult that her father took out a Craigslist ad to find someone to beat and rape her while he watched, as recently actually occurred, what do you think the response would be? Would she need to provide a videotape after the fact?
It goes way beyond sexual assault as well. That’s just the most likely and obvious demonstration of “women are born to lie” myths. Women’s credibility is questioned in the workplace, in courts, by law enforcement, in doctors’ offices, and in our political system. People don’t trust women to be bosses, or pilots, or employees. Pakistan’s controversial Hudood Ordinance still requires a female rape victim to procure four male witnesses to her rape or risk prosecution for adultery. In August, a survey of managers in the United States revealed that they overwhelmingly distrust women who request flextime.
It’s notable, of course, that women are trusted to be mothers—the largest pool of undervalued, economically crucial labor.
So how exactly are we teaching children that women lie and can’t be trusted to be as competent or truthful as men? I mean, clearly, most people aren’t saying “girls and women lie, kids, that’s just the way God built them.”
First, lessons about women’s untrustworthiness are in our words, pictures, art, and memory. It’s simple enough to see how we are overwhelmingly portrayed as flawed, supplemental, ornamental, or unattainably perfect. It’s also easy to find examples of girls and women routinely, entertainingly cast as liars and schemers. For example, on TV we have Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Don’t Trust The Bitch in Apartment 23, Devious Maids, and, because its serpent imagery is so basic to feminized evil, American Horror Story: Coven.
The lessons start early, too. Take, for example, the popular animated kids movie Shark Tale, which featured the song “Gold Digger,” a catchy tune that describes women as scheming, thieving, greedy, and materialistic. There is no shortage of music lyrics that convey the same ideas across genres. It’s in movies, too. Consider, for example, the prevalence of untrustworthy mad women, or the manipulative women of Film Noire, and the failure of most films to even allow two women to be named or speak to one another about anything other than the male protagonists.
But pop culture and art are just the cherry on the top of the icing on a huge cake. The United States is among the most religious of all countries in the industrialized world. So, while some people wring their hands over hip hop, I’m more worried about how men like Rick Santorum and Ken Cuccinelli explain to their daughters why they can’t be priests. I know that there is hip hop that exceeds the bounds of taste and is sodden with misogyny. But, people seem to think that those manifestations of hatred are outside of the mainstream when, in reality, it’s just more of the same set to great beats.
Sometimes, however, there’s a bonus, synchronous two-for-one! Delilah, a renowned biblical avatar of female untrustworthiness, made it into the lyrics of JT Money’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout Pimpin’”:
I got a problem with this punk ass bitch I know
Ol’no good skanlezz switch out ho
An untrustworthy bitch like Deliliah
Only thing she good for is puttin’ dick inside her
In other words:
“Amongst all the savage beasts none is found so harmful as woman.” — John Chrysostom
“What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” — St. Albertus Magnus
“Women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” — Martin Luther
“I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” — Augustine
While most religious leaders aren’t going around spouting overtly denigrating opinions about women, many, through default and tradition, casually and uncritically expose children to religious texts that are fundamentally misogynistic. I have to believe that most Sunday school lessons are not concerned with deconstructing, say, the creation story, a seminal text in our culture whether you are religious or not. Religious misogyny is tied to institutional power that ends up in children and women being impoverished and dying.
Ideas about women, credibility, legitimacy, authority and—notably—Catholic and Evangelical “priesthood” are important and have deep roots in religious thought and philosophy. And those ideas have contemporary expression (see links): Tertullian: “Women are the devil’s gateway.” Thomas Aquinas: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten.” St. Clement of Alexandria: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” St. John Chrysostom: Women are “weak and flighty…For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?” St. Jerome: “Woman is the root of all evil.” There’s Origen, one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, a man who castrated himself and who considered women worse than animals. And, not to be left out, St. Augustine.
Why focus on these musty, long dead theologians and philosophers? These thoughts are alive and well and have a super long tail outside of religion—think: domestic work, pay discrimination, and sex segregation in the workplace. Every time a young girl can’t serve at an altar, or play in a game, or dress as she pleases; every time she’s assaulted and told to prove it, it’s because she cannot, in the end, be trusted. Controlling her—her clothes, her will, her physical freedom, her reputation—is a perk.
Conventional Abrahamic religious thought cannot escape the idea that we have to pay, as women, with lifelong suffering and labor and be subject to the authority of men lest our irrationality and desires result in more evil and suffering. Until religious hierarchies renounce beliefs and practices based on these theologies, these long-dead men, creatures of their time, might as well be the ones repeatedly showing up in Congress to give their massively ill-informed opinions on women’s health and lives.
Especially in our political lives.
Is it really surprising to anyone that a Santorum staffer said, in the run up to the last election, that women shouldn’t be President because it’s against God’s will? What about the “news commentator” who thinks women shouldn’t be allowed to vote? The Senate candidate who thinks rape is a gift from God? Or the Senator and presidential aspirant who thinks it’s just another form of conception? Or the doctor who thinks women deserve to die for having abortions? How about the nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia who thinks fetal birth defects are punishment for parents’ (read: mothers’) sins? If women die bearing children, so what, that’s what we’re here for.
Even if we insist on not talking about the degree to which legislators’ religious beliefs inform their political actions, it is obvious that they do. An entire political party’s “social policy” agenda is being pursued under a rubric that insists women need “permission slips” and “waiting periods.” The recent shutdown? Conservatives holding the country hostage because they want to add anti-abortion “conscience clause” language to legislation. Whose consciences are we talking about? All the morally incompetent and untrustworthy men who need abortions?
It’s no exaggeration to say that distrust of women is the driving force of the “social issues” agenda of the Republican Party. From food stamps and “legitimate rape,” to violence against women and immigration policy. “We need to target the mother. Call it sexist, but that’s the way nature made it,” explained the man who penned Arizona’s immigration law. “Men don’t drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do.” I could do this ad infinitum.
The pervasive message that women are untrustworthy liars is atomized in our culture. There is no one source or manifestation. It fills every nook and cranny of our lives.
I find it sad and disturbing that children learn so quickly and normatively to distrust women. Any commitment to parity means challenging the stories we tell them. It means critically assessing the comforting institutions we support out of nostalgia, habit, and tradition. It means walking out of places of worship, not buying certain movie tickets, closing some books, refusing to pay for some music, and politely disagreeing with friends and family at the dinner table. It’s not easy. But, really, what’s the alternative?
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.