Taming of the Shrews
By MAUREEN DOWD
Arabs put their women in veils. We put ours in the stocks.
Every culture has its own way of tamping down female power, be it sexual, political or financial. Americans like to see women who wear the pants be beaten up and humiliated. Afterward, in a gratifying redemption ritual, people like to see the battered women be rewarded.
That's how Hilary Swank won two Oscars. That's how Hillary Clinton won a Senate seat and a presidential front-runner spot. And that's how Martha Stewart won her own reality TV show and became a half-billion dollars richer while she was in prison.
We've come a long way, baby, from the era of witch trials, when women with special power who knew how to curse were burned at the stake. Now, after a public comeuppance, they are staked to a lucrative new career. In this century, the scarlet letter morphs into a dollar sign.
Maybe temperamental, power-mad divas always needed to be brought down a peg. They used to do it to themselves. Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe were gorgeous monsters, but were so self-destructive there was no need to punish them further.
But Hillary and Martha - the domestic diva with the new ankle bracelet echoed Judy Garland on her Web site yesterday that "there is no place like home" - are not self-destructive. They are brass-knuckled survivors who elicit both admiration and an enmity that Alessandra Stanley memorably dubbed "blondenfreude."
From pornography to "Desperate Housewives," women being degraded has an entertainment value far greater than men being degraded. People liked Hillary and Martha a lot more once they were "broken," like one of Martha's saddle horses, ice queens melted into puddles of vulnerability.
Maybe it's because both women sometimes overreached, treated the help badly and displayed an unseemly greedy streak. Maybe it's because a dichotomy about their roles made them seem disingenuous: they gained renown for traditional feminine roles, and apron-and-hearth books, assuming guises to achieve male power and taking a route to the mahogany epicenter through the kitchen.
Hillary was America's first lady, photographed smiling in her designer dress as she oversaw table settings and placement for state dinners, even though we knew she did not care about such domestic piffle and was instead maneuvering to take over huge chunks of domestic policy.
Martha was America's first lady of gold-leaf designer lifestyle nesting, even though we knew that her über-nest was so scary that her husband had flown the coop. Though she was the ultimate professional homemaker and nurturer, she left her daughter out of the litany of things - cats, canaries, horses, chickens and dogs - she would miss in jail.
Obviously, many men are uncomfortable with successful women, so when these women are brushed back, alpha men can take comfort in knowing that alphettes are not threateningly all-powerful and that they had better soften those sharp edges.
I learned covering Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential bid that the reaction of women to extraordinarily successful women is also ambivalent, with as much hostility as sisterly pride. An Icarus crash can mitigate the jealousy, while intensifying the feminist attachment.
After her husband's philandering with Monica, Hillary played the victim card all the way to the Senate. After her own bad judgment about her stocks, Martha metamorphosed from jailbird to phoenix.
Why don't we need to see Oprah, another titan known by her first name, slapped back? Probably because Oprah never had an icy or phony side to her public persona and because her struggles in her childhood and with her weight take the edge off any animus that might be leveled at her for a net worth of $1.3 billion.
And what about Condi, who's now being touted for the Republican ticket in 2008? Perhaps she does not need to play the victim to make people feel better about her power because she was never seen as a termagant, pushing people around and bending them to her will. She always seemed subservient to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, a willing handmaiden and spokesman for their bellicose bidding.
One Democratic image maker admiringly predicts that, having survived their virago and victim phases, our two most relentless blondes will outlast everyone: "When the world ends, there will be left only a few cockroaches, Cher, Hillary and Martha."