Amid the patriarchy of the ancient world, early Christianity had a particularly liberating and redemptive place for women, one significant enough to be mentioned by Christianity’s first major critic, the second-century philosopher Celsus.
The struggles of Christian women with sexuality, food, and their bodies reflect the Church’s historic ambivalence towards the body—particularly the female body. The embodiment of God in the Incarnation, Jesus’ embrace of lepers, prostitutes, and women, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection establish a radical foundation of body affirmation. Yet the history of the Church demonstrates a decidedly negative view of the body and sexuality.
Human beings begin to develop gender identities very early in life as they pick up on cues and clues given off from the sociocultural contexts in which they find themselves. As people and institutions demonstrate socially appropriate ways of being male or female, children become apprentices and learn what it means to be a boy or girl in their culture.
In Wild at Heart we find a space in which sexism and male dominance are not only vibrant, they are nurtured. The pervasive dual-sexism in Wild at Heart draws from complex cultural norms recapitulating modernist ideals about gender and perpetuating consumeristic attitudes toward women.
In terms of sexual relationships, men are supposedly suited for active pursuit while women are inclined toward being passive and responsive. These assumptions have profound implications, since they set up relationship dynamics that are often unhealthy. Such beliefs can also lead women who have strong sexual desires or assertive personalities to feel excluded or abnormal.
The Puritans are not known for their egalitarianism. Indeed, the word “Puritan” instead conjures up images of witch-burning, fun-draining, Quaker-persecuting authoritarians who restricted women to a life of dreary housework and perpetual childrearing. There is some truth to this stereotype. Certainly, the typical Puritan minister viewed women as subordinate beings who needed to keep quiet in church and be submissive to their husbands. As Benjamin Wadsworth noted in a sermon titled The Well-Ordered Family, “The husband is called the head of the woman. It belongs to the head to rule and govern.”1 The cases of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer—strong-willed women who suffered banishment or execution for defying the established order—lend further credence to our stereotypes about the Puritans.2