MT Dávila, Andover Newton Theological School

Madeleine Davies’ “Becoming Ugly” (Jezebel, 12/29/16) is NOT an apologetics for radical feminism in the years of Trump. She grounds her comments not so much on the suffering of others, as I’m used to doing, but on the insult to womanhood, the painful scarring insults that are the daily bread of being a woman today:

What we as women are forced to carry—because we’re vulnerable and because we are strong—goes beyond the natural disorder of things. Our suffering is not natural; it’s calculated and insidious—the passing of a bill, the protests of a college football team, the success of an actor, and verdict of a judge.

Or, more glaringly, a man who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women being elected to the highest office in the U.S.—not in spite of his vicious misogyny, but partly because of it.”

It might seem to many that the difference here is too subtle to matter. What is the real difference between “suffering” and being “insulted”??

When I read Davies’ piece I once again swim against wave after wave of assaults on my personhood by virtue of nothing else than being female. While, yes, there is suffering in that, there is a deeper form of insult that at its core wishes that I accept my disposability, my inhumanity, my lack of rationality, my strict identification with my ovaries and uterus, and the standards of beauty that seem to only hinge on a spectrum that measures a woman’s worth based on whether the male of the species would find me attractive enough to violently take my sex at his pleasure, or not. Davies’ observations reminds all that misogyny is an insult to humanity, and while it is behind much suffering and violence, it bears analyzing as different from the suffering and violence brought on by civil war, failed states, or gang violence. Remember that in all those situations violence against women is used as insult to the other side: rape as a war crime, or the feminicide that often accompanies getting even with or insulting a warring gang.

In “becoming ugly,” Davies reminds us that as long as we remain acquiescent to the insult of being a woman, we are spared the literal insults of “bitch,” “c**t,” “ugly,” or “hag” often tossed at so many of us who yell “STOP” at the many other metaphorical insults to our bodily and mental integrity. She describes her current state as one of perpetual rage:

For the first time, I don’t know how to move past my boiling anger or laugh it away. Also for the first time, I have no desire to. Preferable, I now think, is to stop laughing, to become as repulsive as I can in an insult to these men—so many men—who hate women and the women who adulate them. Vanity keeps me from throwing away my makeup and sanity keeps me from, as I often feel the repugnant urge, breaking the mirror with the surface of my own face and leaving us both cracked open. But I also can’t deny my current impulse to become as ugly and unlikeable as I can, merely to serve as constant reminder of the ugliness inflicted upon us. 

Oftentimes in theological and ethical reflection we resort to an almost surgical precision – and distance – to describe women’s suffering through the lenses of queer, womanist, or mujerista theology. We use these hard-won tools to reflect on what salvation and liberation might look like in advancing the cause of women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, women’s health care, women’s rights, and so many other important issues. Davies’ reflection is a reminder that our very stance when reflecting on women’s issues should almost always be the rage of one who bears the insult and scars of a world bent on continually reminding us of our lesser state. To that world Davies screams,

We’ve been told time and time again that prettiness and likability will protect us from harm, that to be good women, we must play by these rules, but this is a lie. Nothing will protect us except for ourselves—and what’s more fortifying than a defensive exterior? There are days when all I want is to become a human road sign, a blinking hazard to any man misfortunate enough to cross my path: “I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR SIGHT. I WANT TO OFFEND YOUR EVERYTHING.”

Davies reminds me that my classroom sometimes ought to be “offensive,” or decidedly lose perspective on the current challenges facing women and girls in the US and globally. In particular, Davies reminds me that the stance of my current president toward me is one of insult: grabbing, name-calling, demeaning, erasing, bullying. Becoming ugly, then, is the resistance of insulting back, exposing the hypocrisy of less-than-half-attempts at equality, freedom, and justice.

MT Dávila is a lay woman in the Roman Catholic tradition. She completed her doctorate at Boston College with a dissertation titled A Liberation Ethic for the One Third World: The Preferential Option for the Poor and Challenges to Middle-Class Christianity in the United States. She is currently writing on the option for the poor as a resource to interrupt and transgress the culture wars and polarization among U.S. Christians.