I had the great joy of going to see my all-time favorite musical this weekend: the great Les Miserables. As always, I wept copiously at the fate of Fantine who, for love of her daughter, is driven by destitution to sell herself in prostitution. The audience is appalled as they watch her exit the stage wearing her poor yet dignified peasant’s garb and re-enter wearing next to nothing; her breasts half exposed, her shoulders bare and her legs uncovered, in order to be more appealing to the men who will come to purchase her.
Your heart breaks every time, as you watch the scene progress, and witness the men treating her like an animal with no right to refuse their sexual advances and perverse designs for her. In clothing her scantily, the costume designers did a stunning job of portraying Fantine’s utter vulnerability and the stripping of her dignity in the eyes of the world. Throughout the ages, royalty is always highly clothed, while slaves are paraded around practically naked. The denial of adequate clothing is an age old technique for showing the subordination of one class of human beings to another. This weekend’s production of Les Mis used this archetypical reality brilliantly to make its audience weep at the fate of the beautiful Fantine.
But the thing that I couldn’t shake from my mind as I left the theater was the fact that society tells me as a woman that I should wear even less clothing than the defeated Fantine was given to wear. Her breasts were no more exposed than many of the fashions of today encourage. Our shorts expose much more of the leg than Fantine’s 19th century prostitution garb did. Even the ‘pants’ we are given to wear are so skintight that they appear to the observer as merely painted skin which leaves our backsides entirely exposed to the hostile eye.
The effect on those who saw Fantine in the streets was to treat her like an animal rather than a human being. What is the response in our society to the women’s fashions of today? Are men so desensitized that it doesn’t affect them to look upon us so exposed? Does their love for us overcome in them the temptation to treat us as objects, which bodily exposure invites? Or is the idea that lack of clothing is equal to lack of dignity something which is much more archetypal and universal that we would like to believe, and thus haunts us even still, despite the good intentions of the wearer and the looker? And if we truly are a culture which values the equality of women, why aren’t the fashion designers making clothing for us which dresses us with the dignity of queens, rather than pushing on us the attire of slaves and prostitutes?
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