What men consider beautiful about women changes over time. In 16th-century Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens taught Dutch men to lust after pudgy brunettes. In 20th-century America, Hugh Hefner taught American men to lust after busty blondes, women just like Anna Nicole Smith. Any reflections on her death must first begin with deep sadness for yet another premature and needless death in our wounded world. Thirty-nine-year-old women should not die. We must also grieve for her infant daughter who, regardless of her possible fortune, is now consigned by fate to grow up without a mother—just as Anna Nicole had been forced by the same cruel fate to grow up without a father. Next we must force ourselves to remember that this front-page story is echoed by a thousand untold stories about unknown women who have died or been killed or driven to fatal addictions just because they were pretty. These women died because they were meat on the banquet table of predatory men. Their deaths must not be seen as merely tragic accidents, but as cautionary tales for us all, and particularly for men who are taught to see women as playthings and not as human beings made, as religious folk like me would say, in the image of God.
Treating women, particularly pretty women, as meat is not a new social pathology or a new sin. It is as old as women and men. I am sure that among the early hominoids there were women with rapturously beautiful body hair who were harassed and pursued. In the Bible the treating of women as meat is called harlotry. In Leviticus 19:29 we read this cautionary law: “Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness.” Read that and tell me you don't believe in prophecy!
Now the PC term for treating women as meat is “objectification.” Whatever the label, the essence of this perversion of human dignity is unchanged over time. The idea that half of the human beings on planet earth only matter because of their physical appearance remains an outrageous assault on the human dignity of women.
Anna Nicole was stigmatized as poor white trash. However, it is a cruel illusion to believe that only poor, pretty women must become bimbos, strippers and gold diggers to get out of the trailer park. I see the bimbo-fication of young girls all the time in my affluent suburban synagogue. Sadly, some of the brightest adolescent girls around the age of 12 suddenly try to dumb themselves down so that they can attract a boyfriend who will not be scared off by their intelligence. I also see echoes of Anna Nicole in the successful twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, whose little black cocktail dresses are meant to both reveal their cleavage and conceal their desperation at the thought that pursuing a career means abandoning the pursuit of love and family. The feminist movement has won important victories for egalitarianism, but it has also surrendered women to predatory men who have taken women's newfound freedom as the perfect opportunity to surrender all sexual responsibility, respect and gallantry. One can rejoice at newfound freedoms without distorting their cost.
The problem with the problem of treating women as meat is that many of the solutions offered up are far worse than the problem. The Taliban had an easy and perverse solution, and that was to treat women as prisoners. Completely covering up the female form with a burqa and shutting women out of Afghani public and professional life is even worse than being forced to hear about the latest exploits of Paris, Lindsay and Britney. On the other hand, making the case that there is nothing wrong with women freely displaying their bodies and embracing their sexuality in any way they desire is equally perverse because it supports porn, which coarsens our culture, degrades women and led to the death of a woman whose infant daughter needs her now. We need to find a place between prudes and porn. The future of our culture and the dignity of both men and women depend upon us finding such a place now.
An important move in learning not to treat women as meat is to restore the sundered link between love and sex. Porn is not possible if sex is widely seen as a way to express love. If sex is nothing more than scratching an itch, it cannot be the physical consequence of love and trust. Love is never casual, and when sex becomes casual it cannot serve the needs of love. Some say that the best way to reestablish this link between love and sex is to teach that the only satisfying context for this linkage is marriage. I agree, but this need not be the first step in recovering a more modest culture. If men and women just decided to only have sex with people they deeply love and deeply trust, we as a culture would be miles down the right road.
In such a world Anna Nicole might still be alive.