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witches and ‘do nothing bitches’: on nicole arbour and the manipulative female myth

800px-GOYA_-_El_aquelarre_(Museo_Lázaro_Galdiano,_Madrid,_1797-98)

‘Consider this a state of the union address for hoes of the internet’ is how Nicole Arbour introduces her now viral video, ‘Dear, Instagram Models’, in which she details how women who post provocative photos for their Instagram feed are a personal affront to her. A self-described comedian, Arbour calls Instagram models ‘do nothing bitches’, the argument being that these women aren’t using their sexuality in the right way. For Arbour, her breasts are tools to lure men into listening to what she has to say, while Instagram models use their sexuality to trap men into giving them money and taking care of them. Either way, Arbour’s version of female sexuality is manipulative – there is no acknowledgement that it may actually be genuine.

Though this is not an uncommon misconception. The idea of sexually manipulative women go hand in hand with the stereotype of weak men who cannot control their basic urges. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find Arbour all that comedic. Her jokes just rehash tired clichés of women poking holes in condoms to get pregnant, or marrying elderly millionaires for designer brand handbags, or performing oral sex for career advancement. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, often in the same kind of vague caricature that encompasses a whole range of women in the public realm, from WAGs to celebutantes. In essence, Arbour’s “jokes” are the female myths of our era. In the same way we passed around ghost stories as children, we pass around tales of women seducing men for presumed gains. And the problem is that we actually believe them.

It may be hard to believe, since we have been indoctrinated to think that female sex is merely a bargaining chip, but 600 years ago in Early Modern Europe, women were seen as the more sexually insatiable gender. And because Early Modern Europe was predominantly Christian, the manipulative female was quite a different construction. They were still dangerous, still seeking out power, but of a different kind. They would make pacts with the devil for supernatural power, and partake inverted Sabbath rituals, complete with demonic orgies and the cannibalism of small children. Instead of tales of women pleasuring an elderly millionaire’s sagging scrotum, the tales were of women pleasuring Satan’s cold and unsatisfying penis. These ideas might seem ridiculous in our more secular society, but in a time when the devil was not only considered real, but very present in the world, they were entirely believable.

Historian Brian P. Levack wrote in his book, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, ‘Every culture has been known to generate myths about persons, sometimes possessing peculiar powers or physical characteristics, who invert the moral and religious norms of society and who therefore present a threat to the very fabric of that society.’ I can’t help but think the “slut” is our modern version of the baby-eating witch. The peculiar power they hold is seduction, with their physical form exaggerated by cosmetic enhancements: plastic surgery, make-up, Instagram filters, etc. It’s a catch-22 that society teaches women from a young age to live up to a certain standard of beauty, but in trying to achieve that standard, they are perceived as unnatural or manipulative. The idea that a woman can accentuate her body into something even more sexually appealing is its own form of witchcraft, because female power never really seems to go out of fashion as something corrosive to the fabric of Western society.

A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving the cinema when a drunk man, talking to his friends, pointed towards my chest.

‘Those tits are fake,’ he said, his face scrunched in disgust. ‘Those tits are definitely fake.’

It was an accusation, as well as a statement, because fake breasts are a signifier of all the other manipulative qualities of womanhood. They are seen as dangerous to men and male freedom.

There’s an instinctive part of me that wants to defend myself, to tell this man my breasts are real, and challenge his sense of transcendent masculinity that is impervious to deceptive women. But that’s where things become problematic. The internalised misogyny within Arbour’s video is a means of self-protection. She defines herself as different to the perceived enemy, and as such, affirms the enemy’s existence. But sluts aren’t a real entity. They are just a stunted caricature, influenced by an amalgamation of modern myths. And it’s because we perceive that sluts are real that, like the witches of Early Modern Europe, we can see them. We can angrily point at a stranger and yell at them for their cup-size. We can humiliate women, in our social circles and in the media, for any perceived manipulation or immodesty. It wasn’t until Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk on public shaming, almost seventeen years after The Starr Report, that we learnt she was more than half of an extra-marital affair. She was also a woman so publicly ridiculed and humiliated that her mother wouldn’t let her sleep or shower alone, for fear of suicide.

Behind every photo, every human form, is a very real and complicated human being. Presuming what you see on Instagram or Facebook is the sum total of a person could not be more ignorant, nor is it clever to attach worn-out stereotypes to women because of how they choose to present themselves physically. If the witch myths of Early Modern Europe have taught us anything, it’s that the stories we tell about women are not only ridiculous, but can be dangerous. We no longer humiliate women by dragging them through the streets. Instead, we drag them through our online feeds.

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