University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger considers herself an “old friend of BU.” New friends (myself included) and old gathered Wednesday evening in the Castle for a reading and discussion of Doniger’s latest book, Faking It: Narratives of Circular Jewelry. This is what I didn’t expect to hear: jewelry, specifically rings, throughout history and literature, symbolize vaginas and sex.
Doniger introduced her subject by describing the complex relationship between jewelry and women’s sexuality, suggesting that these patterns can be simplified into what she calls the “Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe paradigms.” These two paradigms, one a symbol of the gold wedding band and the other of diamonds, represent opposite ends of the spectrum of sexualized women and their jewelry.
Doniger’s lecture focused on recurring motifs in literature, such as fidelity versus infidelity, and how these motifs relate to women in terms of their beauty and jewelry. Doniger referenced several works, including the story of Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur from Arabian Nights. In Doniger’s words, “The hegemony of beauty and grace, as it is referred to in the story, erases not only the difference between the individuals, but the difference between genders, and transcends even the boundaries of ethnicity.” This story paints a picture that we see in our society today: the seemingly immense power of beauty which is, as suggested by respondent Professor Stephanie Nelson, an “untrusted convention.”
Doniger also referenced necklaces–real versus fake–and how they work as symbols of fidelity, proposing that in literature, while rings are symbols of male fidelity or infidelity, necklaces tend to symbolize a woman’s faithfulness to her husband. Doniger pointed to several 19th and 20th century texts that share ideas of fake jewelry symbolizing a “real” or faithful woman, while real jewelry, not given to a woman by her husband, symbolizes a “fake” or unfaithful woman. Additionally, Doniger briefly touched on how, throughout history, jewelry has served as a source and symbol of independence for women.
Doniger concluded by sharing a paradox with the audience: jewelry is used as a ploy by men to get women into bed; however, jewelry is also what makes women more beautiful and desirable, enticing men to want to sleep with them.
The lecture prompted some interesting questions from the audience: Is beauty unique or generic? Where does the societally-celebrated sexually active woman fit into this discussion of fidelity? What do Doniger’s views reveal about the post-modern theme of the real being somehow less valuable than the counterfeit? I encourage readers to check out Professor Wendy Doniger’s new book—to draw their own conclusions, ask their own questions, and, of course, to let their minds wander into the gutter the next time they slip on a ring.
Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, as well as the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College at the University of Chicago. This lecture, “Real and Artificial Jewelry: The Mythology of Women and Their Jewelry,” presented by the Institute for Philosophy & Religion, is the first in the 2012-2013 series entitled “Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical and Theological Construals of Art.” The responding professor for the lecture was Boston Univerity’s Stephanie Nelson, Chair and Associate Professor of Classical Studies.