“You are all beautiful, my love”

There is a reason that women need Mary, and it isn’t just because she is the Mother of God.

It is because a) Mary is the most beautiful woman God ever made. And b) women are bitches about other women—especially beautiful ones.

Let me explain.

Beautiful women (or, at least, women who want to think they are beautiful) can be consummate bitches about other women whom they want to make feel less beautiful than they. Trust me on this, I’ve been on the receiving end.

But less beautiful women—we might, if we were being uncharitable, call them ugly—can be even uglier about beautiful women. Just look what they write about Mary!

As a myth—or so Marina Warner argued in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976)the Virgin Mary deserves to die because, in her excellence and beauty, she is an insult to all other women:
[The] adulation of the Virgin excludes other women.... In a celebrated English tenson, or discussion, written in the thirteenth century, a misogynist thrush attacks the regiment of women. The nightingale in reply cites the Virgin Mary, the supreme example of feminine perfection. Its defence is spirited and generous:
Man’s highest bliss in earthly state
Is when a woman takes her mate
And twines him in her arms.
To slander ladies is a shame!
The thrush admits defeat and flutters off disgraced.
But the nightingale’s argument—that all women resemble the Virgin Mary—is very rare, for every facet of the Virgin had been systematically developed to diminish, not increase, her likeness to the female condition. Her freedom from sex, painful delivery, age, death, and all sin exalted her ipso facto above ordinary women and showed them up as inferior.... The Queen of Heaven became the staple antidote to love on earth. She was feminine perfection personified, and no other woman was in her league.
Certainly, Warner did not feel she was in Mary’s league—and so wrote a bitter and dismissive book about how deceived she felt at being encouraged to model her childhood self on Mary.

Subsequent feminist scholarship has tended to follow suit, regularly insisting that descriptions of Mary that laud her for her beauty detract from the status of all other women. If medieval poets and preachers lamented that they could not find the words to praise her and so applied every metaphor they could, it was because they could not bear to see the beauty or value of other women. In Helen Phillips’s words:
The result [of such poetic efforts] may be a deeply mysterious, powerfully attractive, and reverent splendour, but the verbal artifice, semantic alienations and dichotomies that play a part in creating the particular type of jewelled and mentally dazzling hyperbole to which writers of late medieval marian praise are so often drawn could be seen also as expressions of unresolved contradictions in the elevation to so high a place in theology and devotion of a woman, in a society that gives women and female qualities in general little power or respect.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Recognize Mary’s beauty—Warner and Phillips claim—and you are denigrating all other women.

Notice where such arguments lead when applied to other beautiful women. Beauty pageant queens, for example. Just think of the way other women talk about them. How jealous they are that she gets to be beautiful, and they don’t. Or women athletes. Or actresses. Or any woman lucky—or unlucky—enough to find herself in the public eye for her beauty.

I’ve gotten it myself—no, not exactly for my beauty, but for photos that my husband took for my book and which I posted on my Facebook page. It was telling that, when my (female) colleagues in medieval studies wanted to take me down for my support of Milo, they focused on my looks.

Other women even do it to Milo, a gay man, especially when he dresses in drag. Writes Tanya Gold of Milo’s costume for last summer’s Coming Out Conservative party:
In a fusty pink room in Chelsea, Milo is made into a woman. He wears a red and black dress. He is silent, transported somewhere I cannot reach. Miss Veronica Vera is the Dean of Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls. “We weren’t sure,” she says, “if he wanted to go very over the top big bouffant drag queen look. That was what I was told initially. But when we got here we decided that he wanted to be more real—and pretty. 
“This look is festive because Milo’s femme self—who we will call for now Mila—will be hosting a party. It’s a long gown and it’s kind of a combination of a gothic look but it’s also very kind of Miss Kitty dance hall girl look. Mila sees herself as a curvy girl so we have built in curves”. 
Finally he speaks. “It’s fantastic”, he says, “There’s enough bad girl in there, isn’t there?” There is, yes; he looks like he’d do anything. I ask him if he feels different. “Not really,” he says, “but I live my whole life in character.” I think that is the second most truthful thing he has told me. He climbs down from the mirror and sashays towards me. He has added a red ribbon to his wig and looks like a ruined Dorothy Gale. He looks like his mother.
Do you wonder that women who think of themselves as feminists do everything they can to make themselves less threatening ...to other women? It is the only way that they can keep from being savaged—for being pretty.

This is why women need the Virgin Mary: Mary saves women from each other by being the most beautiful one in the room.

I know, I am one of them. I know what women are like. You think men are hierarchical? Men are perfect lambs compared with women when it comes to hierarchy. Men willingly arrange themselves in hierarchies—think every military organization ever, not to mention every men’s club, sporting league, business, and university (before they let all us women in). Men recognize authority in other men and know what it means to challenge it. They are overt about the challenges—and about standing up to each other when the challenge comes. (Except, of course, when they aren’t, but then they tend to take revenge on each other as traitors.)

Not women. We women always fight dirty. We pretend that we do not create hierarchies, but we do, and every woman knows it. I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, but you can always tell with a group of women who is the dominant one in the group: all the other women turn their feet towards her. They look to her to set the tone in the group, to know whom to include and whom to exclude. Often it is the one that the others acknowledge as better looking, but not necessarily. Sometimes the alpha bitch manages to turn the others against the most beautiful one. Why? Because the most beautiful one is the greatest threat to other women’s ability to attract men.

Again, I’ve been there as the ugly one, completely overshadowed by my beautiful sister. I have also been the beautiful one, although I am less proud of how that played out. Ask any woman, and if she is honest with you (unlikely), she will admit to sizing up—more often than not, quite literally—every other woman in the near vicinity, placing herself in the immediate hierarchy. It is safest in the middle of the pack. Too far to the bottom, and you are going to be sitting by yourself eating glazed cinnamon buns by the dozen. (I call that “junior year in high school.”) Too near to the top, and either the alpha bitch will have her eye on you and/or all the other women will, just waiting for her cue to take you out. (I call that “senior year in high school.” I have never been very good at staying in the middle.) But one way or another, you will end up ranking yourself and ranking the others—and woe to her who tries to go against the ranking of the group. (NB: This is also why it is a huge mistake for men to think that they will be welcomed as “male feminists.” All it does it make them subject to the hierarchy determined by the alpha bitch.)

Nor does it work for women to pretend that there is no such hierarchy. If the first great lie of feminism is about how it is “the patriarchy” keeping women down, the second great lie is that “sisterhood” will save them. “Sisterhood” is just a way of saying, “Don’t you dare challenge me, bitch.” Never believe another woman when she claims that all women need to stick together as sisters. She will stab you in the back before you can even turn around. The only reason she said it was that she felt threatened by you and wanted to bring you down to her level. Again, why feminists all end up ugly: for all women to be “sisters,” no one can be prettier than any of the others.

Except when one woman clearly is.

“Thou art all beautiful, O my love,” medieval Christians heard Christ the Bridegroom tell Mary, his Bride,
and there is not a spot in thee....  Thou art beautiful, O my love, sweet and comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array....  One is my dove; my perfect one is but one; she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her. The daughters saw her and declared her most blessed, the queens and concubines, and they praised her. —Song of Songs 4:7; 6:3, 8
Women need an alpha bitch. If you prefer, they need a Queen. Perhaps she is the one who is most beautiful. Perhaps she is the one who is most willing to stand up to the other women when they attack each other. Think Granny Weatherwax or Queen Magrat in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories. Think Veronica (the “true image”) in Heathers. But a group of women without a Queen soon becomes a mob, willing to follow the one who tells them to attack the outsider—the new girl, the threat, the one who makes the others look bad. Or the one to whom the men pay too much attention. The one who might steal their husbands.

Mary trumps all these hierarchies. She is not only the most beautiful—how could God’s Mother be anything but? She is also Bride to the most fabulous Bridegroom. Daughter of the most loving Father. Sister of our first mother Eve. Virgin of virgins, Mother of mothers, and Queen of queens. Nor is she meek—just ask those who have attempted to attack her cities. There is a reason the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs describes her as “more terrible than an army set in array.” And yet, she is so humble that no woman could hate her—because she does not strive to be alpha bitch at all. Try to put yourself above her and the best you can do is look foolish. Serve her—and you become more beautiful than you could imagine in your wildest dreams.

“Feminism is cancer,” Milo likes to say, “because it hurts women.” It is cancerous because it makes women ugly, denies them the joy of being beautiful, brings them down to a level at which none of them is attractive to men. Mary is the antidote to this poison. Pace Warner, the adulation of Mary does not “exclude other women.” It saves them from having to compete to be the most beautiful one in the room. If all women take Mary as Queen, then no woman has to denigrate her sisters in order to be beautiful. All she needs to do is turn her feet towards Mary—and Mary will make her like her, a bride of God.

Images: Diego Velázquez, “The Immaculate Conception” (1618-1619); Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, “Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints” (ca. 1488)

References: Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 135, 153; and Helen Phillips, “‘Almighty and al mercible queene’: Marian Titles and Marian Lyrics,” in Medieval Women: Texts and Context in Late Medieval Britain: Essays for Felicity Riddy, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 86-87.

On Mary as the Bride of the Song of Songs, see Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); and Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

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