In goddess we trust

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I had high hopes for Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. I had read this particular interview with the author in Salon awhile back and thought she seemed smart, and engagingly enthusiastic and excited about the possibilities of being seductive without being reductive, and without reducing the art of seduction to a shopworn, used-once-and-discarded cliché. It’s quite possible, I thought, that she had something to say to the 21st-century woman in need of meaningful seduction techniques as opposed to the merely coy and/or cute maneuvers that are rehashed over and over again in the mainstream media.

In fact, Prioleau probably had me in mind when she wrote the book. I’m so unversed in the ways of men and women and the subtle, playful art of seduction and flirtation that I had to Google things like “how to tell if he’s attracted to me.” (There was a time in my life when I needed to know these things, because when a FRIEND asked me, “how do I tell if he’s attracted to me?” I had to be a good friend and tell her. So I Googled it.) In the manner of most how-to guides on the internet, someone wrote the First Article to begin all articles on “how to tell if he’s attracted to me” and everyone else ripped off that basic template around which to structure their ‘guides.’

I present to you the key points:

  • Eye contact – must be meaningful. Too much deep-staring into your eyes indicates that he has something to hide, or wants to kill you with a bread knife when you turn your back on him. Trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Physical space – The attracted will try to invade the space of the attractee. But again, if he’s coming too close, that’s just kind of gross. Hopefully, he’s just sexily honing in on his prey. Relax, it’s all part of evolution, it’s what hunters did before they speared that unsuspecting deer. Trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Body language – The attracted will turn his body towards the attractee. He will prance, preen, and most importantly, adjust his tie. (No word yet on what t-shirt wearers will do.) But trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Mannerisms – He will look at your lips, boobs, and then touch his own face. (Oookay. Isn’t that creepy? But never mind. This is why everyone else is seducing and being seduced while I read online how-to articles.) Regardless, it’s important to trust your ‘gut instincts.’

The most important way of knowing if he’s attracted to you?

“He will ask you out.”

And there you have it.

But no one has asked me my friend out since I read that article, so I turned to Prioleau.

In her preface, Prioleau writes that she conceived of the book while teaching a course on ‘The Seductress in Literature.’ Predictably, the class was filled to the brim, and apparently she was inundated with pleas and confessions by the female students after class – none of them knew what they were doing where romance and relationships were concerned. The campus dating scene was a jungle. There were no rules. Men used and dumped women, and women stayed back in their dorm rooms to cry while the men went out with their friends for beers, or simply moved on to the next woman.

Women of the 21st century, she realised, had no reliable role models to help cast them out of their modern “erotic despair.” She searched the annals of history and found that there was more than a fair share of seductresses from antiquity onward who were worth their kohl and rouge. How was it that we don’t know of them, don’t know of their powerful secrets and techniques of seduction, don’t know that it takes more than Botox, hair flips, high-pitched giggles, pseudo-lesbian displays of affection with other women, waxed underarms, and artificially-inflated breasts to keep a man interested?

Well-intentioned as it is, Prioleau’s book could have been so much greater than it actually is. Much of it has to do with her prose style. She tells you she was raised in a “southern belle culture, with a mother who was the Miss Valentine of Richmond, Virginia.” You do sort of feel like you’re clasped to the warm and comforting bosom of a motherly Southern woman, the kind who advises you to improve on your “lovecraft” or “sexpertise,” both of which are words Prioleau actually uses. However, being clasped to the bosom for too long can leave one feeling, well, stifled and suffocated. Her prose becomes rather breathless and rah-rah, which can be a lot more grating than the sound of pink frosted fingernails scraping a chalkboard. Sentences like, “Sirens snapped their fingers at authority and went their own way, the Seductive Way,” are fine when occasionally dropped here and there, tongue-in-cheek. Sprinkled liberally throughout the book, however, it gives one a headache; like the effects of being in a too-small room with a woman who talks volubly, non-stop, while wearing too much perfume.

That’s not to say I hated the book; I found myself unable to stop reading it, although it was always with a slight headache. Drawing on her initial chapter on ‘The Goddess Archetype,’ Prioleau takes a sweeping overview of goddess religions and cultures throughout the centuries. And sweep she must, as she flits breathlessly from one civilization to another in her attempt to prove her point that the belief in female-centered religions was wide, expansive, and more historically-extensive than newer, patriarchal religions. Interestingly enough, she sticks to Western civilisation and pre-civilisation societies. One suspects that if she stuck even a toe into the goddess-like waters of Africa, India, China, or Egypt, the book would naturally have expanded to double-D proportions. That’s a shame, really.

Prioleau neatly divides her book into six different categories of seductress-types, and each chapter pretty much follows the same vein: a 4-5 page sketch of each woman, with some preamble to introduce each woman with the goddess archetype that she best resembles: non-beauties, seniors, scholars/intellectuals, artists, political players, and ‘adventurers.’ The last category and chapter is the most amorphous one of all, and not surprisingly, it’s also the least interesting.

There are common threads running through the lives of most of these women: they usually triumphed over hard and bitter childhoods, or proved their parents and family wrong when nothing was expected of them but docility and ordinariness. All of them were confident, and had an intrinsic belief in their self-worth. But sometimes it seems like Prioleau had to cast her net a little too wide in order to provide a wide array of examples of first-rate seductresses. For example, in the chapter on ‘Siren-Adventurers’ she cites the example of one La Belle Ortero (1868 – 1965) whose chief achievement seems to have been sending men to their death. Plenty of men apparently went nuts over her and killed themselves, but Prioleau never really explains why. It’s somewhat troubling, because had this been a male, he would have been vilified for victimising his women lovers and adopting such a horrifyingly blasé attitude towards the people whom he attracted. But as La Belle Ortero is being worshipped as a seductress, well, rah-rah away!

Interesting chapters are the ones that focus on ‘Scholar-Sirens,’ ‘Siren-Artists,’ and ‘Seductresses in Politics.’ In these pages, you get the sense that these seductresses actually DID something as opposed to merely bedding and leaving; they created, thought, and lived a purposeful life, in addition to enjoying their sexual liberties with a wide variety of men. One of the highlights for me was reading about Emilie du Chatelet, a French physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and classicist who slept only 2 – 4 hours a night in order to fit in time for all her pursuits and interests, alongside dalliances with men. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica remains one of the definitive French versions of the text, an achievement that earns her a single, passing sentence in Prioleau’s book. One almost wished that Prioleau allowed these women more of an opportunity to speak in their own words, whenever it was possible. In the case of du Chatelet, Prioleau tells us that she wrote, “for fun,” a how-to guide for women entitled On Happiness. In order to achieve a truly joyous state, du Chatelet said women should “cultivate strong passions, savour the pleasures of the flesh, enrich their minds through study, and make themselves mistresses of the metaphysics of love.”

That would have been a good note with which to end the book, providing sound advice besides. But Prioleau chose to end with her final chapter, ‘Goddess-Trippin’: Into the Future,’  a fuzzy and lukewarm call to arms to modern women to heed the call of their sexy ancestors. It’s not really clear how we’re supposed to do this. Prioleau half-heartedly offers an option: modern women should learn how to really dance and move their hips, and makes a dazzling attempt at racial generalisation by suggesting that “modern Afrosirens are on to this.” Her source? One scholarly article cited from the Journal of Black Studies. Her other suggestions include learning about your body, enjoying sex, practicing your skills in the sack, growing a brain, and developing a talent. Also, to master the art of witty, charming, seductive conversation. All these are elements that a thinking woman would have thought about before reading this book. However, if seduction is a science as simple as Prioleau makes it out to be, then all these disparate elements should come together in one breathtaking formula that can be applied in all situations with the same effects, regardless of variables.

I can’t help noticing that she writes primarily for a Western audience, and her examples draw from this tradition. She can’t be faulted for this, because one can’t reasonably expect someone to write a history of seductresses the world over. Fair enough. However, it would have probably augured well for her project if she expanded her view and considered seductresses (living examples and goddess archetypes) from outside the West. Her subtitle does bear the claim, “Women who Ravished the World.” Well, one very small chunk of the world, more like it.

All of Prioleau’s examples feature women who prized individuality and went their own way, regardless of what other people thought. A laudable personal trait to have, especially if one is a woman. Yet, how did seductresses thrive in cultures where community and communal living were, and are, integral aspects of the dominant social structure? I understand the running theme throughout the book: ‘proper’ women are expected to be docile and behave according to rules set by other people (men, mainly), while women who subvert and challenge these norms are the ones most likely to reap the most delicious fruit. Yet, plenty of women throughout the world remained shackled to these norms for various reasons, some for the very existence and preservation of their lives. It would have been interesting if she could have even considered these issues and explored potential outcomes for more of the world’s women keen on exploring the ‘lost art of love.’

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