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Kisses Sweeter Than Wine : EVIL SISTERS: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. By Bram Dijkstra a (Alfred A. Knopf: $30, 480 pp.)

November 24, 1996|Hal Marienthal | Hal Marienthal is professor emeritus of theater arts at Cal State Dominguez Hills and novelist living in Santa Fe, N.M

History's most durable and best documented conflict--that between the sexes--is given a provocative spin with the publication of Bram Dijkstra's "Evil Sisters." Its title alone is sufficiently intriguing to guarantee a long, hard look by feminists, while our planet's committed misogynists will scour the book to validate their mind-set, one generally unacceptable in today's more enlightened societies.

In an earlier work, "Idols of Perversity," Dijkstra laid the groundwork for his explorations into men's waspish depiction of women as vampires, documenting how male-dominated fields of art and advertising branded women as demons and seducers to thwart the female's implicit quest for domination over, and control of, men. "Evil Sisters" goes beyond such implications by linking this century's genocidal horrors to late 19th century socioeconomic attitudes.

Dijkstra's analyses are based on assertions of post-Darwinian scientists, sociologists, biologists, theoretical economists, genetic experimenters and assorted psychologists and pseudo-academics, most in support of America's turn-of-the-century tycoons who skewed greed and personal prejudices, the better to accommodate themselves to Charles Darwin's seminal judgments regarding human evolution. Darwinian theory, positing that natural selection determines which life forms will or will not survive, strongly suggests that "might makes right" is mankind's guiding principle in its inexorable climb toward higher development.

Dijkstra contends that xenophobic statesmen and industrialists perverted Darwinism by deeming demoniacal anyone who diminished man's competitive resources. By anyone, of course, they meant women.

Man the entrepreneur avidly shoved woman the predator into this fishbowl of human piranhas, states Dijkstra, characterizing her as an anthropophagic (cannibalistic) seducer, kohled eyes insinuating bottomless temptations, rouged lips irresistibly inviting the spider's fatal kiss--in short, an abominable contemporary incarnation of ancient, death-dealing vampires.

Dijkstra's prototypical portrayal of such a creature is the actress Theda Bara as she appeared in a 1915 motion picture, "A Fool There Was." It introduced that era's view of a diabolic female wielding despotic, destructive sexual mastery and enthralled a nation mesmerized by Bara, simply called the Vampire, as she turned John Schuyler, a successful businessman, model husband and pillar of the community, into her piteous victim, brought to his knees by her irresistible enticements. "Kiss me, my fool," insists this vampire-woman, and as the man submits to her will, he seals his fate. "In depicting a woman's absolute erotic power over a man," notes Dijkstra, "this kiss also became a violation of the principles of manhood itself: Here was a woman who was, in essence, raping a man."

Defining the vampire's kiss as a cold-blooded assault, intrinsically an upper persuasion for a lower invasion, Dijkstra explores early 20th century scientific notions about the connection between man's semen and his cerebral powers. This may prove fascinating to anyone connected with anatomical research, especially of the academic kind, but it's a tough read for the general public and the book's main flaw. In nearly every chapter, Dijkstra alludes to tempting samples from literature, film and the arts describing demon-like female behavior, then surrounds them with interpretations best suited for scholars in the social and biological sciences. Dijkstra is more accessible when he traces a spate of vampire films focalizing women as sexually depraved bloodsuckers, following publication of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in 1897, a work that bred a prodigy of such monsters like those cavorting in Anne Rice's fractious novels. In Dijkstra's view, "the vampire Lestat and his violent pop-culture minions are not erotic revolutionaries but contemporary businessmen with late Victorian dental work."

Even the fiction of American literary lions is not spared. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald are all shown to feature predatory females hell-bent on draining men of their brain cell-producing honey, while a burgeoning motion picture industry contributed its share of diatribe: D.W. Griffith's vile, racist (and hugely successful) "The Birth of a Nation"; F.W. Murneau's misanthropic "Nosferatu"; Fritz Lang's fascist parable "Metropolis"; Erich Von Sternberg's "Blue Angel," starring Marlene Dietrich and Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik's" macho triumph over "degenerate" femaleness. All clearly exhibit their creators' terror about sexual woman's corrosive potential for reducing malehood's noble ideals to a condition of "unclean, miscegenated, socialist anarchy." Dijkstra thoroughly details how the roots of anti-feminine, racist and social prejudices were nourished by such cultural fertilizer. Nor have such attitudes been eradicated: Dijkstra might easily add Madonna and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to his gallery of modern female vampires.

"Evil Sisters" is most provocative in the chilling last chapter as it traces Hitler's commitment to the distorted eugenics of anti-feminist racists and the invectives of American misogynists and anti-Semites like academic luminaries David Starr Jordan and Madison Grant. From such ilk Hitler imbibed his infamous concepts of racial purity, ultimately leading to his conviction that a woman was, as the author notes, "the conduit to degeneration, the weak link in the evolutionary process" and that "only chaste motherhood could 'kill' her."

In a cultural milieu that continues to purvey magazines, films and videos that blatantly exploit women's bodies--a milieu all too often equating human sexual impulses with dissolute and degenerate behavior--Dijkstra's inquiry into the root causes of such attitudes should be welcomed.

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