Breast a touchy subject long before Janet

Jackson fallout isn't shock to author who has long studied body part's allure

Conversations

February 08, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,Sun Staff

The corporate mea culpas from CBS, MTV and Viacom Inc. took up more time than their infamous and seemingly eternal halftime show at the Super Bowl last week.

That, of course, was when, for a fleeting moment, one of singer Janet Jackson's breasts was exposed. This prompted a torrent of protests ranging from official Washington to shrill talk-show hosts to viewers to, of course, an indignant National Football League, even though it has never tired of trying to make the Big Game bigger than life itself.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on Jackson's stunt, if not the particular body part she exposed. Marilyn Yalom, though, watched the aftermath with some perplexity. Yalom attended Wellesley College, the Sorbonne and Harvard, and obtained a doctorate in comparative literature at Johns Hopkins University.

These days, she is senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University, the author of several books and a noted lecturer. She burst into the national limelight seven years ago with the publication of A History of the Breast, which has been published in 15 languages.

Yalom will be in Baltimore in May to speak at the Walters Art Museum in conjunction with the release of her next book, The Birth of the Chess Queen. This week, though, she spoke with The Sun from California about the uproar over Jackson's revealing moment.

Your book, A History of the Breast, was published in 1997. How did you get interested in the subject?

I had a history of one book leading to the next. I had written Blood Sisters, about women who had written memoirs about their experiences during the French Revolution. There was a maternal charity, an organization by wealthy women to encourage the working-class woman, the poor, to breast-feed their children. They would support them if they would breast-feed.

In [this country in] the '40s, '50s and even into the '60s, women were not encouraged to breastfeed. But in 18th century France, there was a great popularity of a return to nature. Breast-feeding became part and parcel of the French Revolution -- a moment in which women were breast-feeding after centuries of not doing so.

I became interested in all the ways in which the breast is used. I was able to follow a chronological and topological order from start to finish. It was original. There was nothing like it.

How have perceptions of the breast changed over time?

There are two strands that have existed from the beginning. The nurturing factor has been there right from the start. It has never gone away entirely. Then Freud made the breast a part of erotica. The perception waxes and wanes, depending on the era. I like what one critic said of my book: The breast is the female body's most frayed part.

Do we in the United States have a preoccupation with the breast that is different from other cultures?

We are ... overly preoccupied with the breast. And to me, it's a very weird reaction to a body part. Even in the '80s, women were still being harassed and arrested in the United States for breast-feeding in public. ... There are still people who find it unsettling or disgusting. It would never occur to anyone in Latin America to make a big fuss about it. But we are so overly sensitive to the breast that this is the way we react to a natural function.

We have this peculiar relationship with the breast. Our attorney general, John Ashcroft, spent $8,000 veiling breasts on statues. That is totally inconceivable to any European. It looks like putting a fig leaf on paintings.

On television shows like NYPD Blue, one can see a man's or woman's exposed backside, and there is no public reaction. Why is the breast different?

It's the part of the body that is the most prominent for women. You don't see men's genitals. But the breast has been packaged. Since World War II, the breast emerges from the torpedo brassiere and is unnaturally pointed to make it a commercial component. So, here [with Jackson] is the ultimate picture of the breast being marketed.

In this country, you can do everything to suggest the breast ... but Jackson exposed all.

Are you surprised by the criticism following the exposure of one of Janet Jackson's breasts?

Like many people, I think it's a tempest in a teapot. I am far more offended by men grabbing their crotches.

What does the swiftness of the reactions and the shrillness of the complaints tell us about ourselves?

I think there is confusion as to what is acceptable. Obviously, we run the whole range as to what some of us think is obscene and pornographic. ... We are living in a time when anything goes, but we're holding this little tiny breast to be sacrosanct. ... We have pornography all over the place. Nobody complains about the kinds of violence we see in movies, but we've got this hang-up, not even about sex, but about a body part.

As a scholar and a woman, did you find the Jackson incident offensive?

Janet Jackson was taking advantage of the situation in a way that was clearly provocative and, for some people, outrageous. People are talking about whether this is going to be advantageous to Janet, or help sell records. There is that immediate link to the commercial. ... [So] it's not so much that it's offensive to me, but it's another example of how we do things superficially. It's commerce running all this stuff.

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