Thursday, August 30, 2007

This is a paper I wrote for Human Sexuality class a couple semesters ago. The assignment was to find a piece of art in any museum or outdoor display in DC, and write about the sexual connotations inherent in it, based on some of the concepts we’d been discussing in class. Well I’m pathetically lazy and didn’t get out to any real museum, so this is what I came up with. Scored 98/100.

November 7, 2006

The Washington Monument

So I went to a couple different museums, the Hirshhorn, the American Art museum, and I also spent time in the Sculpture Garden, and while there are thousands of incredible works of art in these buildings, many of which carry heavy sexual suggestion, I found myself fascinated with a different spectacle. Not quite a sculpture, the Washington Monument is a symbol of all that is great and powerful in America. Named after our first, and supposedly greatest president, people flock to this simple tower from all over the world to be looked down upon by its all-seeing red eye. I will explore this phenomenon in terms of the implicit sexuality of a tall pole sticking straight out of a grassy mound of wet earth.

I will start by describing the monument itself. Surrounded by a huge circular tour bus road, the Washington Monument stands at the crest of a grass field perhaps half a mile or more in diameter, rising to the tower on all sides. The monument is built on a marsh, and the foundations had to be stabilized on several occasions throughout construction1. The sexual connotations here are not explicit, but they are present nonetheless. Think, America’s tower of power, our masculinity protruding from a soft wet mound of grass that needs constant reassuring and restructuring. I point this out with a hint of irony at what this represents in terms of gender relations in America. I will come back to this point later.

The monument itself is made from 2-foot tall blocks of grained white marble.1 The construction took place in two phases interrupted by the Civil War. When construction stopped in 1854, the shaft had been erected to a height of 154 feet. In 1855 during the interim period, a group known as the “Know-Nothings” executed a successful coup to claim control of the monument. The Know-Nothings “(officially the American Party),” were “a nativist political movement…organized to oppose the great wave of immigrants who entered the United States after 1846.” After two years in control, the group only managed to add 26 feet of shoddy masonry with sub par marble. When the US Army Engineer Corps finally began construction again in 1876, this layer was removed, leaving a scar that is quite evident to this day. Isn’t it interesting, that a group passionately resolved to protect America from invading immigrants and their alien values made their mark by messing up the monument that most symbolizes their own ideals? This little anecdote has strong ties to many contemporary issues in America over immigration and ‘American values’ and the American ‘way of life’, and once again, those who are most passionate to ‘protect’ America from would be invaders seem to be the ones doing the most damage.

That is just politics though, and the important issue at hand is how these ideologies suggest certain assumptions about gender roles. A woman’s place in America has obviously moved leaps and bounds throughout our history in terms of legal recognition, suffrage and on into the free market workplace, but the facts remain that the overwhelming majority of CEO’s in this country are (white) men, equal pay for equal work is still an issue, and women are somewhat unavoidably held down by the patriarchical nature of our society. That, however, does not mean that they haven’t had their say. Like I said, women have been a moving force throughout American history. But just like real life, in individualized gender relations, sometimes you have to peel off a few layers before you see that the influence is equal and mutual.

It is vital to understand the inspiration for the monument. George Washington may be the most celebrated American in history. As it says on the monument’s official website, Washington was a man who “defined the Presidency,” and “earned the title ‘Father of his Country’ in recognition of his leadership in the cause of American independence.”1 The man who fathers a child so great as America must be incredibly potent. Anybody able to give birth to such a strong and healthy child now 230 years old says a lot about the parents, or in this case it seems, just the Father, for there is no mention of a Mother (besides, perhaps, the Virgin Mary, but the religious side of this story is a topic all its own).

This man was so great that “efforts to commemorate his legacy began during his lifetime and continue to this day.”1 But again, according to the official website, no other work of recognition has “captured the imagination of the people world-wide like the Washington Monument.”1 Why is this? Is it the location? The monument is located “at the…cross-axis of the White House and U.S. Capitol.”1 Only not quite. “Because of the swamplike nature of the [planned] ground…the construction engineers located the site for the foundations about 100 yards to the southwest”1 on more stable ground. As I alluded to before, the too soft and fertile ground represents femininity, while the monument itself represents the expression patriarchal power. It is a fitting image that the unstable foundation forced the monument to stand just slightly off from the ideal geographic cross-axis between the other two most important symbols of power. It’s as if, as men, we are more or less going to have it our way, but not exactly. We’re going to build our buildings and beat our chests and grasp at power, but we will always be slightly undermined, nudged a bit off our manly course by women, who are, when it comes down to it, our foundation. You may not be able to see the monuments supple base from “30 to 40 miles away”1 like you can it’s blinking red eyes, but if not for the foundation there could be no monument in the first place.

This leads me to Martha Washington, George’s cornerstone. Much has been made of Mrs. Washington and it is only right and only possible for a man to have been as great as George was when he has the love of a woman like Martha. However, much of her celebrated greatness was in her ability to stay cheerful and supportive of her embattled husband. Her official White House biography states that, “From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children,”3 a stereotypical image of what a woman ‘should’ be. She was a homemaker, a mother and a loving wife, what else could any man ask? She was wise, however, stating in letters that, “I am still determined to be…happy…for I have…learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances,” and was praised by Abigail Adams as, “one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.”3 This was clearly a powerful woman. Perhaps not physically or politically, but in the way women are most naturally powerful, in terms of emotional expression and tenderness. Their ability to engender hope with nothing more than a smile (and maybe a kiss) has been the root cause of miracles, I’m sure of it. Loving-kindness is a powerful weapon when deployed correctly.

It is also interesting to note that no building anywhere in the District of Columbia is taller than the 555’ 5/8”1 tall monument. This fact is a powerful ode to our nations respect for George Washington. His name commands such power that no building, even in the bustling nation’s capitol, can look down on his tower. This concept is idealistically pleasing but it also has practical consequences. The limitation on height obviously limits economic growth. Taller buildings mean more offices means more businesses in less space which is the catalyst to a stronger economy. Washington D.C. might compete with New York City in terms of cultural city life and explosive economic growth, were it not for this respectful rule. At the same time, it creates a different atmosphere, a quieter ambience not to be surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides. Either way, it is important to recognize the not-so-subtle influence of this massive pointed erection looking down on all of us in our nation’s capitol.

Obviously these gender relation issues are not explicit in the Washington Monument. The fact is, it is a beautiful aesthetic structure that helps create one of the more stunning scenic (sunset, if you like) views in the world. It seems common practice to take the girl of your fancy for a walk down to the monuments at dusk, the calm reflecting pool magnifying the romance already in the air. I know many people for whom a trip to see the monument has resulted in some gender relations of their own, and in the end, isn’t that really what it’s all about?

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