The Scarlet Letter: Who are we outcasting today?

Upon close reading of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, it is alarming how many themes which the author highlights, particularly surrounding the perpetuation of a mysoginistic culture, remain prevalent to this day. Hester Prynne’s exhibition on the scaffold as punishment for being an adulteress finds its present-day parallel in the practice of slut-shaming, which can be defined as:

the deliberate act of calling a woman a slut, a whore or impugning her character in sexual terms in order to embarrass, humiliate, intimidate, degrade or shame her for actions or behaviors that are a normal part of female sexuality.”

Slut-shaming of figures in popular culture abound. The most recent example would probably be the backlash, especially on social media, that followed Miley Cyrus’ controversial performance at the MTV VMA’s. An article entitled “If You Want A World That Respects Women, Stop Slut-Shaming Them” by Nico Lang examines and criticizes this practice. There are stark similarities between Lang’s critique of society’s perception towards woman and Hawthorne’s criticisim of the Puritans’ treatment of Hester Prynne. Considering the breach in time between the writing of each, this is alarming.

Hawthorne describes the scaffold which Hester ascends thusly:

The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature – whatever be the delinquancies of the individual – no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for his shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do so.”

The scaffold as a setting, situated in the market place, therefore symbolizes the judgemental nature of Puritan society as it literally allows the citizens of Salem to judge Hester.

In modern terms, the Internet and social media take the place of this scaffold, for they provide a platform of discourse through which the public can judge the sexual exploits of females, famous or otherwise. While Hester was branded with the scarlet ‘A,’ pictures and video of Cyrus prancing around in nude latex generated tags including ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘trollop’ among many other derrogatory terms.

Another parallel can be drawn between those members of society passing judgement females in both cases. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne illustrates the goodwives/gossips dichotomy prevalent among the women of Salem. The irony lies in the fact that these women, by such harsh criticism of themselves as a whole, perpetuate the mysoginy prevalent in their society.

Lang argues that through slut-shaming, this practice persists today and argues that it also promotes rape culture. He exemplifies this through an anecdote:

I remember in my Junior Year of high school, our English class had to do an exercise where we debated whether a woman who wears skimpy clothing on the street deserves to be harassed. What surprised me most wasn’t that there were guys who agreed with that statement, but that girls stood right along with them. “You have to know how men are,” one of my classmates said, who was a good friend of mine. “If you present yourself that way, you just have to expect certain things.”

The persistance of mysoginy is the most jarring similarity between Puritanical New England and present-day society. In both Hawthorne’s Salem and in the practice of slut-shaming as argued by Lang, the blame for a scandalous act falls squarely on the woman implicated. In Hester Prynne’s case, sin was manifested in her pregnancy, the embroidered ‘A’ and by Pearl’s physical presence, while the majority of the magistrates dismissed the idea of discovering who the father was.

Similarly, Robin Thicke, although a grown and married man as well as a father, got almost no criticism for the VMA performance while singing ‘Blurred Lines’, which upon close reading, could be interpreted as a justification for date rape. The double standard among the sexes persists.

I believe it is necessary to keep asking the question, shouted by an anonymous male citizen to the gossips in Hawthorne’s Salem,

is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows?”

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2 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter: Who are we outcasting today?

  1. Pingback: Adulteress as Villainess | Women in Contemporary Relationships

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