Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano
The morning after I returned to Chicago from the recent Margaret Mead Legacy conference at Barnard College, honoring the centenary of the anthropologist's birth, a newspaper columnist rang me at dawn with the demand that I explain "from a feminist perspective" why Tony Soprano is "this millennium's first sex symbol." "Does this mean that we're all going backwards?" she asked with relish. Dumbfounded, I countered, rather crankily, with the request that she give me evidence that any women anywhere were claiming sexual attraction to a dumb, sexist and racist, unfaithful, badly out of shape, psychologically damaged organized crime capo. (Not that I don't love the show; who doesn't, even if I have to watch my own people get minstrelized to a fare-thee-well.) Nothing daunted, and with not a shred of shame that she in fact had no evidence, the columnist cleverly countered, "Well, if it were true, what would your feminist perspective be?" As Rayna Rapp of the New School had declared to the amused Barnard audience, I had that feminist anthropologist's "WWMMS moment": What Would Margaret Mead Say?
What would she say? We could easily remark about Mead what Walt Whitman, another New York-based celebrity, claimed of himself: She is large, she contains multitudes. Mead was professionally active for fully half of the last century and, by choice and her own never-ending efforts, very much a public voice for most of that time. She said a lot of different things in different decades, and she was received variously by her own professional colleagues and within a shifting American public sphere. The Barnard conferees, including the college President, Judith Shapiro, herself a feminist anthropologist, and Mead's daughter Mary Catherine Bateson, spoke on key aspects of Mead's work, on the ways in which she had inspired their own research, and on what her legacy might be in this millennium. They agreed that she and her cohort made a series of novel connections: envisioning the malleability of gender relations, seeing human corporeality, ritual and psychology as one, emphasizing the deeply enculturated nature of child-rearing and of adolescent coming of age. Elaine Charnov, director of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and Faye Ginsburg of New York University both spoke as well of Mead's prescience in the use of ethnographic film and her general status as technological pioneer.
"But there is no Margaret Mead now," the panelists lamented with the partisan, largely female audience crowding the auditorium, and variously attributed that fact to her heroic uniqueness, to her intellectual coming of age being the "right time and the right place" for public sphere presence, to the rise of the New Right in the West and the triumph of global neoliberalism, to the renaissance of biological reductionism in the overwhelming American popular-cultural presence of sociobiology, to our collective retreat from public voice.
Mead became a popular icon over the course of the 1960s, and attained the status of Holy Woman in her last years, as the late Roy Rappaport commented (she died in 1978). And it is difficult to evaluate Holy Women, particularly in the long wake of a posthumous attack--by the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman, in 1983--that quickly became a mass media firestorm. Margaret Mead and Samoa is a badly written and unconvincing claim that Mead, influenced in a "culturally determinist" direction by her nefarious adviser Franz Boas, falsely interpreted the Hobbesian world in which Samoan youth came of age as a gentle idyll. Freeman claimed that the true Samoa is characterized by a "primeval rank system" that dictates a "regime of physical punishment" of children and violent "rivalrous aggression" among men, "highly emotional and impulsive behavior that is animal-like in its ferocity" among chiefs, and a rape rate "among the highest to be found anywhere in the world." Scholars criticized Freeman's theoretical vacuity and empirical flaws, his ahistorical claim of an Eternal Samoa, his failure to realize that his key informants--older, high-status males--were no more a "true and accurate lens" of Samoan culture than were Mead's young female companions. Most especially, feminists noted the rank sexism of Freeman's focus on Mead's youth and size: The "liberated young American...only twenty-three years of age...[was] smaller in stature than some of the girls she was studying."
But public reception of, as opposed to in-house reaction to, Freeman's book was most importantly about the extraordinary fit between his line of attack and newly dominant New Rightist politics. Margaret Mead and Samoa provided a Heaven-sent opportunity for the press to rant against the "liberal feminist culture" and "lifestyle experiments" with which it newly identified Mead, conveniently forgetting its fervent eulogies of her of only half a decade earlier. As the late David Schneider noted at the time, Freeman's book was "a work that celebrate[d] a particular political climate by denigrating another." Freeman's vision, at one fell swoop, allowed commentators to deny female intellectual capacities across all societies; to naturalize male dominance, male sexual violence and aggression; and at the same time, to slur Samoans--and with them all so-called primitives, that is, all people of color--as violent, nasty savages. Logically self-contradictory and empirically bankrupt though it was, Freeman's narrative was wonderfully composed to fit American Reagan-era contentions of the foolishness of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as you "can't change human nature," and Western, upper-class, male, heterosexual, and white dominance are natural after all.
Freeman's frisson in popular culture is now long past, victim of the increasingly rapid biodegradation of American popular consciousness. I routinely ask gender studies and anthropology classes if they have heard of Freeman or his book, and very few respond affirmatively, even when they have a niggling sense that there is some sort of blot on Mead's reputation. Only American New Rightists remember and believe in Freeman's attack on Mead: A Lexis/Nexis search for all articles referring to the two since 1990 revealed only a handful of sneering articles in rightist outlets, whereas a general search using Mead's name alone garnered thousands of "hits."
But while specific media scandals always fade, popular-cultural troping of anthropology and anthropologists is unceasing, and distorts whatever information members of the discipline may have to offer considering power and culture in human societies. The issue is more crucial than is often realized, because popular apprehensions of anthropology and anthropologists are importantly interwoven with changing American constructions of Others--those deemed somehow apart from the norm by virtue of race, gender, nationality, class, religion, sexual identity. "Culture" and "biology" are the two key domains through which Americans historically have laundered politics from public sphere inspection. And anthropology, sententiously self-described as the most humanistic of the sciences, the most scientific of the humanities, has thus evolved into a cynosure of political approbation and attack, both refuge and refuse in contemporary contestations over power.