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."