In Memoirs of a Geisha, director Rob Marshall missed out on a real opportunity to be a useful iconoclast showing the west what’s so special about geisha: why men admire and want them, what esoteric knowledge they have about pleasing men, how they work their spells….
Instead, Marshall played out only the same-old-same-old standard, politically-correct, puritanical view that geisha (and other sex workers) are pitiable at best and contemptible at worst, either evil manipulators or miserable powerless victims exploited heartlessly by the self-serving animals they generously called men….
Marshall also chose to heavily reinforce the popular delusion that no real feminist could ever, in good conscience, put herself in service to a man.
To be sure, Marshall provided us with beautiful, talented actresses dressed up in gorgeous geisha outfits, and acting out a poignant variety of human emotions on arresting, historically and culturally accurate sets. But none of this display showed any hint of the range of talents and social skills displayed by truly accomplished professional geisha.
Marshall’s vision suggests that geisha's primarily physical services emerge from a secretive, machiavellian world of women who dislike and disrespect men, and who plot together to exploit men’s weaknesses.
Nearly all religious and philosophical traditions, not to mention leaders in every field, teach that selfless, caring, compassionate service to others is a powerful, transformative act (the golden rule, even.) Rob Marshall could have chosen to offer a sympathetic alternative view of geisha—one less politically-correct—as a select, prosperous, accomplished group of women who like and enjoy men and feel comfortable with physical intimacy, who have mastered the arcane arts of pleasing men, and who accept the limitations and dangers of their work—women with skills, beauty, and talent who choose this line of work over other career options, among them, marriage.
The important, tragic and unfeminist thing about sex work is not that it provides a service, but that it usually exploits people economically, just as, say, child labor and child trafficking and porn does, or just as any other poorly paid, undervalued, and underappreciated work does. Feminists are rightly concerned about the grossly inhumane contexts in which workers with no economic options must sell their bodies into undervalued servitude—or die. Sex workers at the low end, like all other unskilled laborers, are victims of indifferent societies that first casually produce and then abandon them.
Feminists are legitimately concerned with women (and men) who have few or no choices because of gender discrimination, or whose particular and uniquely individually-selected gifts are rejected, devalued or unreciprocated because of gender discrimination.
Beyond such ravages of economic and gender exploitation, feminism has no legitimate interest in judging women’s specific choices of activities, such as, for instance, all the many possible forms of loving, or being loved by men and women. Loving men and women, including their bodies, does not necessarily imply gender exploitation or degradation or subservience, however distasteful or immoral some may judge it to be.
Nevertheless, even the world’s top geisha get no respect for their work from puritanical westerners, not because their work is sexist, but for the same reason that prostitution is everywhere disrespected: prostitutes’ competitors–the many “honest women” happily ensconced within the powerful majority who believe they have a real stake in insuring that sex workers remain hidden and powerless.
Many modern women are completely confused about whether feminism is compatible with any kind of compassionate service (especially to men!) at all. Some women have come to wonder if service work of any kind–nursing, house cleaning, waiting tables–is unfeminist and demeaning. Many women feel constrained even within their marriages or romantic relationships, fearing that offering a life of lovingly exchanged service to a man must surely be anti-feminist—a form of caving to the enemy, of servility.
When modern women do find it within themselves to offer men their friendliest services, many still wonder if there’s not something smarmy or beneath them about such offerings, even if their every hormone and natural givingness urges them ceaselessly to slather their beloved with wholehearted attention and kindness.
There is nothing sexist or anti-feminist about loving men (or women, for that matter)–about attracting them, pleasing them, or giving to them wholeheartedly. Loving, giving, and compassionate service of all kinds are never unworthy in themselves, although unworthy contexts involving extremes of compulsion, lack of appreciation and reciprocation truly are sexist and immoral.
Devoted service offered willingly and lovingly in an appreciative, reciprocal (if not tit-for-tat) context is absolutely necessary to optimal human functioning and happiness, and completely different from the kind of forced or half-hearted service in which someone’s gifts are disparaged, unreciprocated, and unappreciated.
Too many people nowadays overlook the fact that the very essence of a good relationship is standing in service to one another, regardless of whether that partnership is between husband and wife, mother and daughter, friends, siblings, in-laws, a CEO and her new mail clerk, young lovers…whoever.
Every conceivable positive relationship is based in reciprocal service. Relationships that are not about reciprocal service—however loosely defined—are not really relationships at all; they’re isolated billiard balls knocking about an empty lonely pool table universe, banging together sporadically and spectacularly in conflict and competition before resuming their separated lives.
The most universally prized life-enhancing romantic relationship, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, is one in which your dearly-beloved treats you like a king (or a princess), a goddess (or a god). Among the keys to such heavenly bliss are good-faith, wholeheartedness, appreciation, and reciprocation.
Because of confusion about the subtleties of feminism, modern romantic relationships evolved to become less concerned with caring, commitment, and helping one another in a challenging world, and more about cold, competitive calculations and sexual politics. Both sexes worry whether warm displays of affection will be perceived to be neediness. Both sexes fear that generous-spirited service iwill mply servitude. Both sexes exhaust themselves in endless, awkward, conflicted, back-and-forth rituals of worrying whether they’re giving more than they receive. Both sexes are all about, “you go first.” Yet both sexes are fully aware that their beloved wants a partner who is both powerful and slavishly devoted—because frankly, that’s what they want too. Many people deeply enjoy the lavish, tender, solicitous attention of an enchanting member of the opposite sex.
More young people of both sexes these days are giving up on what they see as the relationship game, foregoing the pain and uncertainty of modern committed relationships in great part because of their understandable confusion about the wisdom of putting themselves at service to another. I mean, if their long-dreamed-of personification of virtuous masculine/feminine perfections is ultimately unwilling to bow down, worship and serve them all their days, well really, why bother?
The age-old willingness of both sexes to offer their personal gifts to a single individual over a lifetime is in considerable decline, and considering the grave new shortage of available perfect partners for such paragons, may never recover.
Some women who would willingly offer loving service to women friends still feel historically (and often legitimately) constrained about giving to men, who thus are relegated to a very sad, under-served, second-class half of the world of often otherwise deserving, well-intentioned parents, bosses, employees, children, siblings, friends, and colleagues, which is too bad, too.
If feminists want more solidarity and sisterhood, they might consider offering compassionate service and empathy to exploited (or unexploited) sex workers. And while they’re doing that, they might benefit from listening to such workers’ hard-won geisha-type advice about how to please men, just as men could learn much from their gender's most supportive exemplars.
Most single young women today devote a large part of their earnings and their waking hours to pleasing men anyway, regardless of how feministically-conflicted they may feel about such efforts. Consider the successes of recent best-sellers offering love advice from former prostitutes….
It is certainly grossly sexist when women (and men) are constrained, unwilling givers to unappreciative, inequitable, unreciprocating receivers who have been deluded into thinking that such service is the rightful due of their gender.
Much of modern feminism is a reaction against unappreciative men who historically not only gobbled up all the good jobs and roles, but also most of the money, prestige and power that came along with them, and who later had the nerve to expect continued affectionate service from women, not as a freely-given, loving, and valued gift, but as their legitimate if unreciprocated due. Women, too, are finally seeing the sexism behind the long-standing assumption that men owe women a living….
To the often justifiably-aggrieved women who find little to like about men: please stop insisting that there’s something slavish, inappropriate, and/or sexist about freely choosing to be in a generous, mutually supportive relationship with a man (or a woman?) There isn’t.
Forewarned is forearmed: men like women who like them. If you don't much care for your man, or for men in general, for whatever reasons, don’t be surprised if he someday wanders off with someone completely unworthy of him but who likes him a lot and aims to please. The same goes for men who don't find much to like about women.
To all women: please try to see fit never again to disrespect a geisha or any other sex worker. Like the rest of us bumbling God-isn’t-finished-with-us-yet-either humans, sex workers need compassion, acceptance, and understanding, not contempt.
And finally, to women who love men, or who want to learn how to love them better, we can all reasonably choose, if we wish to, to learn a lot from geisha. Because geisha aren’t just about sex, you know. Sexuality, like spirituality, pervades all aspects of life. It's not just about genitals. The brain, they say, is the most important sex organ. Geisha know a lot about making men happier which is well worth knowing, if you’re one of the many who aspire to mutually enjoy and serve another.
Geisha lore offers a tempting (but not exclusive) window on relatively rare social arts: attentiveness, affection, tenderness, flirting, gentleness, refinement, courtesy, agreeableness, femininity, respect, presence, charm, humor, kindness, intellect, sensitivity, openness, loyalty, sensuality, giving, honoring, playfulness, intimacy, nurturing, acceptance, forgiveness, support, generosity, assistance, vulnerability, respect for tradition, and, in general, making a fuss over, and spoiling men rotten. Geisha are really good at making men feel truly wonderful about themselves. What’s not to like about that?
Whenever and however did this venerable list of praiseworthy social skills become politically incorrect? These subtly but important graces–along with physical beauty, gorgeous accoutrements, and skill in the arts of music, dance, serving food and the like–are a goodly part of what real geisha are all about, not to mention real women, real men, real relationships, and real feminism.
I don’t see much clarity about any of this in today’s society. I would love to see more thoughtful commentary and dialogue on these engaging contemporary issues, and regret not having found an in-depth treatment of them in Rob Marshall’s movie. I do think his film was beautiful made and visually and emotionally rich; he just missed this one important boat.
I hope someday to see highly-accomplished geisha finally receive from western audiences the recognition, support, and respect due them for their historic, centuries-old, artful, dedicated, cheerful, and very valuable example of freely-given, highly-valued compassionate service—not servitude or subjugation—to fortunate and highly appreciative men.
Please write comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a conversation I had with a thoughtful reader….)
A colleague forwarded your article to me, and I found it most interesting. I agree with the vast majority of your assertions (although Marshall's set was not, in actuality, culturally accurate). I wrote a doctoral dissertation on geisha (2002), and I propose geisha as feminists. I have an article in a book entitled Bad Girls of Japan; in a dialogue between me, a few geisha, and several customers, we discuss geisha as feminists. I spent almost three years with geisha, and studied them as artists; I frame them as women in control of their own futures and outline just exactly how they exist within the arts world (the Ph.D. was completed in ethnomusicology). I propose that the “bought and sold” model of geisha so treasured in America is a form of feminist Orientalism, and we need this false notion if we are to appear advanced in the gender department (another pipe dream).
The film was ridiculous. Even someone who's seen geisha for only a few minutes would never have tried to pass that off as accurate. The Chinese actresses the country continues to rave about were pathetic actresses — we just have poor standards for this. Real geisha couldn't be more different.
The arts scenes were so far off as to be laughable — imagine casting the American basketball team as the Bolshoi, putting them in leotards, giving them a few lessons, and then allowing their “dance” to be passed off seriously as ballerinas. These Chinese actresses couldn't even wear kimono properly because they hadn't done it for thirty odd years, couldn’t walk properly (an art learned from dance).
Anyway, kudos to you for smelling a fraud even though you don't have the experience I've had, and for pointing out one of America's greatest blind spots. Unfortunately, the rest of the nation is eagerly gobbling up the fantasy, and real geisha will suffer the consequences because young Japanese men don't want to be part of something that the world condemns.
Feel free to email — email@example.com
Kelly Foreman, Ph.D.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and interesting letter; it was very gratifying to hear from a scholar who is so experienced and knowledgeable about geisha, and I appreciated your support as well as your clarifications. What a fascinating experience you had in Japan!
My background in geisha and feminism is avocational. I was introduced to an exquisite geisha in Kyoto when I was a little girl, visiting the gardens surrounding a teahouse during the early 50's, and later that night saw more geisha singing and dancing on a kabuki stage, if my memory serves correctly. My father, a great Japanophile, was stationed in Tokyo in the U.S. occupation army–we lived there three years. My father described the “top” geisha to me as prized national treasures, personifications of the Japanese feminine ideal, carriers of a long oral cultural tradition, and the epitome of social refinement, courtesy, sensitivity, delicacy. My dad was my childhood hero, so his admiration piqued my interest greatly.
Perhaps I read a review of Bad Girls and picked up your idea of geisha as feminists–I don't remember, I'm sorry–we bloggers are pretty free to throw “our” stuff “out there” unhitched to anything, and just see what happens, unlike you more conscientious folk…. I really like your great thesis and agree with it, and I loved your NBA/Bolshoi image….
I've been blogging since Feb 05 and am enjoying it. I forwarded the geisha article to your colleague (I only sent it to one person) since her name came up, when, as an afterthought, I googled “geisha” + “feminism.” I had started the piece as a review of Memoirs of a Geisha, and I guess it got away from me!
Thanks, too, for your comment on the set. The old town took me back a long ways into nostalgia-land, although to be sure, I shouldn't have pronounced it accurate, since I didn't know. I remember that I would take my 200-yen allowance weekly and wander the little shops in search of treasures. Everyone was always so kind to me–I'm still drawn to Asians. I didn't know there had been a war; I felt perfectly safe.
I will look for your book/article…. I hope to return to Japan some day. I remember spending a week at a lake resort called Kanizawa (I'm not sure of the spelling)–perhaps it has changed less than Tokyo? My favorite movie is Lost in Translation–I watch it over and over. I mean to review it–I'll send it when I do…. I've also been accused of having Japanese influences in my art–my compositions and technique too? I posted a couple of my portraits on my blog–do you see a Japanese influence? Interesting, as I left Japan when I was only 9.
What a fascinating field you are in–it's just exploding.
I really like/agree with your thesis on the American view of geisha; I'm guessing that the Japanese view is very mixed? I do hope some still cherish the geisha. Yes, the young everywhere are easily embarrassed by old ways, and hasten to throw them out; our Indian cultures come to mind. I remember how WEIRD I thought authentic (American) Indian music was when I first heard a recording (in elementary school)–anything different shocks the young–they are so rigid so early. I love it now, so it must have been a fruitful introduction–I stayed intrigued.
I was very interested by what you said about the actors' portrayal of the geisha in the movie, because I thought perhaps my memory might have been playing tricks on me. The movie geisha, to me, looked, in comparison to remembered geisha, very big, crude, and galumphing, sort of, although of course they are beautiful women. I loved Gong Li in To Live and earlier movies of Zhang Zhi (spelling?) better. My very different memory of geisha is of amazingly tiny, delicate, small birds. They also had beautiful cultivated voices, and were incredibly poised; every move seemed artless yet amazingly beautiful. My geisha was so gentle and warm to the little girl (me) shyly admiring her. And yes, no one in the movie reproduced their incredible walk….
I do recall seeing Sayonara many years ago, and the geisha/star in that movie seemed more authentic; I'll have to Netflix it and see what I think now, lo these many years later….
Thank you again, Kelly, for your kudos and your kindness. If I receive any interesting mail on the topic, I'll forward it to you. I will be very interested to follow your academic career.
An afterthought… May I post your letter to me on my blogsite (www.epharmony.com) along with my reply to you–following my geisha article, in the comment section? May I also post your email address, in case someone has a question for you? Thanks again so much for writing….
Thanks for your letter. I like Kyoto too, and lived there, but kind of found that there were more actual artisans in Tokyo than in Kyoto (almost all of the arts headmasters who teach Kyoto geiko live in Tokyo or Osaka). I love Tokyo's energy, and Tokyo geisha are really fun! The kind geisha you saw in Kyoto are the real thing; they are far too busy to be as langourous as that film depicted, too refined to be as catty as that. There's competition for the arts roles and artistic rivalry to be sure, but nobody has the time to waste like that.
The real problem with the film, that the media seems not able to acknowledge, is that this awful film is based on an awful book. Golden's book is a fiction, and nothing more than a cheap white boy fantasy at that. He wrote it to cater to American orientalist fantasies, to sell copy (which it did). So the movie should be viewed in the same vein as Harry Potter or something, if at all.
Geisha do not spoil men; men feel spoiled around women who spend all day studying art, for most of their lives. Imagine having dinner with a Bolshoi ballerina, or with Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg? Or a person with both talents combined? We don't have anything like this. Geisha don't cater to men's whims at all — I can assure this. They are actually pretty aloof, in the way that artists are (even around the people who pay for their living). Japan has gradually devalued its own arts, especially traditional music and dance, so any future audiences for geisha rely on a cultivated taste in these things, and this is unlikely. Even the music tracks (all except for two) were completely inaccurate; there's Chinese er-hu or pipa for many of them, shakuhachi (never heard in the geisha quarters), and tsugaru shamisen (a northern folk form). Would you use blue grass fiddle music to depict classical ballet, just because the instrument is associated with it
Please read the actual memoirs: Geisha, a Life, by Mineko Iwasaki. This is the same person that Golden interviewed for Memoirs, but chose instead to create his own weird version. The two stories have no relationship whatsoever.
Bad Girls of Japan (Palgrave Press, 2005) includes my chapter, called “Bad Girls Confined: Okuni, Geisha, and Negotiation of Female Performance Space.” It answers a lot of the questions many people have about geisha. My dissertation is called The Role of Music in the Lives and Identities of Japanese Geisha (Kent State University Press, 2002), and I have an upcoming book being published by Ashgate Press in London called The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity, and Meaning (2007?).
Thanks for the interest, and for doing the blog! I’m fine with posting this conversation too….
Thanks for your permission to post our exchange. I must admit I enjoyed Golden’s book, and admired his story-telling abilities. I’m sure I projected my own image of geisha onto his. You, on the other hand, were evaluating critically, from an informed background and interest, which is another thing entirely…. Thank you for the above references…. I will post them too.
One last comment: I wish I’d said, “Geisha make men feel spoiled” instead of “geisha spoil men.” I agree that geisha are too hard-working and serious of purpose to have time to indulge men often. The lucky few men, on the other hand, who are graced with the good fortune to enjoy the complete, gentle focus and presence of a geisha, even for a short time, must feel spoiled and honored by that moment’s special attentiveness to their needs and thoughts. Too often, western women perceive attentiveness to men as flattery and indulgence, when sometimes what men want is merely courtesy, kindness, and a little unrushed attention…. They feel spoiled just to get that!
I look forward to talking with you again someday, Kelly.
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