Saturday, December 12, 2009

*Gloria Swansong : Reverse Sexism and "Small lobes."

I was 27 in 1972 and Gloria Swanson was 72. I'm sure she would have an astrological interest in that numerical inversion. Through no intention on my part, I wound up spending half an hour in a Watergate Hotel room with Miss Swanson (who was between her 5th and 6th marriage at the time). My mentor (mentess?) Miss Vivien Kellems had asked us both to join her in testifying before Rep. Wilbur Mills' House Ways and Means Committee on a bill Miss Kellems had succeeded in having introduced to equalize the tax burden between single and married taxpapyers. All three of us were unmarried at the time, albeit a brief interruption in a series of married states for Miss Swanson.

Miss Swanson's ego was like Eddie Murphy's expanding body in his "fat" pictures: it just grew and grew until there was no space left in any enclosure Miss Swanson inhabited for anything but that incessantly inflating monstrosity of self-absorbtion.

Miss Swanson took an instant dislike to me, perhaps because I did not bow when introduced. She reached up (she was short and I am tall) and took my right ear lobe in her fingers and said with patronizing (matronizing?) disdain, "Small lobes" only she drew it out with a hollywood-british [sic] pronunciation "Smaaaaawwwwwwlll loooohhhhhbbbbzzzzz".

I didn't quite catch on. The words seemed to make no sense even though she had her fingers on my ear lobe. I said "What?" puzzled; and she replied, "Small ear lobes mean you weren't breast fed* as a child," all in that upper crust phony auntie mame scarsdale-british accent [sic] that only hollywood [sic] seemed to produce in the 1940's and 50's. (BTW: She was correct: I wasn't breast fed as a child!)

Now I caught on. She was dissing me (before the word "diss" had been coined). Not one to back away from a challenge, I began to question the authority of such a biological axiom.

Miss Kellems saw an argument brewing and walked over between us and said "Paul..." something or other, changing the subject as a diversionary tactic.

There were only the three of us in the room and we were due to testify in an hour and Miss Kellems did NOT want to blow her chance to get her bill out of committee (it failed) and on to the House floor with some unexpected personality clash.

( I wish I had had the zest to say in return to Miss Swanson's "Small lobes" the words "Long face" "LOOOHHHHNNNGGGG FAAAASSSSUUUHHH". She had an enormously long face for a short woman, perhaps the result of 'heavy lifting', shall we say.)

So the storm was averted, I was invited to pose for a photo with both of them (see below or and we all testified and evaporated back to our respective lives.

But Miss Swanson had given me a wonderful anecdote which I have repeated dozens of times over the years. In 1972 she was herself now the very "caricature of the caricature" she had made famous in the movie Sunset Boulevard: the fading star Norma Desmond. Well into her four decade Swansong, she had precious few "gifts" to bestow.

She gave me something else which as a 6'2" male with the aura of still youthful looks, I had never felt before: the sting of sexism.

Miss Swanson was a woman in a open-air market shopping for male merchandise worth her attention, and my "small lobes" (and my failure to genuflect upon being presented to her starship) disqualified me instantly.

On to the next display case please.

Imagine the gazillion times a day women have been so dismissed as "inadequate" by men, including Rose Kennedy herself, the mother of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. and Edward M. Kennedy.

Rose Kennedy had to endure the quite public affair her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, conducted in the late 1920's with none other than Gloria Swanson.

This I believe is called horizontal sexism, when one member of the same gender treats another member of the same gender as an inferior unworthy of respect.

So thank you Miss Swanson, for this fabulous anecdote, and for sensitizing me to the plight of women who are passed over disdainfully by the mercantile eyes of male flesh shoppers a trillion times a day on this planet.

* Miss Swanson was a macrobiotic enthusiast who was known to bring her own food to dinner parties in a paper bag. It didn't work. She died at 84, no longer a life span than the average woman of our day.

No comments: