Fragile as Porcelain: Memoirs of a Geisha

MAY / JUNE 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP

Dolls are non-sentient beings, created for beauty, pleasure, and play. Some of them sit upon shelves, or behind glass, while others live according to the whims of their owners. Some little girls show their dolls kindness; others do not. But the doll has no choice over its fate, its treatment, what it wears, where it sits, or what it acts out. It is helpless.

The journey at the heart of Memoirs of a Geisha is the quest to become a porcelain doll; a beautiful thing, admired, gazed upon, which gives pleasure to others, but who abandons self enough to be perfect. The heroine, Sayuri, learns through her quest it is hard to become a doll; she must sacrifice her dreams, her sense of self, her identity, even her virtue, without choice, and become something admired, untouched, and esteemed, but locked behind glass. Others cannot touch her, only look. She cannot reveal her heart, and it cannot guide her decisions. And, others batter, mistreat, and even smash her along the way. She is a Geisha. A living doll.

Feminism would call the life she lives anti-feminist; some in Japan might justify it as the highest honor, in holding women above common men for their purity and beauty. Which view is correct? Or are both of them wrong?

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Geishas are part of Japanese tradition, and still exist in minor form, as part of their cultural heritage, though the more severe methods of making them “doll-like” are no longer practiced (such as binding their feet, to make them unable to walk and permit tiny shoes). The culture which spawned them is a beautiful and horrible one as all societies are; it sought both to enslave its Geishas (they exist for male pleasure) and esteem them, in allowing them to be the embodiment of Japan: mysterious, ethereal, composed, gifted, talented, and beautiful.

Woman throughout history have wanted to be beautiful and desired. Whether repeated societal influences (men reinforcing this view, mothers repeating it, and society equating beauty with doll-like behaviors) brought this about, or their natural inclination for desirability shaped society to reflect it, we cannot know. As an ancient text, the Bible symbolizes humanity in man’s desire to conquer while facing adversity, and women’s desire for love. In a strange contradictory dynamic, society admired and oppressed women at the same time. To praise a woman’s virtues overmuch is to deny her sinful nature; to insist on guarding her from external influences, through severe or controlling tactics, is to see her as inferior to man, while asserting her superiority as a higher moral being.

History has centuries of stories in which this happens to women; they powder, squeeze, starve, bound, and force them into strange but “beautiful” shapes to suit the male gaze, in pursuit of some greater ideal of “fashion and beauty.” Sayuri cannot sleep at night because she must keep her neck still to avoid destroying her elaborate hairstyle. She struggles to walk on her clumpy shoes. She practices playing instruments until her fingers bleed. Her reward is admiration and a patron. Her curse is that some do not respect Geishas and see her as property. A few evil men assault and demean her; other girls abuse her. She is a doll.

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Our desire to be beautiful remains the same, but the definitions of beauty change over the ages. Different cultures demand different representations of beauty, and art and photography captures many of those movements—the times when you were not beautiful with dark hair, or when you needed to be taller, when you had to wear a corset, or a bustle skirt, or a wig. The subtle message has always been, “You are not good enough. You must become a doll.” And for the first time in history, it’s now possible. You can have bigger breasts, or a tighter butt, or that mole removed. You can shape your entire face, or have liposuction to get rid of that excess fat. Endless magazines tell you how to make yourself look more like a doll: use this lipstick, that foundation, wear these clothes, embody this sexual presence.

Some people hide behind being a doll. They conceal fear of being unloved behind fashionable clothes, and elaborate hairstyles, and pursue their ideal self, while failing to realize that the people matter the most who like you as you are, who won’t ask you to club your toes, or sleep on a board at night, or starve yourself so you can wear a size zero. Best of all, a Being loves you for who you are, fat or thin, gorgeous or not, tall or short, whether your chin is funny or your hip bones stick out. The Creator makes many things, in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

You are beautiful because you are alive. Your uniqueness is wonderful. You do not have to conform to what society tells you is beautiful because it has never been right before. And no doll can ever be as magnificent as you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

 

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