Mary Magdalene: A Victim of Backlash?

Anyone familiar with the story of Jesus will know of Mary Magadalene, the fallen women forgiven and raised up by Jesus. A childless prostitute who provides a contrast to the purity of Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus. One to demonstrate God’s forgiveness, through Jesus, and the other the exemplar of the chaste good women to which all girls should aspire. None of this comes, literally, from the Bible, but was started in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great who refers to Mary M. as a penitent prostitute possessed by “seven demons” that were exorcised by Jesus. This is the Mary M. portrayed in paintings, religious teachings and popular characterizations, as in director Mel Gibson’s portrayal in the “Last Passion of Christ”. Gibson is a very public Catholic and his portrayal of Mary M. as a sinner, albeit an attractive and sexy young woman, fits with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the public image of Gibson.

Her recent recasting as Jesus’s wife and mother of his child, popularized in the book and movie, The Da Vinci Code, is of dubious historical validity and again does not place Mary M. as an equal among the apostles who advised Jesus. She is the wife of the great man, but not a respected advisor or equal.

An alternative view of Mary M., one that some religious scholars and others have argued for over the years, is presented in the new movie “Mary Magdalene”, by Australian director Garth Davis, who portrays her as an intelligent, persuasive and influential advisor to Jesus. An equal among the other Apostles.

An independent, competent woman being criticized and traduced by a male hierarchy is of course a familiar modern theme in discussions of gender. It is called backlash, which refers to the (mal) treatment of people who do not conform to their group stereotype. This phenomenon has been well document for women, and the research is summarized in a meta-analysis by Anna Genat.

Anna’s conclusions from the 200 or so studies are that women have a choice. They can conform to the stereotype for women by acting deferential, nurturing and sharing, and they will be liked but not judged as competent. Or they can behave in counter stereotypical ways by demonstrating their competence, providing advice and challenging colleagues. But this all too often, as for Mary M. comes at the cost of not being accepted or having their contributions recognized. As has been the case for Mary M. over almost two millennia. Watching Davis’ movie, thnking of Anna’s research and juxtaposing both with the lessons I learnt about Mary M. made me think that the more things change, the more gender discrimination and unconscious biases stay the same.

As sociologist Barbara Risman argues, “Just as every society has an economic and political structure, so too every society has a gender structure”. I think that Mary M.’s story illustrates how the gender structure leads to attacks on the competence and credibility of women’s as a means of the power elites preserving the status quo. As the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner of Australia, Liz Broderick, and others have argued, quotas may be the only way to bring greater equality to the gender structure of society and reduce discrimination against women.

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