Beauty and Shame Within Egalia’s Daughters
In Gerd Brantenberg’s satire about sex and gender, Egalia’s Daughters, readers are brought into a society where men, called menwim, are the homemakers and the women, called wom, are the more aggressive sex, leading the world of politics and business. The story surrounds a young menwim named Petronius that struggles through growing up as a non-traditional beauty in the eyes of his peers. Like many young women in our society, growing up a menwim is especially difficult when, because of your gender, there are expectations for your health, beauty, and sexual identity that can leave you feeling dejected and embarrassed.
Early on in the novel we’re introduced to a “peho”, a jock like item young menwim are expected to wear to keep their genitals in place. Despite their discomfort, menwim wear the pehoes because it’s what society dictates. On page 12, Petronius complains about needing to wear a peho to school despite his peers not wearing them yet. Pehoes are incredibly difficult to maneuver, we learn. Pehoes are meant to act as a nod to modern women’s use of bras, something that’s uncomfortable and unnecessary, but needed to not make society uneasy about sex.
Along with pehoes, menwim are held expected to pay extra hygienic attention to their genitals. On page 13, the text says, “Petronius shuddered at the thought of the disasters that would befall him if he didn’t keep his tassle clean.” These fears are completely warranted for a menwim with a huge event approaching like the Maidmen’s Ball. Opportunities to meet the opposite sex are incredibly important to development and belonging at a young age, both in this universe and our own.
This passage leads directly into a family conversation about Petronius’s chest hair, picking on him to learn to shave in order to fit the standard of beauty. It’s teasing like this that can cause self-image issues in a young menwim. Petronius looks up to his father’s beauty, wishing he too was short, plump, and sweet looking. These feeling of self-loathing are very present in Petronius in a way that reminds me of my own childhood. Impressions about beauty at a very young age and often by those closest to you. A lack of family support, even seemingly, can do damage to child’s self-image.
The beginning of the novel leads up to the big Maidmen’s ball and on page 23, we get a look at the fashions of menwim and how they show gender. Petronius is wearing uncomfortable shoes and has his jacket stuffed with cotton to prevent sweating. The gentlewim, as they’re called, are supposed to carry a delicate, small purse with a gold chain. This is a way of claiming one’s gender. Petronius forget his and runs quickly to get it, this is an example of an item needed to pass as menwim, to show that he is in fact male. The most obvious way that menwim pass as male in this culture is with the peho.
Petronius dreams of being a diver, despite fatherhood being his given job. One of the ways he’s teased throughout the book about his ambitions is that there’s no such thing as a diving suit for menwim. Not to mention that a bite proof peho would be impossible. On page 43, Christopher suggests to Ruth Brahm the crazy idea that maybe a peho is unnecessary for menwim. This is received with laughter, and Ruth Brahm offers up the classic line, “That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it always will be.” This is a common thought process for those that want to continue to oppress the weaker sex. It’s the same thing said whenever progress is suggested to those who resist it.
As the novel continues, a revolution begins to take place against the oppression of menwim through pehoes. The book not so subtlety confirms the peho as the men’s version of a bra saying what if “they had to hoist up their breasts in some stupid sling?” The menwim discuss burning their pehoes, similar to bra burnings in the 60s. These menwim finally start to view pehoes as the tools of oppression that they are.
Menwim in this novel are supposed to represent the most feminine version of men in a society. What if the tables were turned? The image of the menwim is what is most important in this society. The beauty, health, and fashion of menwim are meant to attract wom for sex and children, and the peho is the physical tool for oppression. This society, like our own, suffers from severe double standards and inequality between the sexes.
Childbirth in Egalia’s Daughters
The novel Egalia’s Daughters takes place in a kind of utopian feminist world where women, or wim, hold the power in society and traditional gender roles are flipped on their head. One of the most interesting aspects of this gender-bendered world is the role of wim’s bodies. A wim’s body is a vessel of power and is held in high esteem. Being the sex that gives birth to new life, wim’s bodies and the experience of childbirth is seen as a spiritual, important moment showing how this society reveres wim.
On page 126, Ruth Bram and her family make their way to The Great Palace of Birth, a kind of temple built specifically for wim to give birth in peacefully. The wim are the head of the family and adding a new child is a big deal. Petronius, Ba, and Christopher all come along to The Great Palace of Birth to witness the miracle of childbirth. Like our own society, giving birth takes place in a facility with family nearby, but very much unlike what we’re used to, the wim are treated like royalty at the Palace of Birth, “depending on what they were prepared to pay,” according to the book.
A wim’s body changes during pregnancy, but because they’re not the oppressed gender, no one cares if a wim becomes incredibly fat during pregnancy. It’s said by Ruth Bram herself on page 36 that “it would be ridiculous to have an ideal size for wim.” This is a clear commentary about how women in our society are pressured to be thin and attractive, pregnant or otherwise. It’s very common to see magazine covers criticizing or praising celebrities based on their post-baby weight. In a world where wim are in charge this kind of pressure isn’t placed on them.
The birth experience described in Egalia’s Daughters is more ceremony than medical. Ruth Bram is set up a very nice birthing room including microphones that will allow the public to listen to the miracle of birth. A wim’s body is so revered in this world that Bram sets herself up, naked and exposed, in front of many people that came to observe the birth. On page 129, the author uses a metaphor to describe the sensation of childbirth by saying, “If intercourse with a menwim was like drinking a glass of water, giving birth was like drinking a glass of wine.” It’s no overstatement that giving birth is incredibly painful.
Wim giving birth have assistants that are meant to help ease the pain. The book describes attendants that rub Bram’s hips and labia to aid the birth as well as the rubbing of exotic oils. Bram’s birth is an almost sensual experience. The public cheered when the child reached each stage of the “passage of life.” After the placenta was born, it was held up to the crowd. Bram’s placenta is literally gazed upon like a piece of art, admired for its beautiful colors.
In this society a wim’s giving birth is one of the most important moments of their lives. The book aligns a lot of the experiences of wim’s with that of women in our society, but overall, childbirth in our world will never be held in such high esteem as it is in Egalia’s Daughters. A woman’s body will be criticized for its appearance during and after pregnancy, while a wim doesn’t adhere to a societal standard for weight. A woman is rarely given the opportunity to go on a post-preganancy three week drinking bender like Bram. Women in our society are lucky to even get paid maternity leave to care for their child.
In an ideal world maybe our society would have more similarities with Egalia’s Daughters. Maybe in the future women’s bodies will hold as much power as the wim’s and thus will create a world where pregnancy is treated like the absolute miracle it is.