The hardness of a young woman’s face
By Tom Baxter
A few days before Ursula Le Guin died last month, there was a story of the sort she would have relished.
Researchers at the University of Athens unveiled their facial reconstruction of a 9,000-year-old skull which had been discovered in a Greek cave in 1993. It belonged to a young woman, between 15 and 18, who lived at the very end of the Stone Age, in a time when humans were just beginning to plant crops and live in settled communities. The researchers named her Avgi, Greek for Dawn.
As the technology behind them becomes more sophisticated and widespread, reconstructions like these are becoming more common. Oscar Nilsson, a sculptor and archaeologist who worked with a team of medical specialists on the Avgi reconstruction, observed that this face, with its heavy brow, prominent cheekbones and jutting jaw, was harder and more mannish looking than the reconstructed face of an 11-year-old Greek girl who lived around 430 BC.
“Having reconstructed a lot of Stone Age women and men, I think some facial features seem to have disappeared or ‘smoothed out’ with time. In general, we look less masculine, both men and women, today,” Nilsson said.
One question Le Guin might have asked is, why is it less masculine, if the features of both sexes have changed? In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” she wrote about the predicament of an ambassador from Earth on a planet whose inhabitants are neither male nor female most of the time, but can become either sex once a month. She was keenly aware how loaded these distinctions can be.
Nevertheless, bones don’t lie, or at least not as much as their fully fleshed faces do. I looked at some of Walker Evan’s photographs of women in rural Alabama during the Depression, thinking I’d see hard faces that challenged Nilsson’s point, but they’re not hard in the same way as Avgi. Something does seem to have changed over 9,000 years, a relative eye-blink in evolutionary time. That means it may be changing still.
I thought about this as I watched the news footage of Dr. Larry Nassar’s accusers, one after another for days, confronting him before his sentence. They were Avgi’s age, or younger, when many of them represented our country, stood facing our flag as our national anthem was played and all of us back home waxed with pride, as they dealt with their private pain. In their 20s and 30s now, they still have the athletic good looks of the girls who became Nassar’s targets.
But something in those faces has changed.
It may be a bit soon to speculate about evolutionary change, but increasingly, the #MeToo Movement, the daily White House shenanigans surrounding abusive behavior, and all the other gender-based stories that preoccupy us are beginning to look like they are only the fractal pieces of something much larger in the human record. Something that might ultimately show up in our faces.
Just when you want to make a bombastic point, here’s Steve Bannon to add some wind.
“I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger,” the former Trump strategist told writer Michael Lewis in a story published by Bloomberg. “It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”
Maybe so. You have to be skeptical when big pronouncements are propelled by fear, and Bannon’s fears are palpable. “The top seven stories today are all guys getting blown up,” he tells Lewis. “And these are not small guys.” More than that, if you dig just a little deeper down the chain. While the news last week centered around the White House aide and speechwriter who resigned over accusations of spousal abuse, a retired Kentucky judge who had been a county Trump campaign chair pleaded guilty to 21 counts of rape and sex trafficking, including four counts of sex trafficking of a minor. It’s not just sexual harassment — Bannon’s right about that — but there’s a lot of harassment going on.
We may only be going through a flashpoint in which we can briefly glimpse that longer arc of change, without the immediate political consequences Bannon foresees and dreads. But we can imagine somewhere out there in the ether, Ursula Le Guin, who probably never agreed with anything Steve Bannon said when she was alive, listening to his words and saying, “Damned right.”