Joan of Arkansas: The Meme

What effect will all those images of Susan MacDougal in chains ulitimately have on U.S. culture?

Just three of the thousands of images of Susan MacDougal in chains.

copyright 2005 by Pat Powers

I recently came across an old editorial about Ken Starr deciding not to persecute Susan McDougal any more, and I ran across a phrase that resounded in my mind: McDougal was described as a woman who had "been photographed thousands of times while wearing chains."

You know, it's true -- because of all the news photographs of MacDougal that have showed up in various newspapers and news magazines she's been nicknamed "Joan of Arkansas." I'll bet that more people have seen her in chains than all the bondage models whose work we enjoy combined.

In fact, when most vanilla people think of a "woman in chains" I'll bet their subconscious flashes up a little pic of Susan McDougal in her prison irons. Rather than Ashley Renee or Darla Crane, SHE has become the avatar that is evoked in people's minds when the term "woman in chains" occurs.

Could it be that the "women in chains" scenes from all the Lifetime women in prison movies over the last few years are part of a general "women in irons" meme that's been deeply impressed on the collective subconscious over the last couple of years because of all those images of Susan McDougal in chains showing up in the news?

The interesting thing is, most image of women in iron from women in prison movies and women in jeopardy films and TV shows have been far less extensive than the real-life images of MacDougal in chains. Of course, we now know the reason why MacDougal was so often chained, chained so heavily, and so often photographed while chained -- Starr was using the chains as a form of torture.

(If MacDougal had had a little more sophistication about what was going on, she would have contrived at some point to make it appear that she was gagged. Not that that would have been an easy thing to do under the circumstances, but it would have been a neat bit of cultural ju-jitsu that would have turned her opponent's strength against him.)

There's been no rush to capitalize on MacDougal's plight with a TV movie of the week equivalent, a fairly amazing development, all told. There haven't even been any heavily fictionalized movies along these lines.

Yet surely all those images of the attractive (for a political figure) MacDougal chained up like an animal must have some effect on the mainstream's collective consciousness. Sure, we bondage fans are accustomed to seeing images of women more extensively bound, and more nakedly bound, too. But over the years of the Ken Starr persecution, meainstream folks were repeatedly treated to images of an attractive woman in chains, smiling as if for a publicity photo when Starr had her paraded before the media.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Is the women in irons memes one of those that sinks beneath the surface of a culture for years, then re-emerges a few years later, stronger than ever, perhaps in a new guise? Are we due for a slew of women in prison scenes in a few years, scenes in which the women prisoners are festooned with chains until they look more lie Maypoles than malefactors?

Or will the women in irons meme inspired by MacDougal slowly sink beneath the cultural waters, to take its place among the cultural leaf litter along with the band Curved Air, The Girl In The Golden Atom, fairy photography and Fabian socialism?

I don't know. I know which option I prefer. And I do know one thing. You know all those bondage fans who talk about first discovering their bondage images through episodes of Batman and The Avengers seen as children? Well, in a few years, I wouldn't be at all surprised to read accounts of folks discovering their bondage interests on CNN, at the sight of Susan MacDougal.