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Obamacare, Dante, and what women really want

Maura Shea

Emily by Lisa Runnels (CC0 1.0)

What do women want?

I’m a woman, so I feel qualified to answer this question. I cannot, of course, answer it definitively for every single member of my sex—but I think I’ve got a pretty good idea.

I think the people behind the Obamacare ad campaign on the DoYouGotInsurance.com website were asking the very same question when they created their advertisements. What do millennial women want—and, how can we show them that Obamacare can give them what they want?

Because, of course, that’s what all ad campaigns try to do. They realize that human beings are in a constant state of wanting something. If they play their cards right, they can manipulate us into believing that what they’re selling somehow corresponds to what we want.

What I find fascinating is that most of the Obamacare ads seem to be targeted at women and what they think we really desire. The “Let’s Get Physical” one says that we want consequence-free sex. The picture of the bloody soccer girls says that we want “girl-power.” The “shot skis,” “stress relief” and “friends with benefits” ads say that we want fun—and, therefore, copious amounts of alcohol. The Ryan Gosling one says that we want, well, Ryan Gosling.

These ads are saying to women: we know that you want to have fun, be comfortable, drink a lot and have sex. Obamacare can help you afford to do those things. It can give you security—and the ability to get what you want.

Yet that argument reveals a profoundly twisted and impoverished view of women.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri argues that all human beings are ultimately motivated by what they desire. He goes so far as to claim that even the rest of creation, “the sun and the other stars,” are also moved by desire—or, more specifically, by love.

The different levels of Dante’s hell, purgatory and heaven are arranged according to not only the vices and virtues of their inhabitants, but also to what those people wanted all along on earth. For example, the adulterers Paolo and Francesca spend an eternity in a tumultuous, stormy embrace in the second circle of hell because that is what they wanted. Francesca says, “Love, that allows no loved one to be excused from loving, seized me so fiercely with desire for him, it still will not leave me, as you can see…” (Canto 5, Kline translation).

The Lord says, “Everyone who asks, receives, everyone who seeks, finds” (cf. Mt 7:8, Lk 11:10). These words are commonly interpreted as an encouragement to pray, but they are much more than this. They are a description of how human life actually works. In the end, we do receive what we have really asked for and we do find what we truly seek. If you want God, you will get God. If you want something else, you will get it—forever.

Thus, for Dante (and later for C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce), if you can discover what a person really desires, you discover who she really is.

In the spirit of Pope Francis’ urging us toward a deeper theology of woman, and as a way to respond to these Obamacare ads, I repeat my first question: what do women really want? The way you answer this question will reveal what you think about women and ultimately how you view the human person as such.

The story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel, I believe, provides us with the answer of Jesus Christ.

The interesting thing about this story is that it describes to us the very “type” of woman the Obamacare ads target: she is the woman who wants a lot of sex, who believes that trying different sexual partners will satisfy her. Jesus reveals that she has had “five husbands,” and the man she is currently living with is not her husband.

This woman goes to the well every day to draw water at noon time, most likely because she is ostracized by the other women of her village and cannot go with them in the cool of the morning. But Jesus, sitting by the well, reveals to her that what she really wants—what she really thirsts for—is the Living Water which will quench your thirst forever. That water is Himself.

The woman initially thinks she can fill this longing in her heart in other ways. But just as she has to keep going back, again and again, to the well for water, she also has to keep giving herself to different men because none of them really satisfy her or quench her thirst for love.

The beautiful thing is that Jesus begins the conversation expressing His own thirst. Jesus thirsts for this woman and for all of us, and it is this desire that shows us who He is and who we really are.

According to the Gospel, what women (and men) really want is God. In fact, all of the Gospel writers show us over and over again how women are particularly sensitive to their own desire for God. It is the women of the Gospel who are most attentive to Jesus, who are constantly wanting to be close to Him—it is the women who weep for Him when he carries his cross, who are brave enough to stand by as He is executed, who courageously venture out on Easter morning to anoint his body, who are, indeed, the first witnesses of His resurrection. His Mother, Mary Magdalene, Martha and her sister Mary, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, the woman who lavishly washes His feet with her tears—all of these women and more show us what women really want.

We want love. And no human love will do. We want God. No other kind of “insurance” will do. And no advertisement that promises security or pleasure, or pretends to understand our deepest desires, will ever come close to the message of the Gospel.

Topics: Contraception , Culture , Current Events , Faith , Personal Growth

Maura is a high school English teacher and member of the Alliance for Catholic Education. She received her M.A. in Education from the University of Notre Dame and her B. A. in English and Theology from the University of Dallas. She writes about Catholicism, teaching, education policy, and literature on her blog, mysteriesandmanners.wordpress.com.

View all articles by Maura Shea

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August 28, 2014

Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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