What role does gender play in the novel Murder in Amsterdam? Are there competing understandings of gender in the novel?

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msmeow-7867 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's short film Submission, which is the word "Islam" translated into English, features one actress portraying four Muslim women wearing transparent veils with verses from the Koran projected onto their naked bodies. Theo Van Gogh, the film's director, was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, who shot, stabbed, and nearly decapitated him on a Dutch street in the middle of the day. It was clear from the letter Bouyeri left staked in Van Gogh's chest, a death threat against Hirsi Ali, that it was Van Gogh's role in making the film that led to Bouyeri's rampage.

One could potentially view Van Gogh in his role as the film's director as a defender of women, a crusader taking up the mantle against a religion and culture that propagates violence against women. But when we take a look at Van Gogh's memorial party, which he himself had meticulously planned during a flight to New York--he was deathly afraid of flying and thought he may perish during the flight--we see a man who participated fully in his own kind of gender discrimination. Of Van Gogh's memorial party, Buruma (2006) writes, "There was a rock band and there were cabaret acts. Pretty cigarette girls in miniskirts plied their wares, as in a prewar movie theater. Female guests wore strings of pearls and twinsets, a style that Theo had found a turn-on" (p. 9). Cigarette girls were common in the 1920's until the post-WWII era. The most common uniform was a low-cut, cleavage-revealing top matched with a short skirt. Depending on the venue, skirt length varied from just above the knee to just below the buttocks. According to Tenney (2014), the cigarette girl's job was not just selling tobacco: "Most customers were paying as much for her company as they were for her wares." Thus, the cigarette girl was a sort of prostitute. A 'twinset' is a matching sweater and cardigan set, like the ones popular in the 50's and early 60's. Most media depictions of the "little woman" and the "model wife," whether a magazine ad or a TV show--picture June Cleaver in  the sitcom Leave it to Beaver--featured the wife/mother wearing a pearl necklace and a twinset. 

So in Theo Van Gogh, we have a man, murdered for his derring-do in shedding light on the oppressive and discriminatory practices against women in Islam, who is simultaneously "turned on" by living images of young women who prostituted themselves for cigarette sales and those who represented an era when women were little more than house servants. This is one of the most glaring examples of competing views of gender in the book.