walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle_, Elaine Showalter

Yeah, yeah -- missing accent marks. Whatever.

Apparently this is another of those mysteriously desirable OOP books.

I pulled this off the shelf because Hitchcock's book was so good. This was written earlier (I picked it up used around the same time, IIRC). Showalter's background is litcrit -- and she's a Big Name. She's chair of the judges for the Booker prize this year and one of the founders of feminist lit crit. Her other work involves the novels about/by the New Woman of the late 19th century. And she's done a bunch with middle- and upper- class Women's Problems (from hysteria to chronic fatigue, and let's just say the medical professional and activists for the various diseases she talks about don't much like her) in the same time period. This particular work draws analogies between agonizing about the end of the century 19th vs. 20th so there's some extended discussion of 1980s stuff that might be interesting to readers who otherwise find this kinda obscure stuff.

While Showalter would seem to be a 2nd wave feminist and All About Identity, she is, however, doing some form of queer theory here (you would not believe how much space she devotes to Salome in its various forms. Seriously. Including reproducing a picture of Oscar Wilde dressed up as Salome.), primarily in discussing ClubLand (which is her term for the all-male world of elite men in 19th century London, starting with private schools and proceeding through clubs and the professions), 'molly' culture and what she presents as the opposite number for the New Woman. Unfortunately, either because she's no historian, or because of her own personal assumptions and biases, she asserts that no such lesbian culture exists. She also gets the time frame wrong on when 'molly' culture started (well, at least she doesn't get it right, okay?). We don't really know much about lesbian culture in England because documentation is scarce. But scarce documentation != phenomenon non-existant. Showalter does correctly identify the prosecutions for lesbianism as involving transvestitism. She does write clearly about two different ways of thinking about the gender continuum, and how one of those makes gay men and feminists possible allies and the other one makes them irrelevant to each other if not actually at war, and does a brilliant job of showing how that played out in the 20th century post-Stonewall. She even produces a great story about a Weatherwoman who turned herself in after deciding the leader was a hopeless gender chauvinist.

In addition to the queer theory stuff, Showalter is fascinated by pop culture (apparently she wrote for People magazine?!?). In this respect, she has a lot of the characteristics I more commonly associate with 3rd wavers (as do her observations on how we think about the gender continuum). While this is really great, this book suffers from the same problem that 3rd wavers like the lovely folks over at Bitch magazine do: if you did not happen to participate in their pop culture, the references are going to tend to leave you in the dark.

It was really nice to read a bit more about the Men and Women's Club (and one of its members, Olive Schreiner, shows that the popularity of books written about women/families in Africa has been popular for a long while), since my previous exposure to it had been through much less reputable sources (altho I did not actually read that book by Robin Schone). At least based on what I read here, the Club broke up because the men and women involved were utterly unable to bridge a gender communications gap, to wit, one of the women felt that women weren't going to ever get anywhere except by flipping the hierarchy, and the rest of the women felt so pressured by the men to agree or shut up that the group broke up. And the men were all frustrated because they couldn't figure out why the women didn't just agree with their lovely little theories about Free Love and how relationships would End By Mutual Agreement and there would be no issues associated with the kiddies, etc. etc. Interesting to note that one of the members, when he finally fell in love, did not hesitate to marry. Apparently, once the Theory Hit Practice, Theory gave way to reality and there was no way he was risking being dumped. In a lot of ways, this does a beautiful job of setting up the background for the romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (who, in retrospect, is either a New Woman or one of her descendants -- and google and wikipedia tells me I'm not the first to think this).

On a bit of a tangent here: Vane's experience with her first lover is a fictionalization of Sayer's first relationship, sharing in particular the characteristic that the guy insists on Free Love to make sure She's Really, Really Committed to Him, and intended to marry her if she agreed to it. There are a lot of stories like this kicking around in the last century-ish. If you don't have sex with me, I won't marry you. You said no? Hey, it was really a test. I was only going to marry you if you held out. If you don't live with me, I won't marry you. You won't live with me? Hey, it was really a test. I was only going to marry you if you held out. Diverging slightly, in the Risk issue of Bitch, in one of the articles about drugs, the writer's mother reveals that she has done marijuana and wouldn't want to have as a friend anyone who hadn't (!?!) despite having completely freaked out and worked over her daughter for same as a senior in high school. And I lost a friend when I dumped my last boyfriend, because she felt I should have stuck around longer and pressured him harder about having kids and he'd have come around. Me, I'd rather believe someone when they told me whatever they told me, and my remaining friends from that social circle are in complete agreement. However, there's a noticeable fraction from that crowd that agrees with the lost friend. Since the ex-, when I was dumping him, said he would have married me if I'd told him it was that important to me (for the record: wasn't too hung about marriage; did really want to have a baby). This being the same guy I proposed to more than once, so he eventually told me not to ask him again, but to wait for him to ask me. Clearly, we were incompatible. ;-)

As recently as a month or so ago, I would not have been able to get this far in writing about this tangent without slapping Attachment Disorder on the behavior and sticking it in a little box. Now, however, I'm a bit more interested in how Attachment Disorders sustain themselves and continue to punish adults and those around them. And I think that Showalter may be on to something with her closing reference to Olive Schreiner's dream that one day, we (she means women, but I'd say everyone) will be able to have Love and Freedom at the same time. Unfortunately, in hoping for this (Love AND Freedom) I think Schreiner and Showalter have constructed an inescapable dilemma for themselves. If Attachment is how Love does its business, that Freedom is wanting to be without love. I think what we should be looking for is either something from a Rolling Stones song (can't always get what you want, but sometimes. . .) or, alternatively, Love and Courage.

Before someone gets all on my case about how this is blaming women for being beaten down by The Man (or the men), let me expand for a moment. You only get courage when someone has a sense of agency, and hasn't already been crushed either physically or otherwise. In order for participants on a love relationship to be able to show courage, they have to have some expectation that they might survive and thrive as a result, or at least that it will do some good. The marriage environment of the past has been no such thing -- in fact, quite the contrary. So you only got the martyrs doing much of anything, and you can make a case that martyrdom isn't precisely courage. Discretion being the better part of valor (hey, close, right?), most women did what they could quietly and over time we made great progress.

But this whole Freedom thing was a mistake.

Nice little analogy from one of the parenting books (probably _Playful Parenting_ by Lawrence Cohen): the cup of attachment. One of the strategies for dealing with an often-not-full-enough cup of attachment is to slap a lid on it to keep any from sloshing out. This does protect what you've got BUT prevents you from getting more WHILE allowing you to do just about anything without negative effects (think commuter mug). That's your basic Love + Freedom problem, in Attachment Theory. Ideally, from a Cup of Attachment perspective, you want there to be an ongoing rainstorm. Or at least, a waterfall or faucet readily available.

I could go on and on with this. And maybe later, I will.
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