Artificiality of the Ideal: Swift Viewed through Gender Hermeneutics

After reading Jonathan Swifts two poems, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and “A Beautiful Nymph Going to Bed,” and “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” by Judith Butler, I gained a greater understanding about how Swift would have viewed gender. The poems shatter common views of gender ideal. Viewed from Butler’s perspective, the poems are revolutionary in how they show the artifice of the “female” ideal and raise questions about how natural the “natural woman” or “natural man” really is.

“Nymph” is about a London prostitute named Corinna, who embodies the ideal form of a woman. She is referred to as the “Pride of Drury-Lane” and a “lovely Goddess.”As she is about to go to bed, she removes all the attachments and inserts she uses to appear beautiful. The poem shows how beauty is acquired, how the ideal concept of female is unnatural. I believe Swift was trying to show that the “natural woman,” to use Butler’s choice of words, is pure artifice. Even the most lusted after women like Corinna must resort to artifice to attain true femininity. Swift’s poem argues that women themselves must strive to maintain womanhood, lest they be perceived as masculine. Humans work to be “natural” when, in fact, they are copying a copy. They mimic another’s mimicry, creating an endless piling up of signifiers with no origin. Gender is very much social in this respect.

“Lady’s Dressing Room” maintains Swift’s argument from “Nymph.” A woman fails to meet a man’s expectations for what a woman should be like. When he finds out how much work she puts into her appearance, he abandons her. True beauty, he believes, does not require artifice. Swift, however, takes the stringent requirements of gender a step further. We do not simply hold ourselves to a gender standard; society ostracizes those who fall outside the confines of gender. This relates to Butler’s statement that mimetic practice like female beauty maintenance creates the “illusion of inner sex . . . or psychic gender core. Once this thinking establishes a gender ideal, the corresponding sex is hard-pressed to escape societal expectations. Both of Swifts poems expose the extremely social nature of gender norms and artificiality of gender ideals. Without doubt, Swift realized how his works portrayed gender as an unstable concept maintained through role-play.

Two of Butler’s points helped me understand gender. First is the idea that mimetic practice is crucial to gender. Gender isn’t “self-identical,” as Butler states. Instead, a person’s gender is shaped by similar genders around it. Secondly, I liked her point that genders are solidified through model repetition. Gender must be constantly redefined to “establish the illusion of uniformity” (Butler). Like Butler, I think gender is fluid, not directly tied to one’s biological sex. Furthermore, heterosexuality and homosexuality are subject to the same thought process. I believe both exist in relation to one another, but any identifiable origin point is lacking. To survive, they both must be repeated to create the illusion of concreteness.

“The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Jonathan Swift

“A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” by Jonathan Swift

Imitation and Gender Insubordination by Judith Butler


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