Before I read Jonathan Swift’s poems “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” I expected his view of gender to be completely different than Judith Butler’s view. I was surprised to find that, despite the fact that the idea of gender being socially constructed was not prominent in Swift’s time (or more than likely was a concept that hadn’t yet been articulated), the two Swift poems are actually somewhat in line with the ideas expressed by Judith Butler in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.”
In “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler argues that “[d]rag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation” (Butler, 722). Although he more than likely was not making a conscious effort to do so, Swift’s portrayals of Corinna in “Nymph” and Celia in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” seem to support the idea that gender expressions are merely impersonations of an unobtainable ideal of what that gender is supposed to be. Each poem features a female who appears to be closer to femininity when in the right combination of makeup and clothes (i.e. in drag) than in her natural state. In “Nymph,” Swift notes that when Corinna is in her prostitution garb, “Never did Convent Garden boast/ So bright a batter’d, strolling Toast,” but when she wakes without her makeup and enhancements, it is “A dreadful Sight!” In other words, Corinna is more beautiful and therefore closer to the ideal of femininity with her makeup and clothes than without. Likewise, Celia in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” is closer to femininity when she is made up than when she is not. Although we know Corinna and Celia are “natural” women, in the poems they seem closer to their gender ideal when they are performing that gender through wearing makeup and particular garments than when they are in their most natural state, which supports Butler’s idea that gender ideals are not only unobtainable, but are not accurate reflections of the way people actually are. “The Lady’s Dressing Room” takes this idea one step further. After he views Celia’s dressing room, “Vengeance, Goddess never sleeping/ Soon punish[es] Strephon for his Peeping” by making him “blind/ To all the Charms of Female Kind” (“The Lady’s Dressing Room”). Once Strephon learns that the natural female is nothing like her gender ideal, it ruins females for him. As a heterosexual male, we would expect Strephon to remain attracted to women even if they turn out to be different than what he expects them to be. Strephon, however, is more attracted to the gender idea of women than women themselves — so much so that, after he learns that actual women are different than their gender ideal, he is no longer attracted to women. Although it was probably unintentional, this aspect of Swift’s poem completely supports Butler’s idea that gender is socially constructed, since Strephon is more interested in what society has told him he should be attracted to than what he should biologically be attracted to.
Based on the poems themselves, I find it difficult to discern exactly what Swift thought about the relationship between sex and gender or whether heterosexuality was the original of homosexuality, but given the time in which he lived, I think it’s very safe to assume that he probably believed that gender identity was determined by sex rather than socially, and he probably thought that homosexuality was an unnatural copy of heterosexuality.
Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: https://engl382fall2013.wordpress.com/readings/00-previous-readings/1022-judith-butler-imitation-and-gender-insubordination/
Swift: “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”: https://engl382fall2013.wordpress.com/readings/00-previous-readings/1024-jonathan-swift-a-beautiful-young-nymph-going-to-bed-1734/
Swift: “The Lady’s Dressing Room”: https://engl382fall2013.wordpress.com/readings/00-previous-readings/1024-swift-the-ladys-dressing-room-1732/