A Satirical Look at Gender, with Jonathan Swift (and Judith Butler)

Gender is, understandably, a hot topic these days, especially with the increased emphasis on women’s lib and gay rights in modern politics. It has for a long time been used to separate people much in the same way race has. Women, especially, were oppressed as a result of being the ‘weaker’ of the sexes, believed to be good usually only for looking at and making babies with (both the sex part and the continuation of the human race part).

For many centuries the role of women in society has been examined, and while women haven’t always come out on top of these examinations, these days women’s rights seem to be doing much, much better. There’s always room for improvement, however, especially when it comes to gender, which is a fairly fluid concept. Gender is sometimes considered to be solely a social construct, and Judith Butler seems to agree with this conception.

Right off the bat, Butler states in Imitation and Gender Insubordination that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.” In essence, this means that gender is not based on any kind of biological constant, and that it does not even derive from a person’s sexuality. She goes further to say “On the contrary, imitation does not copy that which is prior, but produces and inverts the very terms of priority and derivativeness.”

In his own time, Jonathan Swift a satirist, breaking the mold and showing everyone how preposterous society could be. Satire, however, is not always easy to interpret, and so his poems “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and “The Lady’s Dressing Room” can be confusing to understand.

To me, it seems as though both poems are critical of society’s views of women at the time. “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” tells the story of a woman – likely a prostitute – who finishes her day and returns home, preparing for bed. By the end of the poem, it is revealed that ‘Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane,’ is not a beautiful young nymph after all, but is in reality a hideous old woman, missing teeth and even an eye. She goes to sleep without her makeup, revealing herself to be a mess, and “Must ev’ry Morn her Limbs unite,” or basically put herself back together every time she wakes up.

The second poem is about a woman in a similar position, this time being spied upon by a man named Strephon. He reveals “how damnably the Men lie,
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly,” as he witnesses her taking off her makeup and revealing her true self. By the poem’s end, “His foul Imagination links
Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks” and Strephon is unable to see women in any desirable way again.

These poems, on their surface, seem incredibly misogynistic and sexist, decrying women as fake, disgusting messes. Swift was a satirist, however, and a satirical poem about gender roles at the time would want to seem exactly as Swift wrote his poems.

Saying whether or not Swift would have agreed with Butler about gender roles is an even more difficult matter. In Swift’s time, even among the most progressive individuals, the idea of “socially constructed” norms would likely have been foreign. While Swift and Butler would likely have been on the same page about society’s treatment of women at the time, Swift would probably have adopted a very gender-normative view about the world.

The closest Swift seems to come to expressing views on gender roles in is “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” where Strephon wonders “Should I the Queen of Love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking Ooze?” This could be seen as Swift making the point that it is perhaps not very masculine to find women repulsive just because a man knows what they (supposedly) look like beneath their makeup, so perhaps Swift still believes firmly in gender roles (in this case, that ‘real’ men should always find women attractive).

As for the derivation of gender roles and homosexuality, I can’t say that I’m in complete agreement with Butler’s statement that they are not based – at least in part – on heterosexuality. Without heterosexuality, life simply could not have carried on. These days we have in vitro fertilization and other form of sperm donorship, but this was not always the case. That said, however, I doubt heterosexuality is the true original either, as sex only entered the life cycle of creatures when some evolved past asexual reproduction.

Perhaps, in the end, sex – and everything that has to do with it – is simply the result of a less-than-efficient evolutionary path.

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