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An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (8, Lineages of Misogyny from the Victorian Age as Revealed by Bram Dijkstra)

An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (8, Lineages of Misogyny from the Victorian Age as Revealed by Bram Dijkstra) 

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "Salome Triumphant" (Edouard Toudouze, ca. 1886)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “Salome Triumphant” (Edouard Toudouze, ca. 1886)

Good Morning, Everyone:

The 19th Century Male:  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, "She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed..." (art by Berni Wrightson)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed…” (art by Berni Wrightson)

So, back in the late-1980s, I’m sitting in a collegiate Romantic Literature course, excited by the just-completed assignment of reading Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and in complete awe of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s achievement (mostly by the author’s situating the “center” of the book in the ice-field where man confronts monster).  At the time, I was still an avid comic-book collector, and — since Marvel Comics had released an edition of Frankenstein earlier in the decade with illustrations by Swamp Thing co-creator/artist, Bernie Wrightson — the assignment had afforded me a chance to blend academics with my comic-book/epic-fantasy hobbies.  Then, the professor shifted gears to give us a week of “historical context” for the 19th Century environment in which Mary Shelley wrote.

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "Virgin Enthroned" (Abbot Handerson Thayer, 1891)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “Virgin Enthroned” (Abbot Handerson Thayer, 1891)

The assigned text was Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture, & it served as a tour-de-force exposé of the cultural “war on woman” (not just the gender, but the idea of women, too) that was waged by many aspects of popular culture during the Victorian Age, and which one could argue has many descendants in the present day. As I think about my own experience in reading comic books and epic fantasy literature, I have to admit that there were some creators within both mediums who seemed beholden to some of the influences of those 19th century male fantasists.

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Invalid" (Carl Larsson, 1899)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Invalid” (Carl Larsson, 1899)

A simple review of Dijkstra’s Table of Contents will keep awake at night anyone with an interest in how women are perceived and portrayed in our culture, particularly if one asks herself if any of the subjects listed have evaporated from western society’s “conversation” about gender.  (note: following Dijkstra’s chapter titles, I’ve included in brackets a top-line description of the chapter’s material, which is rife with documentary and artistic evidence to support his arguments):

(1) “Raptures of Submission: The Shopkeeper’s Soul Keeper & the Cult of the Household Nun” [or, in a growing middle-class 19th century world, women should know their place in society & aspire to Mother Mary in running a household, or as Dijkstra calls the middle-class male dream of the “virginal purity of womanhood — mother, wife, and daughter”]

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "Virginia" (James Bertrand, ca. 1869)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “Virginia” (James Bertrand, ca. 1869)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "Sleep" (Charles Chaplin, 1886)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “Sleep” (Charles Chaplin, 1886)

(2) “The Cult of Invalidism: Ophelia and Folly; Dead Ladies and the Fetish of Sleep” [or, a preoccupation by artists of the period with depicting completely passive women, usually supine and lying asleep, sick, dying, or staring with mad eyes at viewer or into middle distance, all representative of the ethos that if a woman truly, truly loved a man, then she should die to prove her love]

(3) “The Collapsing Woman: Solitary Vice and Resentful Detumescence” [or, only by dying or dead could a woman offer men a “relief” from the constant desire that the female presence instilled in men, and, conversely, in the plethora of “collapsing woman” paintings of the Victorian Age, the absence of a man as protector or provider left only slumped or weakened position as the postures for females]

 

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "A Martyr of Fanaticism" (José de Brito, 1895)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “A Martyr of Fanaticism” (José de Brito, 1895)

(4) “The Weightless Woman: the Nymph with the Broken Back; and the Mythology of Therapeutic Rape” (or, scientific discoveries by mid-century of a woman’s “sexual nature” rekindled ancient associations of Mother Nature, and a tantalizing question for artists & society: “Did not the earth, nature herself, meekly permit her body to be plowed, seeded, stripped, and abused by man?”)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Mountain Mists" (Herbert Draper, 1912)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Mountain Mists” (Herbert Draper, 1912)

(5) “Women of Moonlight and Wax; the Mirror of Venus and the Lesbian Glass” [or, women who dared not die for love of a man were subject to stepping into ungoverned territory, with “mental disorientation and madness,” which in the male fantasies of the time, could lead to unhealthy, narcissistic preoccupations with oneself or in lesbian relationships with other women]

(6) “Evolution and the Brain: Extinguished Eyes and the Call of the Child; Homosexuality and the Dream of Male Transcendence” [or, how the writings of Herbert Spencer & Charles Darwin were combined to justify social inequality and women’s inferiority in the male-dominated “chain of being,” completely in keeping with what Dijkstra calls the “fetishized idealization of a woman — equivalent, in her innocence, to the child…”]

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Kelpie" (Thomas Millie Dow, 1985)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Kelpie” (Thomas Millie Dow, 1985)

(7) “Clinging Vines and the Dangers of Degeneration” [whether in rhetoric or belief, Dijkstra examines the tendency of culture to depict problems in binary mode: “either with us, or against us,” “good hero in white hat shoots bad hero in black hat,” and, for women in the Victorian Age, a woman, to use Proudhon’s phrase, was either a “courtesan or a housewife…” — this chapter examines how stepping outside either of those roles was to degenerate]

(8) “Poison Flowers; Maenads of the Decadence and the Torrid Wail of the Sirens” [or, how women’s role as the embodiment of evil in society made them temptresses to men, who could show strength and restraint by resisting females’ predatory impulses]

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (Lovis Corinth, 1898)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (Lovis Corinth, 1898)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Meeting of Animalism and an Angel" (Fernand Khnopff, 1889)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Meeting of Animalism and an Angel” (Fernand Khnopff, 1889)

(9) “Gynanders and Genetics: Connoisseurs of Bestiality and Serpentine Delights: Leda, Circe, and the Cold Caresses of the Sphinx” (or, how “In literature, as in the realm of visual arts, fantasies concerning women’s resemblance to animals increased steadily in frequency, ranging from simple comparisons (‘catlike grace’) to elaborate psychological characterizations…”]

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: "The Meeting of Animalism and an Angel" (Fernand Khnopff, 1889)

A 19th Century Male Fantasy: “The Meeting of Animalism and an Angel” (Fernand Khnopff, 1889)

(10) “Metamorphosis of the Vampire; Dracula and His Daughters” (I can’t do a better top-line than Dijkstra’s prose: “For the men of the [late 19th c.] — who strove to soar upward into the empyrean of intellectual transcendence upon the shoulders of their ever-pliant, gratefully suffering wives — it seemed that the pleasures of the body were to be paid for with death.  The womb of the woman was the insatiable soil into whose bottomless crevasses man must pour the essence of his intellect in payment for her lewd entertainments. The hunger of the beast was in her loins, and the hunger of the beast was the hunger for blood.”]

(11) “Gold and the Virgin Whores of Babylon; Judith and Salome: The Priestesses of Man’s Severed Head” [or, how Fin-de-Siecle culture seemed rife with images of prostitutes, opium- or morphine-addled women, images of Salome — and the beheaded John the Baptist — who “epitomized the inherent perversity of women; their eternal circularity and their ability to destroy a man’s soul while they remained nominally chaste in body.”]

Well, as you can imagine, for an avid comic-book and epic-fantasy reader of the mid- to late-20th century (whose purchases included some of the very same kinds of lurid, stereotypical, and misogynistic images & book covers as the ones Dijkstra highlighted), I had to stop short and reassess my reading and buying habits.  In learning about these misogynistic aspects of popular culture from a century past, I’d started to feel almost complicit in perpetuating the same kinds of affronts whenever I browsed the sci-fi/fantasy section in a bookstore, or made monthly ordering selections in a comic shop.

At that moment I curbed the “completist” impulse to read “everything” within the sci-fi/fantasy field, and began to discriminate in my choice of authors and books.  In short, after that Romantic Literature class & Dijkstra’s book, I learned a very simple lesson:  in the marketplace of ideas & in the entertainment industry, the maxim “to each his own” can govern a consumer’s choice, so in order to to stop feeling such complicity, I simply stopped reading the books where a creator’s world-building included gender-destruction!

Next Time: Concluding Thoughts — Inheritance of Victorian Age:  Women’s Treatment in Epic Fantasy of the Late 20th & Early 21st Centuries…

 

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