“Celia’s magnifying Glass”: Male Violation and Female Body Policing in Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

Since so many of you have voiced interest in Swift’s satirical lampooning of women in the poems we have read for class, I thought I’d take the opportunity to weigh in, and to link poems like “The Lady’s Dressing Room” “Upon A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” to issues that still, unfortunately, comprise a great deal of contemporary pop culture today: voyeurism, body policing, and misogyny. One image in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” that particularly struck me as emblematic of this deeply problematic issue is the “magnifying Glass” which “frighten[s] Strephon” when he sees his own face reflected in it:

A Glass that can to Sight disclose,
The smallest Worm in Celia’s Nose,
And faithfully direct her Nail
To squeeze it out from Head to Tail;
For catch it nicely by the Head,
It must come out alive or dead. (63-8)

Though the poem seems to suggest that it is the appearance of his own face as “the Visage of a Gyant” that horrifies Strephon (62), it is also, interestingly, the moment in which the magnified gaze of the mirror–the mirror that regularly distorts Celia’s face in such a way that she can see the clogged pores on her nose, the “Bristles” on her chin, etc–is turned on the male voyeur who has violated the boundaries of Celia’s chamber by entering without her consent. Since the mirror “can to Sight disclose, / The smallest Worm in Celia’s nose,” it makes visible that which would not necessarily be so otherwise. A patriarchal view that says that Celia’s imperfections are not just limited to those that can be readily spotted by the human eye–that the magnifying gaze of the mirror is necessary in order to tear out, push, pop, or scratch away anything that might be, even on a microscopic level, present.

While Swift’s speaker is most certainly satirizing and chastising “Disgusted Strephon” for his imprudent curiosity (116), Strephon’s only “punish[ment]” for violating Celia’s private space is that his “foul Imagination” and “vicious Fancy” are doomed to repeat the scene of his disgust every time he encounters (120, 121, 126), not just any woman, but also any unsav’ry Odours”(123). Not only is he projecting disgust on to every woman he sees; he projects an anonymous “Lady” on every smell that offends him, assuming that there must be a woman “standing by”(124).

Are we to assume that the speaker, while positioning himself in opposition to Strephon (“I pity wretched Strephon blind / To all the Charms of Female Kind”(129)), actually occupies a radically different space in relation to women and impossible standards of beauty? While the speaker contrasts Strephon’s “impious[…] blasphem[ing]” of Celia’s beauty aids (137), with his own propensity to “And bless his ravisht Sight to see / Such Order from Confusion sprung, / Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung”(142-4), there are still two problems with this claim: first, it is the speaker who relates Strephon’s story, making himself complicit in the act of entering into Celia’s chamber, graphically exposing its contents to the reader, and doing so with a sustained tone of disgust, in order to create the effect of or elicit the same reaction in his reader. The only glimpse we get of the woman herself is in the first stanza, when the “haughty Celia” who takes “five hours” to dress, emerges as a “Goddess… / Arrayed in Lace Brocades and Tissues” (3-4). Other than this not-so-favorable portrayal (one that relies on the stereotype of the vain feminine deified figure), Celia (and implicitly, all women) remains in this poem an assortment of cosmetic detritus–the sum of many disgusting parts.

The second problem is when the speaker ends the poem by referring to all women as “gaudy Tulips.” Even stepping away from the ambivalence of a word like “gaudy,” which, in this period, means either (or as Derrida and Deconstruction have proven, means both), “brilliantly” and “excessively/tastelessly” “showy or ornate”(OED), the feminized metaphor of “Tulips” that concludes the poem, and the one of “Goddess” that opens it, links women to both sub- and super-humanity. In any case, according to the poem, women are not human. This seems to be what the poem is trying to put into question, but one might ask how effective it is in actually humanizing women. Women are not, as Strephon finds out, “Goddesses.” They are also, contra to the final image of the poem, “Tulips” sprung from “Dung.” They are human. And the problem with a poem that relies on traditional patriarchal metaphors about *what* women are (goddesses, flowers) is that it is inherently susceptible to the privileged male gaze that patriarchy reinforces, advocates, and defends.

Celia sweats. Celia scrapes (why does she scrape? what does she scrape?).

And yes, Celia shits.

Which brings me to my next point–a blog post (http://www.shakesville.com/2011/12/impossibly-beautiful.html) written by amazing uber-feminist Melissa McEwan. McEwan, whose feminist blog “Shakesville” has an ongoing series titled “Impossibly Beautiful,” uses this particular post to blast a 2011 Buzzfeed article “10 Scary Celebrity Close Ups.” The subtitle of the article she destroys is, “If you actually hate any of these celebs, you might feel pleased, not horrified.” Which begs the question, who does this writer think hir audience is? Who does Swift seem to be appealing to? And how does his poem compare to the Buzzfeed article (or any related pop-culture phenomena)? Where does his poem seem progressive? Where does it seem still deeply entrenched in patriarchal or misogynistic discourses?


In a celebrity-obsessed media culture that capitalizes on the invasion, exploitation, and commercialization of body/image policing, how can we think critically about the commodification and fragmentation of the female body and identity?


According to McEwan,

“The real problem with these images, and their insistent revelation of humanness, is not that they are “scary.” It is that they challenge the viewer to embrace the humanity of women.

Which I suppose might be terrifying, if you’re not used to thinking of women as human.”

In other words, “No shit, people.”


5 Comments Add yours

  1. graciegoogin says:

    I think you make an excellent point by saying that Swift “links women to both sub- and super-humanity.” This is definitely very true. Also, I think it is interesting that some of you have commented that you enjoyed this poem and it was a breath of fresh air; that is one way to look at it. Personally, I see this poem as being extremely satirical and crude. I can’t see this as an ode to the natural feminine body, or an ode to all the work women do to get ready to look presentable. Swift’s words are too harsh for me to believe that he could be in some way glorifying or humanizing women.

  2. aevanhouten says:

    I think by challenging the typical cliche metaphors for women, such as “tulips,” Swift is challenging female objectification. He is deconstructing the traditional stereotype of women as delicate flowers, beautiful goddesses, etcetera to humanize them, rather than perpetuating the false ideal of untouched beauty. These seemingly misogynistic comparisons are actually supportive of women as equal to men; Swift strips away the constraints of artificial femininity and places women on the same level as men.

  3. I agree, I thought Swift’s poem was a breath of fresh air, commending the humanity of the woman he is addressing. His exhalation when he discovers the room is such a sharp juxtaposition against what we are taught currently in the media. That is an interesting point to bring up in relation to the theme of the class, and the ‘changing ages’ we are going over. Back in Swift’s day, women were commoditized and mostly treated as dowries, however, their beauty was not under fire like it is today. It makes you wonder whether we have actually progressed.

  4. showard4854 says:

    I really enjoyed Swift’s poem due to the beauty double standard I have found through my studies of feminism and real life situations, that men expect women to be beautiful and tend to taking care of themselves, yet they expect to be free of makeup and sometimes humiliating procedures that women have done to feel comfortable in their skin. Therefore Swift’s poem is an ode to the man who finds the truth behind the makeup and work put in to look beautiful, yet has the chastising tone of Stephron who sees this discovery as horrific. I wonder what the reaction of men today would be, if they watched a female put on all her makeup and experience her free in her own skin?

  5. warrenclimes says:

    I agree with your argument that Jonathan Swift is unfairly satirizing women for the process that they undergo to make themselves up and appear presentable in public. Also, I think that your use of the blog post pertaining to the public’s inability to accept women that appear more “human” than we are used to, or imperfect. Swift bashes women for the lengths to which they will go to get ready, but it is society that forces them to do so. However, I also think that Swift has shown a plain dislike for women in general; all of his works that we have studied have revealed strong anti-women sentiments. Swift mocks them in multiple ways, by comparing their attempts at writing to whorishness, along with satirizing their makeup procedures.

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