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.”