Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kirsten Dunst, Gender, and Too Many Victorian Novels on My Kindle


Apparently I am stingy, because I feel that intangible ebooks should be cheaper than tangible, second-hand paperbacks. This means that much of my Kindle reading involves free or cheap files filled with long-forgotten fiction of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Most of it was forgotten for a reason.

Oh, my gosh. So… much… melodrama. The “Greatest Mystery Collection, Volume 2” contain gems like this: Imagine a mystery novel in which it turns out that the victim, a philanthropic and lovely older woman, actually stabbed herself in the heart. This was because she saw her adult son burst into her house (he didn’t know that she was his mother—all of her previous babies had died under what she felt was a curse, so she gave him to another woman to adopt in order to save his life, and herself took that other woman’s dead infant in exchange so that the other woman’s husband would think the babe was his). She is convinced, from the wild eyes of her unfortunately somewhat disreputable but handsome son, that he intends to rob her of the large sum of money which is concealed in her cupboard. In order to save him from committing such a vile deed and thereby descending along the path of wickedness, she stabs herself. Motherlove! When all is revealed and he is finally acquitted of having murdered her (apparently she forgot to think about the legal issues surrounding her noble deed), he honors her forever and goes every year to weep upon her grave. The text even tells us that she is the only woman whose memory is more dear to him than his love for his lovely young wife, and the wife is apparently totally OK with this. I could go on, but this gives you an idea of the style of Agatha Webb by Anna Katherine Green.

Even in the less sentimental, more humorous stories of the early Twentieth Century, such as Seven Keys To Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers, one finds beautiful blond girls who do things like tell random young men (I paraphrase), “You must trust me, and steal the money for me with no explanation. I will sit about helplessly and berate you as a traitor every time you fail. In the end, you can propose to me. I will point out that we just met, and you will say that doesn’t matter. I will finally surrender and go limp in your arms. The end.” I must mention that in his last and final proposal, the young man’s endearing argument against the girl’s hesitation over the fact that he doesn’t even know her last name is to tell her, “That’s women’s logic.” I rather like old-fashioned values, but this is too much for me.

Such books appear at first glance to be the antithesis of modern feelings about gender roles, romance, and correct behavior. It is easy to read this stuff and be glad that modernism brought us out of the age of swooning and sentimentality. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not as different from the Victorians and their Edwardian children as we think we are.  

Modern women are supposed to be strong and far from silent. They are supposed to beat up bad guys (quite possibly while wearing a sexy little outfit), balance work and family, and express their individuality. Yet they do not do this easily and naturally, not even in fiction. There is a strained, cautious quality to contemporary portrayals of men and women as such. It is vital for public figures to word all comments on gender correctly, lest they be seized upon by the media for a good headline (as happened to Kirsten Dunst recently). It is treated as essential that female characters in fiction be gender role models, not just realistic, flawed, human characters.

A new type of "housewife"
When you think about it, our obsession with gender is actually reminiscent of the Victorians. Theirs, too, was an era in which the role of women was changing dramatically. Unlike past centuries, they experienced a proliferation of white-collar office jobs for men that resulted in the creation of a leisured female middle class—hundreds and thousands of women who were no longer busy helping to run the farm or workshop. Thus was born the idea that woman’s job was to “make a home” in a spiritual sense by instilling moral values in their children, their menfolk, and their society. The moral superiority of women became a commonly accepted sentiment. Just as these women did not need to work, their heroines of fiction were not very good at doing practical things. There is a strained quality to the Victorian heroine. She must be careful to behave correctly so as to provide a proper role model, and to ensure that everyone know she is a lady in spirit even if not in means.

Neither we nor the Victorians are very relaxed about what it means to be a woman. In this we are alike. The next time I see someone ranting about the danger of portraying women as creatures in need of a white knight, I shall say, “How Victorian,” and I will be referring to the person ranting.

Linking-up to Housewifespice for What We're Reading Wednesday!


  1. I loved this. The comments under the Kirsten Dunst article are great, too. :)

  2. I hadn't heard the Kirsten Dunst kerfuffle. I've always wondered about those free books. Get what you pay for, I guess.

    1. Yeah, mostly! :-) Although there are lots of great classics for free too, I must admit.

  3. This is sooooooooooo interesting. I'm in a limbo about what I believe about gender and femininity right now myself. I tend to defend the stay-at-home housewife stereotype but people have graciously pointed out to me that that wasn't the norm in society until the 1950's (for a large middle class, anyway), but I guess I'm looking for justification for my desire not to go out of the house to work!


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