Friday, June 22, 2007

Simple Social Graces

I've mentioned before that I'm very much a girly-girl, I love dressing up, and most of all I enjoy being feminine. I've always been very interested in gender roles, and in how our society has changed its views about gender roles (for better or for worse - probably some of both!) For my last assignment in my Senior Seminar class at college, I chose to write about the drastic change in fashion from the late Victorians to the Flappers of the 1920s, and what this outward change signified in terms of inner thoughts about gender roles. It seemed to me that while so-called feminists were claiming to want to fight for women and "free" them from the shackles of patriarchy and oppression, they went about it quite wrong. What they did was try to usurp men's roles, and try to turn themselves into men, and by doing so they actually diminished the value of women and femininity. I focused on fashion as the outward expression of this desire to become more man-like.

Up until then, in all ages, female fashion was about emphasizing the uniquely female shape. In some ages it was popular to look nearly pregnant (with empire waists and such), in some ages it was popular to emphasize the hips (think 1700s full skirts with hoops protruding over the hips), in some ages it was popular to emphasize the derriere, with a bustle in the back. But it wasn't until the 20s that women started trying to de-emphasize their womanly figure. Hair was chopped off, breasts were bound tightly to appear flat-chested, dresses were shapeless, and big baggy suit-type dresses became popular. Behavior also changed, woman took up publicly drinking (and more importantly getting drunk) and smoking profusely to keep up with the men, and they also started trying to keep up with them in their number of casual sexual encounters. These issues and many more were the topic of my paper, Forsaking Femininity, and it remains a great interest to me. My curiosity was piqued, then, when someone from the ex-CoC board recommended a book about the Victorians and what they had that we have lost, called Simple Social Graces.

Much of this book clarifies some myths that we have about the Victorians that arose largely because of disdain for them, and out of attempts to promote modern ideas about sexuality and more. The author, Linda S. Lichter, explains well how the Victorians were not prudes who all thought sex was dirty and at best a duty, in fact they had such a high regard for it that they kept it where it should be - between husband and wife. I often wondered, as I studied Victorian literature, just how we got the concept that these people were stiff, cold, unfeeling prudes, because the literature I read swelled with beautiful descriptions of transcendental love, and of deep, yet controlled, passion. The "subtle sensuality" is more romantic than any smut widely seen on TV soap operas today. And isn't it the Victorian elaborate cards and meaningful flowers we think of when Valentine's Day comes around? They were certainly not lacking in love just because they thought it proper to control lust.

I've always seen a deep respect and consideration in the detailed traditions of the Victorians, especially in their focus on proper etiquette and treatment of people. Those who cry that such customs are "empty" and "superficial" tend to remind me of those who say the same about Catholic practices. But having come to believe in the truth of the phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi, I tend to think a proper translation applied to the Victorians would be, how we behave is how we believe. When you learn to treat everyone with consideration and respect because of customs and etiquette, it tends to spill over into your actual thought process.

Lichter also explains how much of the etiquette protected women, and was actually very pro-woman, and allowed the woman to often be in charge of the situation. For instance, a man was expected to properly tip his hat or bow when passing a woman he knew on the street, and she was expected to show appreciation, but the man was not to "take advantage" of her polite return gesture by pushing more acquaintance, unless she invited it. It was her choice. Such universal rules helped to level the playing field, to allow everyone to be respectful and be respected.

Another topic Lichter talks about is the home, and how it has changed from the Victorian notion of the heart of the family, and a sanctuary to a mere building where people cohabitate. I couldn't help being reminded of the Catholic notion of the Domestic Church as she explained the Victorian views of home, a place where the smallest chore becomes an act of love and sacrifice for your family.

One thing I would have liked to see more of, which wasn't mentioned a whole lot was the effects of artificial birth control on our attitudes towards sex. There are some beautiful chapters about marriage and sex and how it has been cheapened by gross publicity and blatant vulgarity, which I think would have been made even better with a look at how significant a role artificial birth control played in that. She does mention in passing the Victorian view that contraceptives carried with them the danger of making women into a mere play-thing, and that men who practiced periodic abstinence for the sake of their wives' health epitomized self-sacrifice and proved their love (NFP anyone?), but that's about as far as it goes. The wisdom of the Church's teaching on contraception was a constant glaring factor for me as I read these chapters, though.

Simple Social Graces presents a stunning juxtaposition of just how far we have come in destroying respect for our fellow human beings, and especially women, even while modern feminists attempted to do the opposite. The small, simple things that were done revealed an underlying sense of self-sacrifice, and the focus was on humility rather than pride as it often is today.

There were a few things that I disagreed with in the book. I think it's possible that the often-perfect picture painted of the Victorians may be just a little too perfect. I also question the several unsubstantiated references to America being, hands down, the best and most forward-thinking country of the age. Prohibition is often mentioned in an apparently favorable light, which, in my mind, blames an object rather than calling on the necessary self-control touted throughout the rest of the book. I also think many of the character traits that were described as Victorian were not exclusively or originally Victorian, though they may have been the last group to embody them as a whole.

But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Simple Social Graces. I came away with the overall sense that because people found high ideals to be hard to attain, they ended up lowering the ideals to the lowest common denominator. Lichter makes no secret about the fact that in the Victorian age (and before) women were looked to as the keepers of societal virtue, they set the standard and men were expected to meet it. When women began to lower their expectations, all of society suffered the consequences. Certainly in our age this idea sounds extremely sexist, but whether it's politically correct or not, I do believe it's true.


Patrick said...

This sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the review.

Jennifer F. said...

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!