Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Same bullshit, new woman
I am sure that at some point in the nineteenth century it must have been terrifying to look around and see a bunch of learned-frail, poorly educated she-beasts having opinions and daring to talk to men. Henrik Ibsen and Henry James wrote about these monstrous developments and called them "New Women" and patted themselves on the back and called it a day and I've just now figured out why I fucking hate Ibsen and why Portrait of a Lady solidified my dislike of James.
Ibsen and James prototyped the New Woman (except, no, they didn't, they wrote about the kinds of women they were starting to see in the real world, they didn't write out these templates from whole cloth and women didn't start behaving like the New Woman characters - real goddamned women came first, the New Woman trope came after - in fact it was a New Woman who coined the term "new woman" and Ibsen denied that his writing was actually meant to advocate for women) in their works and their works were dedicated to laughing at her. Look at poor little Nora, darling little doll, and how fucking disappointed she is that she doesn't get to kill herself to save her husband's honor over her sacrifice for his fucking health. Ibsen makes Torvald a monster on purpose, the gross part is that Nora is a monster too and Ibsen doesn't even realize it. Ibsen thinks women - moreover the best of the women in the world - are monsters. And so does James. We marvel at Isabel's rags then riches and how she handles both, we're supposed to sympathize with her cousin as we watch her throw herself away but then cheer as she agrees to continue being garbage. Because of what? Integrity? James has just said that the most admirable trait that women have is that they won't change their silly little minds and that they're so weak and perfect and pure that they can't help but be victims of predatory men.
I've been ruminating on The Portrait of a Lady for over a week now and I don't buy what James is selling. He made Isabel what she is, he praises her and lifts her up for what she is, and what she is is shit. Hyperfeminine, ultra-frail, shit. Even if the reader isn't supposed to want to emulate her, they're supposed to mourn the tragic loss of her but Isabel's loss isn't tragic. She's nothing fucking special. She's a lady, not a person, and I can't boo-hoo that she's isolated on the pedestal that James and his male characters have built up around her. We're supposed to admire and mourn for Isabel, we're supposed to be perplexed and amused by Harriet and Harriet's ignorant vulgarity, we're supposed to revile Madame Merle, mock the Countess Gemini, and pity Pansy. Well Isabel is the least interesting of all of those people and I can't really be fussed, I wanted to give Harriet all of the high fives, Madame Merle did nothing but introduce Isabel to someone she was too stupid to get to know before she married him, the Countess Gemini sounds like a party in a box, and I just wanted to teach Pansy how to set shit on fire. I thought James wanted people to hate Europeans, not women. Fuck. We're supposed to laugh at the only female characters who have any fucking agency and pity but dismiss as useless the ones who don't (which includes Isabel, all the talk about her independence notwithstanding because she isn't actually independent, she's reactionary).
Ugh. Fuck all this noise. I'm done with James, done with Ibsen, and done with the idea that women are some kind of especially weak or especially wonderful species separate from men.
James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Signet Publishing. New York: New York. 1996. (1880-1).