The Image of the Objectified Woman Has Barely Changed

The image of women in popular media has changed little over the years, with most of the changes happening more recently in the past few decades. Today we can see a plethora of efforts to update public depictions of women from movies and television, including soap advertisements, to comic books, music and even politics. At least this is true in the prevailing modern culture which has its roots in a rather misogynistic past.

But efforts to accomplish this change in general perception have been ongoing for centuries. There are certainly earlier instances of deviation from the expected portrayal of women in literature, but not many are as humorous yet profound as Jonathan Swift’s A Lady’s Dressing Room. The poem, written in 1732, illustrates a woman’s dressing room as discovered by a man named Strephon who barely understands women. Like a skulking cat he slinks around the room taking inventory of every bit of feminine accouterment like he is investigating a wizard’s lair; until he finally comes upon a bewitching chest. He opens it due to vulgar curiosity only to be surprised by the foul contents hidden within – Celia’s chamber pot.

Several elements of the poem take the conventions of the time and turn them on their heads. The names Strephon and Celia were most commonly encountered at that time as the names of lovers in pastoral romances. Swift takes the hero, Strephon, and makes him little more than a weasel poking around where he doesn’t belong. The heroine, Celia, is mostly absent, having a brief description of her actions in the first stanza of the piece. But the intrusion and subsequent discoveries would have been very difficult for Strephon if Celia had been present. And yet, none of the discoveries would be possible without her. The intrusion into her private quarters could easily be read as a metaphorical sharing of intimacy between the two characters, which is made even more jarring when one realizes this invasion is of a duplicitous nature and without her consent.

But she is present in a way, the room is her – a visual metaphor wherein the “hero” makes it his privilege to explore. All the items described have something to do with Celia’s appearance, showcasing how artificial women were considered then. This exploration of obfuscation culminates in the discovery of the chamber pot. But even this every day item is tucked away, hidden behind a facade. Strephon had to discover it, and presumably knew it had to be there, but is still shocked to such a degree it seems to have given him a form of post traumatic stress disorder.

Strephon, like much of the male population, have long had a hard time seeing women as human beings with the same needs, wants, desires, and bodily functions as the rest of us. Swift is showing us the difference in the perception of womanhood and femininity versus the reality of being a person. It’s interesting that this perception has changed so little in the past three hundred years. Sure as children we are surprised and shocked and often repulsed at the differences in the sexes, but at some point it comes time to grow up and see women for who they really are – humans.