The Lesser of Two Evils: Fantomina’s World and Our Own

When confronted with Eliza Haywood’s novel Fantomina, or really any other text dealing with women of antiquity, I imagine one reaction within the average modern reader is as follows: well, at least women have it better now. It seems like the obvious response. We’ve made ground as a society. Women can wear what they want, go to school, hold (practically) any job they please, determine their own life paths, and escape what was once their incredibly small pigeon hole.

Fantomina doesn’t suffer these injustices very directly, but her “sexcapades” are a direct result of her ignorance and her lack of serious mobility. As a woman with with no intelligent understanding of the world and no positive outlets to cultivate any serious interests, she leads herself blindly down a path to being raped, frankly, as “…she was undone; and he gained a victory, so highly rapturous, that had he known over whom, scarce could he have triumphed more,” (Haywood 2799). Raped, because hers is a society where a woman’s primary value to the men around her is as a sexual object – someone to be drooled over, and then to take absolute advantage of, to be made a “victory”. Following the rape her existence comes to be defined by her sexuality, and more specifically by her ability to motivate the Beauplaisir of her affections to use her in order to experience a sense of worth. Somehow readers root for her, because instead of allowing herself to be used and cast aside by an indifferent male, she is able to use her cunning and sexuality to “get what she wants”, as if this is truly empowering, and as if her goal is anything worthy of respect.

Indeed, women are better off now than Fantomina was in 1725. I would say, however, that it is absolutely necessary to indicate the societal values that provided for Fantomina’s decline are absolutely present in our own society, regardless of whether or not women have a chance to be smart, or vote, or get a job. This is because, plainly and simply, women are still objects, judged foremost for their sexual worth by a male-centric society. This kind of assertion doesn’t even require careful observance, it’s pretty plain no matter where you look.

Media trains every man (from the beginning of their ability to comprehend images) to value a single thing in a woman: beauty – an astronomical, impossible sense of beauty. Not only that, but men are also trained to believe they are entitled to enjoy beautiful women. For instance, go to a drug store magazine display. Our men’s magazines are filled with pictures of airbrushed, 2/3 naked ladies for our sexual gratification. The women’s magazines have the same pictures, but only because women are required to learn what they have to emulate in order to attain the level of value their world demands of them. After all, how can you take any woman seriously if she’s just downright no fun to look at? If you wouldn’t want to sleep with her, what’s the point? Every film, every TV series, every advertisement re-instills the fact that most roads lead to wonderful, complacent sex, no matter how geeky or fat the male half of the equation is. How could I be motivated to buy anything if I didn’t have a pair of breasts selling it to me? This is just the natural order of things.

So it’s no wonder that 20-25% of all women in college experience either a completed or an attempted rape (Gray). Which is a real statistic, by the way. Which should be terrifying. I mean, chances are, if I played on the football team and I decided to have my way with an unconscious girl at a party and then upload some pictures of it to my Facebook, I could still probably get the town to rally behind me on account of the outfit she was wearing. Because that is a justification of rape to people. Because women are objects who have to contend with violent men dealing with the entitlement issues they’ve developed due to a lifetime of over-sexualization and a consequent loss of concern for their fellow human beings.

If you think the “female empowerment via sex” genre died out in 1725, it didn’t. Because this system of objectification offered then, as it does now, women’s one true source of power. That is, their ability to motivate men with their sexual potential. Fantomina repeatedly tricks and entices Beauplaisir to achieve some kind of self-worth. In turn, media has consistently resurrected the image of the beautiful “empowered female” who is able to use her body or her strength to dominate and get what she wants; either she is the sinister femme fatale who uses her sex for “bad”, or she is the social climber who uses her body to her advantage in some kind of “respectable” way, or at least a way that we understand. I question that respectability, obviously, but storytelling can do funny things to twist your perspective. The point is that true female empowerment is not something that plays into a system of objectification. That mode involves gain through a loss of self respect, through personal degradation, and is certainly not a triumph of the intellect.

Even if Haywood’s Fantomina is more satirical fantasy than out-and-out feminist polemic, it still does a decent job of exposing a disturbing societal construct. The heroine’s life is defined by her ability to please men and feel wanted. We read this kind of work and recognize the natural need for female voices to have spoken out about oppression and ignorance three hundred years ago. Yet the modern feminist is mocked and berated. Why? Because the need no longer exists? Because we’ve addressed the main problems, and therefore further complaint is unnecessary? Doubtful. That assumption would be ignorant. And it would mean that we’ve hardly covered any ground at all.

Haywood, Eliza. Fantomina; Or, Love in a Maze. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. New York: Pearson      Education Inc., 2010. 2796-2813. Print.

Gray, Robin Hattersley. “Sexual Assault Statistics.”Campus Safety. Campus Safety, o5 Mar 2012. Web. 26 Feb 2014.