The Ignorance involved in Praising Aesthetics- As seen in Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

“John, you should go and play with Sally. She is pretty cute.” “Why don’t you like her? I think she is adorable.” “Sally is pretty hot man, I’d hang out with her.” “Who cares if she’s stupid, she’s fine so it doesn’t even matter.” “I’d tap that.” “If she’s not above a seven I won’t even consider dating her.”

The quotations listed above can be overheard as boys turn into… bigger boys, not men, as title of “man” shouldn’t be degraded by an association with such spineless conversation. The sad truth is that most males want to be accompanied by a beautiful woman before an outstanding one. Of course, these boys associate the greatest qualities humans can possess with external beauty, which does not have a strong, positive correlation. This promotion of physical attributes is dehumanizing; Once a focus is placed on aesthetics the human qualities women possess are diminished until they are seen as flaws. Males who fail to recognize women as human beings, and prefer to think of them as objects for lustful activities and display, are actually flawed, but this unfortunate process isn’t new to the world. It has been occurring for centuries, which can be proven by reading and understanding Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room.”

Though this piece can be understood with some modern application, its satire has more purpose when it is read with some knowledge of women’s rights and their societal expectations in 18th century Europe. Written in 1700, only 30 years before Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Mary Astell’s, Some Reflections upon Marriage, sheds light on the lack of ignorance-ridding education women received. Women of the time were not told what to expect as adults, only that to become one they must marry men and that life would continue after this monumental event had occurred. With this being the case, women focused the entirety of their time on activities that made them objects to be adored rather than women ready to traverse the world with some degree of culture and concept of the ill intent many people possess. On this topic Astell wrote,

“It is even the case before us: a woman who has been taught to think marriage her only preferment… she who is either so simple or so vain as to take her lover at his word either as to the praises he gives her, or the promises he made for himself. In sum, she whose expectation has been raised by courtship, by all the fine things that her lover, her governess, and domestic flatterers say, will find a terrible disappointment when the hurry is over, and when she comes calmly to consider her condition, and views it no more under a false appearance, but as it truly is.”(2282-2283)

The educational disparity between the sexes was huge, as men of the time “ought above all things to be acquainted with the state of the world, the ways and humors, the follies, the cheats, the faults of the age he is fallen into” (2285). With this being the case, men’s superiority was both prideful and factual and few people were looking to move women out from the shadow filled cave and into the light.

With this sharp disparity, men’s rising ignorance, and increasing objectification of women, Swift saw an opportunity to make a nasty, edgy, satirical piece that would shake social perception and did so with “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” This work, though not fully appreciated by the likes of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see her counter to Swift’s piece here), can be mistaken for his opinion, but it is the duty of the reader to understand the satirical G.O.A.T that is Jonathan Swift and the duty of satire to critique social, institutional, and political conventions at work that do not benefit the whole.

Strephon, the poem’s protagonist, goes through his lover Celia’s room and discovers items that quickly make him face the realization that she is a human who sweats, cleans her hair when it is dirty, and regularly has bowel movements. Of the latter Swift wrote,

“Thus finishing his grand survey,

The swain disgusted slunk away,

Repeating in his amorous fits,

Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (2373)

How dare she disrespect a proud man with such natural actions! Does she place no value on her reputation or the opinion of the God’s greatest creation-man? The issue was, as stated above by Aphra Behn, that women in the early 18th century placed too high a value on their physical presence in a room which led to their treatment as objects of appreciation rather than humans with thoughts behind their actions. This fault cannot be attributed solely to men or women of the age, as its practice was a collaborative process. Women failed to practice transparency and tell their daughters what events to anticipate after isolation with a man began. Men, as a whole, failed to recognize women as humans capable of learning, working, thinking, and expressing knowledge at a capacity at or exceeding that of men. The larger fault was, and remains to be, by men who only value aesthetics and refuse to understand that women are more than magnificent in appearance.

Laura Baudot, an assistant professor of english at Oberlin College, wrote an essay discussing Swift’s poem and what people should take away from the experience of reading it. A continual theme brought up throughout her essay is the flaw in over valuing aesthetics, which she discussed when she wrote,

“At once self deceiving and self-serving, aesthetic enthusiasm fosters the illusion of spiritual presence in beautiful material things in order to make them more gratifying. This is precisely, I would argue, Swift’s problem with aesthetic enthusiasm: it requires self-deception and seeks to convince others of the validity of a feigned passion; it quite idolatrously invokes the spiritual to make the material more pleasing.” (652)

Swift, as Baudot points out, knew the shallow depth of physical attributes and therefore saw it as a form of “self-deception” to continually praise a quality that may last, naturally at least, for less than a quarter of one’s lifetime. Is time not better spent seasoning the soul with spices of culture, history, language, reflection upon one’s thoughts and actions, the continual creation of ideas, imagination, conquering of new intellectual territory, and fostering loving relationships based upon conversations worthy of a scene in a Jane Austen novel? Swift believed so, so he wrote “The Lady’s Dressing Room” in order to buck the status quo.

Works Cited:

Astell, Mary. from Some Reflections upon Marriage. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1C, first edition. Addison-Wesley 1999. pp. 2280- 2289. Print.

Baudot, Laura. “What Not to Avoid in Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 49, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Rice University, 2009. 637-666. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1C, first edition. Addison-Wesley 1999. pp. 2370-2373. Print.

Photo of Angelina Jolie and the reminder that she poops comes from