Socioeconomic Slut-Shaming

What do Vivian Ward from Pretty Woman, Mary Astell, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti have in common when it comes to the fight for gender equality? Each sheds a new light on the age old argument, “Will men and women ever be treated equally?” Pretty Woman, a 1990’s rom-com, portrays Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward and Richard Gere as Edward Lewis in an unlikely romance between a rich businessman and a prostitute. Although Pretty Woman is a light-hearted film about what happens when a girl finds her “prince charming”, the movie draws many parallels about what it is like for women in the lower class of our modern society today to the eighteenth century London. Like Pretty Woman, “Jenny” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti explores the image of the lower class “fallen woman” and begs the question—can she be saved?

Jenny and Vivian both find themselves disadvantaged in society due to having little skills and their socioeconomic situation, forcing them to turn to prostitution. Although the author does not give us background information about Jenny, we are able to infer her economic situation from the details given about her throughout the poem. Society at this time was often describes as, “Victorian Britain, with its rigid gender roles, was a strictly patriarchal society where discrimination against women was a dogmatic practice. As John Tosh describes, “it was a society characterized by increasingly sharp category distinctions of gender and sexuality” (Tosh qtd. in Yildirim 46). Victorian ideology of gender rested on the belief that women were both physically and intellectually the inferior sex” (Yildirim 46). Whether you were in the lower class or the upper class, women were expected to be completely subservient to men. Although times have improved for women since the Victorian era, in many ways we are still fighting the same battles women were faced with in the early nineteenth century. Vivian explained to Edward Lewis that she turned to prostitution due to “no money, no friends, and no bum” to take help her (Pretty Woman). Running out of opinions Vivian tried prostitution, saying the first night she “cried the whole time” (Pretty Woman). She goes on to recollect that for her, the first night that you must give yourself over and sacrifice yourself was the worst, but seemed to be her only option to survive. Even though she knew she could do more, Vivian discusses how people putting her down her entire life made her think she did not deserve any better. Women are still ostracized, accused of being a slut for things that men do, without consequence, all the time. Women still make “78 cents to a man’s dollar”, causing them to have to work for “469 days to make what a man makes in a year” (O’Brien). Women, especially those with no learned skills or poor economic standing, are forced to take desperate measures in order to provide for themselves such as what Jenny and Vivian did.

Although the tones of Pretty Woman and “Jenny” differ, they both provide very humanizing portrayals of two women from two different centuries who are dealing with the social stigma of being the “fallen woman”. Pretty Woman written by J. F. Lawton was originally set to be a very dark portrayal of prostitution and women in the lower class during modern times, but was later revised into a more upbeat story about how the “fallen woman” can be saved. Although there was quite a bit of controversy about how this movie was supposed to end Lawton accounts, “During this whole thing, there was all this whole debate about ‘How do we end it, how do we save her?’…” (Erbland). For Jenny, unlike Vivian’s happy ending, she is left by the narrator the next morning where it can be inferred that she cannot be saved. Jenny, who is the object of Rossetti’s poem, does not have a voice throughout the poem and is described through the eyes of the narrator, giving a nod to the extreme limitations placed on women by Victorian society. Rossetti ponders several aspects about Jenny including her lifestyle, intellect, and beauty. Due to Jenny being asleep for the majority of their time spent together, the narrator forms judgments about her based on appearances, describing her as a “volume seldom read” (Rossetti 158). After observing Jenny for a while, he begins to find similarities between Jenny and his own cousin Nell, a member of the upper class. “The potter’s power over the clay! Oh the same lump (it has been said). For honour and dishonour made, Two sister vessels. Here is one” (Rossetti 181). Insinuating that even though Nell and Jenny are similar, their circumstances differ which greatly impacted their stations in life. When the narrator decides to pay and leave without waking Jenny or trying to rectify her situation in anyway, Rossetti gives the readers the impression that Jenny cannot be saved and the patterns of this society will continue to repeat itself.

In “Jenny,” it seems to implied that the narrator is some sort of wealthy scholar who is caught between feeling pity for the sleeping woman, having detached judgements about her, and also wanting to condemn her due to his upbringing in Victorian society. Further exemplifying that the very men who condemn these women for sleeping around and make them social outcasts for doing what they must to survive, are the same men who keep them in business. Reinstyilling the idea of double standards between genders, which is very much still prevalent today. Although neither Edward Lewis nor the narrator sleep with their prostitute on the night they spend together (although for Edward, this just applies to first night), it seems that these male characters have very different reasons for this. Rossetti makes the narrator seem narcissistic, almost a little bit pompous for ‘allowing’ her to sleep instead of having sex with him. Giving the impression that because he is not forcing her to sleep with him, this act makes him a saint. While on the other hand, Lewis’ intentions seems to quite honorable for letting Vivian sleep on their first night together, as he is developing feelings for her.

Both Vivian and Jenny are faced with challenges due to their socioeconomic standing, their employment, and where they come from. The stories of these women may suggest that we still have a long journey ahead of us until male and females are truly equal, but also that suggests that feminism is something for our society to work towards. Mary Astell, said to be one of the first feminist writers, states, “This is no hard Question; let the Soul be principally consider’d, and regard had in the first Place to a good Understanding, a Virtuous Mind, and in all other respects let there be as much equality as may be” (Astell 43). This idea of the “fallen women” who needs to be saved in order to be welcomed back into society, is very much a stigma from the past which should be learned from and improved upon. Women do not need to be saved by men and vise versa, but if in fact we could learn how to respect one another maybe we could, in some ways, save each other.

 

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Work Cited:

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Jenny. 1856. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Fourth Edition. Vol. 2B. New York: Longman, 2010. 1623-32. Print.

Astell, Mary. Some Reflections upon Marriage. 1675. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Fourth Edition. Vol. 1C. New York: Longman 2010. 2284-93. Print.

Yildirim, Aşkın Haluk. “The Woman Question And The Victorian Literature On Gender.” Ekev Academic Review 16.52 (2012): 45-54. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2015. (MLA SOURCE)

Erbland, Kate. “The True Story of Pretty Woman’s Original Dark Ending.” Vanity Fair. n.p. 23 March 2015. Web. 4 December 2015.

O’Brien, Sara Ashley. “78 Cents on the Dollar: the Facts about the Gender Wage Gap.” CNN Money. n.p. 14 April 2015. Web. 5 December 2015.

Pretty Woman. J. F. Lawton. Perf. Julia Roberts. Richard Gere. Touchstone, 1990. DVD.

“Richard Gere GIF.” GIPHY. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015. Gif.

“Julia Roberts GIF.” GIPHY. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015. Gif.

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