Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and the Cosmetic Conspiracy

The Lady’s Dressing Room

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Jonathan Swift’s 1730 scatological poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” details the many horrors and humors a man discovers when he decides to sneak into his lover’s room. Composed during a time period where society imposed strict expectations on both men and women alike, Swift’s poem is meant to shock the reader by exposing the natural grossness of women and reveal how their routines prevent men from engaging with the truth of that grossness. The average reader at the time would have been shocked at what Swift decides to discuss in the poem; excrement and other bodily fluids serve as driving elements of the scene, an unusual topic for an audience that presumably played by the rules society gave them (2348). Swift uses the poem to criticize women for their deceitful practices, and implementing shock value in the piece heightens the 18th century reader’s engagement with that message.

One might believe the message of Swift’s poem critiquing the vanity of women might not inform modern audiences’ expections regarding gender and beauty. However, evaluating modern perceptions and expectations of female beauty and femininity reveals society has maintained some of the ideas discussed by Swift in “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, and prompts modern women to consider how his critique should alter how women choose to present themselves to the world, or if they should take his critique into consideration at all.

What’s in the Box?

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Stephen’s discovery of Celia’s chamber pot acts as the climax of the scene. While the poem’s “point is that beauty and love, both illusory, depend on cosmetics”, Swift would rather focus on what lies beneath the powdered and perfumed surface (Rogers 367). The literary device Swift employs to most effectively communicate his central message is the literary allusion he makes to Pandora’s box when describing Strephon coming upon Celia’s chamber pot. “The forty-six lines of ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ devoted to Celia’s commode and its contents seem gratuitous”, but the scene is elevated as the final revelation that ruins women for Strephon (Rogers 370). He recognizes the idealized picture of femininity he held on to was nothing like the reality of womanhood.

Swift uses Strephon as a representation of mankind, and his intensely negative reaction to Celia’s chamber pot reveals that men are most offended by the most natural thing about Celia and all other women: that they poop.  “The fact that women excrete – a fact which obviously carried an extraordinary emotional impact to him as well as to his lover- protagonists – symbolized the falsity of idealizing them”, showing that their might be more depth to the poem that just an easy attack on the vanity of women (Rogers 369). This fixation on feces introduces two different conversations about the idealization of women and how those ideals affect what society expects from them: are women deceptive, or are they just skilled?

Deception, or Finesse?

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Swift is not ambiguous in his discussion regarding the nature of women’s beauty routines; all women practice vanity and deception, and men are ignorant not by their own doing, but because they are victims of a the deceitful practice. Viewing Swift’s writing through this lens provides some context for his personal attacks against Celia’s morality and physical being; “Swift-in telling what make-up cannot accomplish-suggest also the loathsome deficiencies it can camouflage” (Rogers 367). Swift peels back the facade Celia present to society in order to reveal the flaws and imperfections she decides to hide from the world, not because he wants to celebrate the process she chooses to undergo due to the pressures of the society she lives in, but to portray her an a con artist.

If previous societies believed women used cosmetics and vanity to trap men into holding these idealized perceptions of women, how should a modern woman react to the revamped version of the attack presented in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” that is present in modern society today?

How Does a Modern Woman Respond?

While it would be easy to write off Swift’s sexism and idealism as an archaic notion that exists in some sort of alterity, current views of female vanity and how women are expected to present themselves appear to be continuous with those of Swift’s time. However, it is apparent that the criticism of women presented by Swift’s poem has impacted modern perceptions of women’s beauty routines and forms of self-presentation.

How do modern women navigate through a society that views her as deceptive if she chooses to use cosmetics to present as feminine, but unkempt if she does not do anything with her appearance at all?

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Modern approaches to misogynist expectations regarding physical appearance involved making the assertion that certain physical traits could be an indication of femininity or womanhood, but those things did not define femininity or womanhood. During the second wave of feminism did not condemn women who decided to use cosmetics or wear clothing stereotypically feminine clothing, but instead focused on rejecting “normative self-presentations of womanhood as part of parcel of socially constructed sex roles that defined, marginalized, sexualized, and oppressed women” (Hillman 62). Both feminists and Swift take critical approaches to the female appearance, but Swift does it to comment on the nature of women where feminists criticize the sexist social constructs women are expected to subscribe to.

Can women be blamed for adhering to ideas and expectations perpetuated by a patriarchal society? “Men…created traditional feminine fashions and beauty culture as a means to keep women oppressed, stealing their time and money and harming their mobility by forcing them to wear expensive, constricting makeup and fashions”; modern women are criticized by men for playing the hand they were dealt by patriarchal institutions (Hillman 68). The best way to combat the idealized standards imposed by others onto women is to demand different representations of womanhood get equal attention in print, film, and in school hallways. This will allow women of all sizes and colors on any place on the spectrum of femininity to be dignified and perceived by others as women.

The Continuity of Sexism

Swift is not the first man to critique women for their appearance or claim that women use their beauty to manipulate men into holding false perceptions of their perfection, and it is apparent that the ideas set forth by his poem are present in the masculine imagination today. Swift’s cosmetic conspiracy carried out by women whose sole mission is to deceive men is much like the odor coming from Celia’s chamber pot: less powerful in its punch, but lingering all the same.

Works Cited

HILLMAN, BETTY LUTHER. “‘NO WOMAN CAN BE FREE . . . UNTIL SHE LOSES HER FEMININITY’: The Politics of Self-Presentation in Feminist Activism.” Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s, University of Nebraska Press, LINCOLN; LONDON, 2015, pp. 61–90, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1d9nj19.8.

Rogers, Katharine M. “‘MY FEMALE FRIENDS’: THE MISOGYNY OF JONATHAN SWIFT.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 1, no. 3, 1959, pp. 366–379., http://www.jstor.org/stable/40753638.

Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Longman, New York, 2010, pp. 2346–2349.

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