Elaine Showalter

Sexual Anarchy

VTR Date: September 23, 1990

Elaine Showalter discusses the male/female dichotomy in culture.


GUEST: Elaine Showalter
VTR: 9/23/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where, over the years, a number of feminist leaders and writers and spokespersons have appeared. Not enough to satisfy some, to be sure, and given my own education, my upbringing, the cultural and social and familial environment that nurtured my generation of men, I can’t even begin to pretend that while fully sympathizing with the Women’s Movement in our times, I can adequately enough empathize with it, too. The intellect is willing; but perhaps the emotions are not … not enough, at least.

So that I know that every once in a while I need to have a true believer set me right again. And in The New York Times not so long ago I read a rather compelling review of still another intriguing volume by my feminist scholar/guest Elaine Showalter, head of Princeton University’s English Department. This Viking book entitled Sexual Anarchy, and it’s about gender and culture at the end of the last century and now of our own. The book is criticized for seeing literature, too much in terms of “sexual politics”, thus turning literature from an art into a branch of sociology, which leads me to ask Professor Showalter first, whether it’s possible, then whether it’s desirable, to look at any phenomenon in our lives outside of the male/female dichotomy … whether it’s history, philosophy, politics, her own field of literature, psychology, the job market, what-have-you. Professor Showalter?”

Showalter: Well, I suppose you could. I mean I think you can choose any topic to talk about, especially in literature which deals with all of human experience. But, especially in 19th century literature and 19th century fiction, the relationships between men and women are so central to the whole development of theme and plot, and even structure that I don’t see how you can really avoid them.

Heffner: And the other fields? Would you say “Well, let’s take history. Let’s take psychology”.

Showalter: I think what’s happening now beyond the first wave of feminist criticism is that gender is seen as a category what affects all human experience. And that’s relevant to every discipline.

Heffner: But do you think that approaching every discipline, every experience from the vantage point of gender distorts, changes an appropriate perception of whatever it is we’re looking at?

Showalter: Well, it’s one … it’s one point of view. I think like race or class, or nationality, it’s one take on a kind of experience and it can’t be the only one. It’s a lens through which you want to look at certain moment in history, or a certain problem. It’s selective and in this new book I’ve looked at the aspects of fin de siecle – culture that specifically dealt with changes in gender, the gender crisis at the end of the 19th century. And the gender crisis at the end of our own century.

Heffner: What’s the relationship between the two? I mean who do you compare the, the gender crisis 1890’s, the gender crisis 1990’s.

Showalter: Since I’m a professor of English I look at it though literature, through myth, through images, through representations, that means paintings, films, operas even, as well as stories and novels. I’m not so much interested in social issues or how we’re going to approach them, as I am in the ways that these were represented at the end of the 19th century. And the ways that those stories, stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Dracula, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or even the case studies of Freud, all published for the first time in 1880’s and 1890’s are recycled now, are filled up again with the new stories about our own century and have become mythic vehicles for the kinds of fears that people feel about sexual change, when it coincides with the end of the century.

Heffner: But you say “mythic” …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner: … and it seemed to me, now I know what the explanation is in Sexual
Anarchy, that we do live through myths. But why “end of the century”, where is, in our circadian rhythms the century marked out to provide us with the rationale for another group of gender questions at the end of this century as at the end of the last?
Showalter: Well, it’s a good question, and it’s a question that I’ve asked myself a number of times when I started to do this work. I was teaching courses at Princeton in the 1980’s on the literature of the fin de siecle.

Showalter: I began to notice correspondences between not only the text that I was teaching, but the historical situation that generated them. And things that were happening around me … headlines in the daily newspaper and on the evening news on television. It’s obviously not some kind of mystical or superstitious re-living of the past. I don’t think that in some mysterious way we reproduce the past, but I think that coming to the end of a century which is a very powerful moment in time, as human beings experience it, we have, perhaps at some unconscious level, ideas about death. That the century is dying, l that we’re coming to the end of something very profound and very large, that nature itself, perhaps, as Darwinian thought suggested, is winding down, that we’re having a kind of entropy in the physical world. And so the experiences of our daily lives are colored or tinged by that kind of sense of a death-pattern, or a death myth. As you get closer and closer to the end of the century, whether you see it as 99, or the year double “0”, that begins the next century, images of re-birth begin to come in because the end is also a beginning.

Heffner: And, specifically in the terms of the questions relating to gender …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner: … you make the comparison between the AIDS crisis of today and the focus on, let’s say syphilis …

Showalter: Yeah.

Heffner: … at the end of the last century. Not mystical?

Showalter: No, it’s not mystical. I suppose it’s striking, and it shows, I think, on the sad side, how little we learn from history, how human fears reproduce themselves even a century later. On the other hand, I think these are not identical, I don’t try to argue that we’re living through exactly the same kind of experience that we had in the 1890’s. There is a new social situation, the Women’s Movement has changed a great deal for all of us women and men now. So that the experience even of a terrible sexual epidemic like AIDS, is not identical to that of syphilis.

Heffner: but you do seem to feel that there are at least individuals in our society today who ate making use of the threat of AIDS as others did a hundred years ago of the threat of syphilis.

Showalter: That’s right. There is a kind of constancy there, and a continuity. Which is sometimes very sad to see, and what I think is that perhaps by analyzing some of these myths,, or looking at the past, looking, for example, at a play like Ibsen’s “Ghost”, which was about syphilis, came out, was put on the London stage in 1891, it was the most scandalous performance ever in London… 500 negative reviews of Ibsen’s play as “disgusting”, a “sewer”, the horror and fear that people felt of syphilis and of having it discussed or represented on the stage. And the correspondence is now the first place where AIDS was represented culturally was in the theatre, and aroused some of the same negative reactions.

Heffner: In both instances you seem to feel that the scourge is used, the threat is used as an attack upon whatever progress has been made by feminism.

Showalter: Feminism in part, but also by gay liberation, by the progress of a homosexual culture, gay men, lesbians … too, although they haven’t been as affected by sexual epidemic. One of the things that historians have discovered and that came up a lot in the discussions of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 was the way that during revolutionary periods, there’s a more conservative kind of thinking about the family. It’s as if a way to protect ourselves against this political upheaval, which isn’t always right in our homes, is to secure the boundaries at home. Keep people in their places, keep women in their places, keep the sexes separate, keep people living in their proper parts of the city, let’s not cross any of those lines, and therefore, in some way, we can protect ourselves against the specter of this revolutionary change that we can’t really fight against as individuals.

Heffner: Do you think we do protect ourselves sufficiently against change or rather I should put it the other way around, do we accept change sufficiently, or more so, if we particularize our interests? If we look at things as men, as women, as homosexuals, as Irish, as Catholics, as Jews? That seems to be what you’re suggesting.

Showalter: No, I don’t think that’s what I mean. There is a discussion now very much in the American press about what one journalist recently called “the new tribalism”, and responses to that suggest that what seems like “tribalism” or “clannishness” from the perspective of the majority is a just a real demographic change… the signs of a real change that the majority is no longer going to be the majority in the 21st century, that other groups also want to have a say in culture. So I think this is a very natural process that’s now going through kind of turbulent period.

Showalter: It’s not that specific identity that I’m talking about, so much as trying to understand the hold that these myths have over us, to look at the ways they’re coming up now, to separate us… ourselves from our emotional reactions to them because they’re very powerful, they do engage us emotionally.

Heffner: But now, let’s take … you used the word “tribalism”, you say there are those who are seeing this, what is going on in our times, as a resurgence, a renaissance of tribalism … aside from the tribalism that you identify with feminism, does it please you, does it make you feel better as a citizen that we are experiencing this tribalism, this revolt of tribalism, or this resurgence of tribalism?

Showalter: Well, I wouldn’t really see it as a tribalism. I, I think that’s a word that’s imposed on it from the outside. I think it’s the articulation of new selves and new identities by people who are really empowered to speak . And I also think that it’s a process of change. I was reading some stories this summer about the Catskills that the Catskill hotels are now going bankrupt, they’re being sold because their old constituency, mostly urban Jews from New York don’t go to the Catskills anymore, and it said in one of these articles that, it said, “These Jewish groups aren’t as clannish anymore”. I was very struck by that. That kind of need to be by yourself off in the summer resort, that’s not necessary for urban Jews in this country anymore. There are other groups coming in, maybe later, less assimilated, with a newer, more recent access to the media who now are expressing that that need to be on their own, but …

Heffner: I guess what I’m asking you is whether you include feminism in tribalism, whether you embrace this concept…

Showalter: No…
Heffner: … of tribalism or not.

Showalter: No.

Heffner: How so?

Showalter: Not at all. In fact the book if anything is a utopian one, and I share, I try to share and articulate the vision of a number of women, of feminist intellectuals of the last century …

Showalter: … who really had a vision of a world in the future in which relationships between men and women would be more harmonious. Where the differences between men and women would be less important than their, their human solidarity. But before that stage, certain things had to be achieved. A lot of what I talk about in the book are the struggles in the late 19th century between what were called “new women”, who were the feminists, and “odd women”, women who weren’t getting married, who were defined by men in their society as “leftovers” and “peculiar” because they weren’t getting married. Their struggles with both the men who were dominant, who inhabited the world of gentlemen’s clubs in London’s club-land, and also some of the male radicals who were just as threatened by them as the men in the clubs. But, I think that the situation today has some real signs of hope, and progress, and I really share that vision of an erosion of differences.

Heffner: Then, then if you talk about “harmoniousness”, and a “new Harmony” …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner: … that you see as coming out of …

Showalter: Coming out of sexual anarchy, in a way.

Heffner: Tell me what you mean.

Showalter: Well, I … sexual anarchy is a phrase from the novelist George Gissing from his novel, The Odd Women which was about this group of unmarried, they seemed very threatening, very anomalous to him, and Gissing, a lot of the time, was scared of them. But at the same time he was able to see what appeared to his generation of men, as sexual anarchy, as a breakdown of the laws of behavior that had governed men and women in his social class, that out of this anarchy would come a new kind of sexual democracy, a new equality and companionship between men and women. This was a phase that had to be gone through, that struggle was a necessary precursor to the new age, but, but the new age would come. He really believed in that and I do too.

Heffner: Do you think it has come? Is that a fair question?
Showalter: I don’t think it’s come. But I see, I see hopeful signs. It’s easy to be discouraged because something like the debate in the Supreme Court now … with our enigmatic Supreme Court candidate, Souter, over Roe verses Wade, this is very frightening to feminists who fear that the progress of the past 20 years will be rolled back. But there are other hopeful signs all the time that this is a profound social change in the lives of men and women, that, that one item of legislation could impede, but not halt. Last week at Princeton as a small but symbolic change, the two remaining all-men’s clubs we’re finally, after years of legislation, ordered to accept women. This is a little symbolic victory. But when I open up the student newspaper at Princeton and I see an ad from Ivy Club inviting men and women for the first time in Princeton’s what … 250 year history, to apply for membership, I feel as though some progress is being made.

Heffner: But where, where are we in the scale of imposition of control, authority to anarchy, to harmony? Where do you think we are as a people now? In this nation.

Showalter: Oh, I wish … I knew the answer to that. The …it seems to me that there’s, there’s such a dialogue, such a dialectic now between those who are terrified of change and especially the change that they see close at hand in their families, in their children in their co-workers and those who have a more courageous vision can see where this is leading. What worries me the most is that even when social changes are very, very well documented, we know that they’re taking place, we know that the difference is there, but there are still a lot of people who react by trying to turn back the clock. I don’t think that’s going to be possible, and I think what we need to do as a country, is adapt to the new situation and make it better, build on it, so that we really can have the kind of utopian society that I think in our hearts we all want.

Heffner: Now, I’m interested in taking that bit of optimism and setting it against the criticism of sexual anarchy that indicates that you see too much through a male/female prism …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner:… that you, you impose that conflict overly much and that you … this, this nice phrase, which you will reject, I know, that you make literature into a branch of sociology. What is your response to that?

Showalter: Well, for one thing it seems kind of funny to me to …to say that about the book because the works that I talk about in this book, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Ryder Haggard’s She, and those are two of the better known texts that I discuss are only called literary classics, when someone begins to use a feminist analysis about them. I mean they are not they are not generally regarded as, as the aesthetic high points of our society, and I think a kind of a reading that relates them to their historical context is the one that’s most likely to bring out what’s interesting about them. I don’t think you treat them the way you treat Paradise Lost or the poems of Shelley. They are works that very much reflect their history, their moment and they’re been treated that way by our culture. Dracula, for example, I think were something like 150 film versions of Dracula, and I suspect that, that even the critics who, who want to say, “Oh, we mustn’t treat this great esthetic work as sociology”, have never read it, but they’ve seen a lot of the movies. It’s that kind of consistency of representation in the culture that interests me. When you have a story that is not a great work of art, but that has a kind of immorality, sort of like Dracula, the undead, Dracula is one of the undead stories of literary history. I want to ask “Why do we retain it?” Why do we keep; going back to it? What is in this story?” It’s not art. It’s not it’s great insights into human nature, it’s something else that seems to keep speaking to fantasies, maybe?

Heffner: Do you think what there is that is eternal relates to this question of male/female and to the feminist ethic that you espouse?

Showalter: Well, I don’t want to insist that this is the only way to look at these works at all, no. I mean this is my … what I chose. You have to make a decision about a theme in, in writing any kind of work, ad that was my choice of a lens in this particular book. But there are a lot of ways to look at these books. And in Sexual Anarchy, too, I talk about them in terms of imperialism at the end of the 19th century and a number of other themes, including changes in publishing, relationships between the classes in England, ethnic issues, and all of them have been read in those ways. It’s possible to read Dracula, for instance, as a myth of imperialism. You have this, this mysterious count who invades England from the outside and this was a period when England was very much afraid of invasion. But I think that what has become a theme in the movies… if you look at those 150 movies that I’ve seen a lot more of them that I’d want to confess to you, what seems to come across and what has interested people is both the seductiveness and the fearfulness of Count Dracula. That he, he is glamorous, he’s seductive, he’s deadly, he is a very erotic figure. And he represents, I think, for the 1890s at least in part, a fear of sexual contagion … as he does for the 18… 1980’s and probably for the l990’s as well.

Heffner: You know, I can’t help but wonder whether you took any exception to my introduction in which I referred to you as a “feminist scholar”.

Showalter: No, I’d, I’d …

Heffner: is that …

Showalter: … I’d accept that.

Heffner: …disturb you?”

Showalter: No, it doesn’t disturb me at all. I mean I think, I think I am a feminist scholar. I think seen in the broadest context, which is to say that I’m interested in gender, I’m interested in the way that sexual difference affects the history of literature, and the history of culture. But I … it’s interesting, about the term “feminist”. I’ve always been very puzzled about the reason that when Americans are asked in polls how they feel about feminism, they usually have a negative response, even though they support all of the achievements of the ‘Women’s Movement. And I saw a wonderful article in an issue of a magazine called New Woman this month, in which they answer that question. It turns out that when they asked people in a very carefully carried out poll what “feminism” meant, two-thirds of the people they asked couldn’t define it. And I don’t mean that they said “A feminist is someone who hates men” or, you know, some kind of slanted description like that. They said, “A feminist is someone who’s very motherly”, or “A feminist is, is a man who looks like a woman”. In other words, they didn’t even know what the word meant. So I thought, “Well, either we should get rid of this word, or we have to have a, you know, vocabulary exercise”.

Heffner: Well, we’re not likely to get rid of it, so I …

Showalter: (Laughter)

Heffner: … ask you what you mean by it?

Showalter: I think that it’s for me, a word that came out of the original Women’s Movement of the late ‘60’s in which I participated, which speaks to a sense of, of pride in being a woman and a belief in equal rights. That’s the simplest, kind of political definition.

Heffner: And where do you carry it from there, after you say …

Showalter: Well …

Heffner: … and “equal rights”? There are not very many people who are going to disagree with you there.

Showalter: No, there probably aren’t, and that’s a good thing. I mean, I think I think there’s a lot of support for those attitudes in this society.

Heffner: But where does the, where does the anarchy begin to take place? When …how do you extend the definition …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner: …to bring about the anarchy?

Showalter: Well, I think that one of the reasons that, that this work interests me is, I should say it isn’t especially personal, I’m, I’m not, in my lifestyle or my work … I would say an anarchic person. But it deals with the elements of, of gender crisis that have seemed disruptive to people at the end of the 19th century, that have parallel disruptions now. What happened specifically is that late in the 19th century, for one thing, in England they began to do a census, very careful census. And discovered that there were a lot of unmarried women … that suddenly there were a lot of women who seemed to be “surplus”, or as the British said, “redundant”. There weren’t any men for them, these were the “odd women”. Now there are a lot of ways you might interpret that, and it’s the not the first time there had been unmarried women in England … happens a lot after wars, but at that point it seemed like a real social problem. That was sexual; anarchy… simply to have women who weren’t married was a step towards sexual anarchy for some, some men, male commentators. The next step were, were the “new women”, women who wanted to go to the universities, they started to try in the 1880’s to be admitted to Oxford and Cambridge. And there were hardly any of them, I mean, you know, a pathetic handful of women.

Showalter: But it’s the, it’s the reaction to these, I think, entirely appropriate, steps that makes it seem like, like anarchy. Somehow, suddenly women are changing, this is really frightening.

Heffner: You don’t think then that it was the stridency to the degree that the movement was strident, but rather it was the newness, the change …

Showalter: I don’t think they were strident at all. I think student is, is a
perception that comes from fear. It’s a term that’s projected on the demands of a group that you’re not used to hearing talk. And they sound awfully loud to you because you’ve never been … you’ve never been accustomed to hearing them speak at all. But the very, very small numbers of women … I mean under a hundred who were involved, enrolled in British universities looked a lot noisier and a lot bigger to the men, who for centuries had had those places to themselves.

Heffner: But, of course, I wasn’t thinking about the British then. I was thinking of our own, more recent experience … I get the signal we have 45 seconds left … but, would you say the same thing … that there was no stridency, it was the perception that there was stridency because there was a quest for change?

Showalter: Exactly. Women are … women who ask for change are always though history called “strident” and “shrill” that’s because it’s the first time we’re really hearing them speak, and sometimes it’s the first time the women have heard themselves speak.

Heffner: And you’re not just talking about women, you’re talking about all …

Showalter: Yes.

Heffner: … people who have …

Showalter: Yeah.

Heffner: … been oppressed?

Showalter: Yeah. I think so, and particularly in terms of sexual anarchy, the gaty liberation movement which was born in this country about the same time, second wave, about the same time as the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Heffner: Fascinating subject, sexual anarchy, and the question of gender and culture here at the end of this century as contrasted to the end of the last century.
Dr. Showalter, I’m delighted that you would join me today, thank you very much.

Showalter: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write THE OPEN MIND P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and the Richard and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsberg Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.