Marilyn and Charlotte: On Women and Wallpaper


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yellow wallpaper

This image has been providing some amusement, amid the disbelief, on Twitter recently. It’s difficult to imagine many more dramatic misunderstandings of a phrase than the one displayed here. The “yellow wallpaper” of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story is not really the sort of thing you’d want around your house. As people replying to Samantha Ellis joked, will they be releasing a “red room” colour scheme inspired by Jane Eyre, or a range of windowframes just like Cathy and Heathcliffe enjoyed?

The narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is damaged by an oppressive regime of surveillance until she slides into mental breakdown, focussing upon the yellow wallpaper and the “foul, bad, yellow things” it seems to symbolise, and eventually turning in on herself until she never wants to leave the small room in which she has been confined. The piece is partly based upon Gilman’s own experience of being encouraged to live a “domestic” and mentally unstimulated life whilst ill. It’s not really a wonderful advertisement for the wall decoration in the story.

It’s also – to be pedantic – not a “tome”. I’m stating the obvious, but either whoever wrote this copy had never read the story (or bothered to look it up online), or they didn’t expect anyone who read the line to know what it was. “Tome” is one of those words which generally only turns up in blurbs, but it certainly means a large book, and Gilman’s claustrophobic 6,000 words don’t qualify. That’s worth noticing for two reasons, I think.

Firstly that this seems to be part of what Thandeka has called “Feminism, Inc.” Of course the adoption of feminist language (and even insights) by business interests is much more complex than a wallpaper branding exercise, but this is a fairly simple example. “Feminist” seems to be working here as little more than a postmodern equivalent to “feminine” in earlier decades, vaguely meaning “doing being a woman right”. It’s a feelgood word to associate with a product aimed stereotypically at women: where once wallpaper might have been inspired by “the smart set” or “the drawing room at Balmoral”, here it is linked to “feminism”.

Secondly, people don’t read tomes. It’s a forbidding, intimidating word for books you don’t want to pick up. Backlash was a tome. Principia Mathematica was a tome. It’s a word journalists use when writing about cultural history – or modern literary classics – for people they don’t expect to want to actually pick the book up. So perhaps the copy contains its own defence mechanism. It unconsciously puts people off actually going to read “The Yellow Wallpaper”, keeping the reference vague and cheerful.

Which is something of a travesty, given the topic of the story and the conditions which gave rise to it. It’s perhaps not ironic, but bitterly apt, that this advert should seek to obscure the actual content of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work, in order to market interior decor. A story which came out of the author’s near mental collapse at being deliberately confined to a “domestic” world for her own supposed good, is glossed over as a classic which you don’t want to read. Just buy the wallpaper and feel fulfilled. Gilman is buried by praise, refused a voice by having the correctly womanly virtues ascribed to her.

This reminded me of another moment of wall-adornment-based surprise recently. We’ve recently moved house, and the place we’re renting now has been designed in smart, slightly anonymous style. What seems to be intended for either comfortable postgrads or young professionals living together. Black wooden desks and chairs in the bedrooms, neutral carpets, pale wood shelves to keep DVDs in, that sort of thing. It’s all very nice and deliberately inoffensive; it looks as if it has been designed to appeal to the maximum number of potential renters. Each of the three biggest rooms has pale walls, with one “feature wall” to keep everything contemporary. These are the designs on those feature walls:

feature wall - flowers

feature wall - morris

feature wall - marilyn

Now tell me I’m reading too much into this, but one of those things is not like the others. But which I mean, one of them is not a thing. It’s the kitchen, since you ask, though now most of it is obscured by bookcases, piles of books and the table which you can’t really eat off on account of the books. It’s not particularly offensive, and Marilyn Monroe was a very gifted actor, but I was startled by it when we first looked round the place. Given the other two walls, the images of Monroe seemed to be so clearly being used as a pretty but undemanding pattern. Used, in fact as “wallpaper”, in the way that term is sometimes used for bland art or music.

She seems to be up there as another sort of flower, a collection of organic forms which was pleasant in its general effect and not individuated enough to distract the eye. That’s the oddest part of it: this wasn’t a mural of a grinning skull, or a diamante-drenched sculpture of a middle finger. It wasn’t an acrylic on canvas of a woman taking her top off. It was part of a scheme of decor which seemed to be going out of its way to avoid making any definite statement which might attract some people but put others off. The collage of Monroe in various states of deshabille was apparently assumed to be a neutral pattern. Just the sort of thing you might think gave a nice tone to the room, but which no-one could get excited about or object to. Just, y’know, wallpaper.


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