Continuing from my previous posts on Dorothy L. Sayers’ feminism, I want to keep tracing the conceit in “The Human-Not-Quite-Human” in which she asks men to imagine how their lives would feel if they were subject to the same social and cultural pressures as women are. She goes on:
In any book on sociology he would find, after the main portion dealing with human needs and rights, a supplementary chapter devoted to “The Position of the Male in the Perfect State.” His newspaper would assist him with a “Men’s Corner,” telling him how, by the expenditure of a good deal of money and a couple of hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain his wife’s affection; and when he had succeeded in capturing a mate, his name would be taken from him, and society would present him with a special title to proclaim his achievement. People would write books called “History of the Male,” or “Males of the Bible,” or “The Psychology of the Male,” and he would be regaled daily with headlines, such as “Gentleman-Doctor’s Discovery,” “Male-Secretary Wins Calcutta Sweep,” “Men-Artists at the Academy.”
Sayers is restating a theme here which appears at the beginning of the article, that our culture assumes men to be the default category, the background against which difference is measured and marked. Women are assumed to be a mutation or an odd divergence from the male norm. She frames this in linguistic terms in the earlier passage: “Vir is male and Femina is female…Homo is both male and female”, but “Man is always dealt with as both Homo and Vir, but woman only as Femina.” In her account of how society speaks and thinks humanity is male: women are humanity plus or minus local difference. There is no “Men’s Corner” in the newspapers of Sayers’ time because all the paper is assumed to be for men. All of it, of course, apart from the “Women’s Corner”.
Today we may open the Daily Mail (if we must…) and look in vain for a Men’s Supplement, but there is still a “Femail” section. In a similar way the categories of magazines at many newsagents and supermarkets run POLITICS – HOBBIES – SCIENCE – SPORTS –MOTORING – WOMEN’S, offering an assumption that women do not exist in the same world as politics and combustion engines and would not be interested in reading about either. The idea of “unmarked” and “marked” categories – in which the unmarked is the expected, the default, or the dominant – originates in structural linguistics (it was being developed in the 1930s whilst Sayers was writing), but provides a useful tool in recognising how our culture and media presents the world. When we hear someone referred to as a “female architect”, or “black lawyer”, or “single mother”, we implicitly also hear the fact that they’re being marked out by that adjective as a divergence from what that noun usually means. These are the counterparts of Sayers’ “Gentlemen-Doctor” and “Men-Artists”, and they’re still very much with us. She might be disappointed to hear that people are still referred to as “career girls”, however light-heartedly, that the term still makes sense to us so many decades after Sayers was demanding the right to any job women could do well. She might not be surprised to hear what we mean when “gender” appears on a university reading list.
She then moves on to imagine how the media might actually write these articles she has just outlined, in a passage that I can’t resist quoting at length.
If he gave an interview to a reporter, or performed any unusual exploit, he would find it recorded in such terms as these: “Professor Bract, although a distinguished botanist, is not in any way an unmanly man. He has, in fact, a wife and seven children. Tall and burly, the hands with which he handles his delicate specimens are as gnarled and powerful as those of a Canadian lumberjack, and when I swilled beer with him in his laboratory, he bawled his conclusions at me in a strong, gruff voice that implemented the promise of his swaggering moustache.” Or: “There is nothing in the least feminine about the home surroundings of Mr. Focus, the famous children’s photographer. His ‘den’ is panelled in teak and decorated with rude sculptures from Easter Island; over his austere iron bedstead hangs a fine reproduction of the Rape of the Sabines.” Or: “I asked M. Sapristi, the renowned chef, whether kitchen-cult was not a rather unusual occupation for a man. ‘Not a bit of it! he replied, bluffly. ‘It is the genius that counts, not the sex. As they say in la belle Ecosse, a man’s a man for a’ that’ – and his gusty, manly guffaw blew three small patty pans from the dresser.”
Sayers’ time in an advertising agency gave her a keen ear for the cadences of commercial prose (most obviously displayed in Murder Must Advertise), and she typically goes to the trouble of imagining the voice of a reporter in her alternative world. In keeping with the previous passages I’ve analysed, she doesn’t just tell her audience the point – that Vir is unmarked and Femina marked – but invites them to experience what that might feel like, if only for a few seconds. Aside from being hilarious because the imaginary excerpts are so ridiculous, this section calls attention to the implied equivalent in every clause. On a first reading it’s entertainingly ludicrous, but on a second we start to hear the ghostly sentences which march alongside these: her light, soprano tones… her quick laugh … her supportive husband and loving children … balancing a career with family.
When this passage works, we should hear a double foolishness: the blustering and moustaches and patty-pans, along with the crass, clichéd phrases from real magazines which they suddenly call into question. I remember hearing a while ago that someone was looking to put together a group of people to vow that at conferences and literary celebrity events they would ask male panellists how they managed to balance the demands of a career with their personal and family life – hoping that the awkwardness would make everyone in the room realize just how many times they had heard women asked that question, and how ridiculous it should be.
There’s also another portion of this passage which lays Sayers open to the problem of asymmetry which I noted in a previous post. I think the asymmetry of a sexist society and its values is part of the point she’s making, and I think we see that as this part of her article comes to its climax, but here it sounds an odd note. The comments about the children’s photographer, with his “rude sculptures” and Classical painting above his iron bedstead, would set off all kinds of alarm bells today if they were printed in a popular magazine. She’s again deliberately leaving that “rude” ambiguous, leaving the reader to speculate on the priapic figures which may or may not adorn the decor, and the topic of the painting is similarly an assertion of sexuality beneath a polished veneer. In the context of the article, the point is that the photographer feels the need to assert his maleness in ridiculous poses because of his job, but the way the media talk about sexual predators would give this a very different sound in a modern context.
This interrupts Sayers’ rhetoric because (like the “caveman” comment earlier), it’s a favourite topic of Men’s Rights advocates: that male sexuality is relentlessly framed as alien and threatening in our culture, and that every man is in constant terror of being labelled a “creep” or “paedo”. (In fact this was one of the topics posts on a recent Tumblr set up with pictures declaiming “I need the Men’s Right Movements because…”) It’s clearly not an equivalence – apart from anything else, the dangerous image of male sexual violence as normal in our culture would surely have more negative impacts for women than men – but the fact that there are people who claim it as one shows how unstable this conceit can become in places.
As she continues, the instabilities in how you might translate society’s attitude to women into one towards men become integral to her argument:
He would be edified by solemn discussions about “Should Men Serve in Drapery Establishments?” and acrimonious ones about “Tea-Drinking Men”; by cross-shots of public affairs “from the masculine angle” and by irritable correspondence about men who expose their anatomy on beaches (so masculine of them), conceal it in dressing-gowns (too feminine of them), think about nothing but women, pretend an unnatural indifference to women, exploit their sex to get jobs, lower the tone of the office by their sexless appearance, and generally fail to please a public opinion which demands the incompatible. And at dinner-parties he would hear the wheedling unctuous, predatory voice demand: “And why should you trouble your handsome head about politics?”
The rhetorical structure here – the quick pairs of apparently opposed attitudes – builds to the point Sayers is making: that society demands that women conform not only to double standards, but to dual and contradictory standards. When I read “so masculine of them…too feminine of them”, I assumed it was making the point from earlier in the article, that in such a world “the centre of his dress-consciousness were the cod-piece, his education directed to making him a spirited lover and meek paterfamilias”. But on a second reading, these terms are clearly coded with some sort of implied value, since the correspondence is “irritable” and “masculine” and “feminine” are both offered as if self-explanatory. Sayers appears to be pointing out that in her imagined world “masculine” would inevitably be a term of disapprobation, but that men would also be barred from acting in too “feminine” a way; drawing attention to the double bind women are placed in. This is confirmed, I think, by the more explicit complaints about men being both sexually opportunistic and dowdily sexless in the workplace.
Having asked men to imagine being subjected to the roles our culture imposes on women, and made it clear by the strangeness of this imagined society how foolish the current situation is, Sayers has been maintaining a parallel set of concepts. Each time she tells men how a certain thing would be done to them or said to them, it is paired with its unspoken equivalent which is currently being applied to women. The equivalence has tottered at moments, as I noted, at least in a modern context because the categories have not “translated” clearly. Here Sayers brings the conceit crashing down, making it clear that the categories cannot translate because they are already double, already a hall of mirrors where any action is duplicated by being demanded and prohibited at the same time. Not only are the attitudes to gender in our society unpleasant, she seems to be suggesting, they are illogical, incoherent and will cause massive cognitive dissonance to anyone attempting to (or being forced to) abide by them. This connects with her statement at the beginning “how strange [a man’s] life would seem to him”, that we are alienated from our own experiences and even our own selves, by this culture.
The final insult is also the way out. The “wheedling, unctuous predatory” voice which tells men not to “trouble your handsome head about politics” draws ironic attention to the fact that if being alienated from your own society and your own life isn’t a political matter, then nothing is. This is the voice of power obscuring itself, consigning “politics” to that one stand in the newsagents and keeping it firmly apart from “women’s”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the reference to politics comes at the end of these contradictory and insistent demands. Rather, it’s a signal that everything she’s just said needs to be read in terms of politics, in the broadest sense. At least that’s what the rhetorical structure of this passage seems to suggest. Surprising, perhaps, given Sayers’ declaration that feminism had mostly already happened and her aversion to action by organised “classes”. But perhaps it means that the political battles (such as the vote and the Married Women’s Property Acts) had been won, and we now need to start living as if we believed in the principles those political decisions enshrined.
I was blown away when I read Sayers’ rhetoric on this topic, about 20 years ago. It may have been my first encounter with gender-flipped language and imagery like that, and probably influenced me towards gender-flipping as an occasional practice in order to a) make a point to a man who doesn’t see what the big deal is about exclusive language, or b) experience a scriptural or liturgical text in relation to myself in the same way that a male reader experiences the unaltered text.
I like your clear explanation/extension of the marked and unmarked structures to other categories.