Construction of Gender in the City

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The ‘fin de siecle’ cultural period is significant and notorious for a number of reasons. Often associated with notions of decadence and aestheticism, the time was also notable for the progressive and reformative beginnings which originated within it. Contrasting and competing voices struggling within a political and cultural battlefield ensured the time was central to our understanding of modernity and new culture within Britain. A sense of moral and social decline was coupled with advancements in psychology, political reform and liberal attitudes.

Perhaps the most identifiable scene of the ‘fin de siecle’ developments was the Victorian City. Expanding in population, employment and movements, it was a backdrop for poverty, emerging journalism, prostitution, social sciences and female emancipation arguments. The consistent interaction between different social classes, races and genders categorized the ensuing intellectual and social arguments which were only possible with a large collection and integration of people on a scale never before seen.

One of the most important and highlighted developments in the period was the changing gender identities of men and women within the city. The metropolitan life had a distinct effect upon the city dweller, male or female. Questions were asked of the validity of marriage, women’s freedom within the city and the masculine persona, which all contributed to gender dilemmas and changes. The metropolis was an area where traditional gender roles were undoubtedly contested and reformed. Identity with relation to gender was a changing sphere for men and women as new opportunities and discourses arose within the city.

I intend to demonstrate through my extracts how male and females were presented in fin de siecle literature, and how far, if at all, the city itself was a cause for change in this mode of identification. Taken from W. T. Stead’s “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, a statement of an ex-brothel owner within the heart of London highlights an aspect of the city with relation to females at the time. Issues of prostitution and ‘street-walking’ were prevalent within the metropolis, and the notion of the city as an area of sexual danger is addressed by the brothel-keeper.

Female prostitutes are referred to as “marks”1 and “fresh girls”2 in the passage. There is talk of replenishing stock, profit and commission, which makes the women described appear as little more than a marketable commodity. Business terminology such as “recruit”, “merchantable”, “supply” and “demand”3 demonstrate that women in such circumstances have no freedom and are victims of vile profiteering men. The passage presents the city itself as an immoral place, unsafe for unaccompanied women. He describes removing a woman from the safe, country life and exposing her to a life of prostitution within the city. I take her to the theatre, and usually contrive it that she loses her last train”4 demonstrates a manipulation of the new, intriguing city life which could attract an unsuspecting female. The attraction of the metropolis to females is a certainty of the times. Despite the descriptions of male manipulation and overt sexual dangers of the urban life, females were attracted by the going-on’s within the city. Theatres, clubs and universities intrigued women as they did men. This attraction to the city is demonstrated within “The Odd Women” by the character of Monica.

Portrayed as the new female presence in the city, she is free to work, roam and stimulate herself intellectually. The draw of the city is shown within the second extract, where Monica talks of the amusement, pleasure and freedom she feels entitled to. This independent, enthusiastic attitude is typical of the female personalities displayed within fin de siecle literature. Monica portrays that new contingent of women within the period, enticed by the rise of consumerism and business within the city, shoppers and shop workers alike, they were individual and independent women within the changing urban life.

Monica’s ‘shop girl’ femininity is, however, challenged in the same extract. Her husband, Mr Widdowson, is of an older generation, and fears the female freedom she talks of. The idea of Monica walking the street alone is repulsive to Widdowson, who feels that a married woman has no place on her own in public. This view could be influenced by the association of street-walking and prostitution at the fin de siecle. Unaccompanied woman were often viewed as prostitutes and sexually promiscuous females.

It is clear that sexual danger is associated with women walking alone at the time, so attempts to present a clear definition of femininity for such women is difficult. As Gissing alludes to in the novel, there were half a million more women than men at the time, often referred to as ‘the surplus women’. These single women seem to be caught between contradicting gender definitions of independent consumers and elicit, street walking women in danger of falling foul to prostitution. There is another distinct representation of feminine culture within the city.

The politically aware, socially adept new woman is an image which arose from much of the literature about women in the late 1800’s. Feminism, a counter-discourse to the degenerative notions of social decline, was central to the new-woman. They sought emancipation, freedom to learn, work, travel and to contest marriage. Embodiments of this line of femininity within the city are the characters Rhoda Nunn and Miss Barfoot in ‘The Odd Women’. Both political and independent minded, their attitude towards the city is one of energy, opportunity and reform.

They portray a strand of feminine culture which was almost entirely an urban phenomenon. The extract detailing Miss Barfoot and her institution for young women is a clear indication of the strength of character apparent in such women. The passage describes her business and intellectual abilities which combined with her “traits of character so strongly feminine”5 give us the impression of a female personality only viable in a modern, metropolitan city. The extract describes the training of “pharmaceutical chemists”6 and “two others … open a booksellers shop”7.

This shows the extent to which the city has changed the traditional female roles. The previous assertions that women should be content as child bearers and housewives was being challenged by outwardly independent Miss Barfoot, who found the city as a grounds for female development. “The Angel in the House” ideal portrayal of women was challenged by the roles adopted within an expanding urban sphere. As much as the urban life of the fin de siecle posed questions towards women’s role in a society seemingly morally degenerative, masculinity was also redeveloping in the literature of the time.

Just as we are presented with diverse female roles like the streetwalker, shop girl and new woman, the fin de siecle offers us variations on masculinity and male identity. Much of the poetry concerned with the city is narrated from the ‘flaneur’ persona. The flaneur character in literature was a male observer within the metropolis. Gazing upon the sights of the city without being observed, wandering the streets and theatres, the flaneur occupies a clearly different cultural position within the city to that of women.

Whereas females were condemned and warned against such street walking, this form of individual adventure was a cornerstone of male identity at the time. This poses the question of whether the sexual narratives which detailed the misdemeanours of the city, and warned women against such isolated behaviour, were valid accounts or just responses in fear of female independence. The male imagery captured in Arthur Symons poetry is one that delights in the vices of the city. Within ‘To a Dancer’ the lexical choices indicate pleasure, with the suggestion that the dancer is an object of beauty that serves him alone.

This poem is somewhat typical of the observant male in Victorian cities. A glorified spectator with a “legitimate, authorized role in the urban public sphere”8, clearly a very different experience of individual freedom when compared with women. Although Monica does have frequent travels of London within ‘The Odd Women’, her experience is far from that of a flaneuse. Other male personas constructed within Gissing’s 19th Century London could be viewed as responses to the growing individualism and diversity of femininity.

A growing figure in literature of the time was that of the ‘new bachelor’. Reluctant to marry and aware of female power, the role is displayed by Everard Barfoot in Gissing’s novel. Linked closely with the flaneur, the character seems all too aware of the failings of the Victorian ideals for relationships, and seeks freedom from the constraints of marriage. Masculinity and femininity are undoubtedly socially constructed roles. The environment one inhabits is crucial to the understanding of gender and sexuality.

Within the rapidly changing metropolis, it is clear a universally accepted interpretation of gender was not viable, and the period reformed and splintered ideas of gender persona. The fin de siecle can be viewed as a backdrop for construction and reformation of gender identities. The role the city itself played is disputable. Whether the city was merely a male playground, exploited for pleasure, or whether it was a growing, energetic, political scene for the new woman is contested in literary accounts.

What is clear, is that the progressive female culture of the time created responses from men and altered their understanding of their own roles. It seems as though the period is portrayed as a society experiencing a gender crisis, struggling to adapt and accept. Certainly masculinity faced a huge challenge to its previously unquestioned predominance over femininity. The results of the reformation of gender are clear to see in our own diverse, ethnic and complex society of today. In that sense, the fin de siecle was important and successful in helping us redefine and understand different strands of gender and sexuality.

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