Madeleine Robins

April 16, 2018

Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:21 AM

MrTrenchI was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even to me as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, usually wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird, shading toward wrong. I was still trying to be polite, and perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. Note: our stove was on an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gradually, Fritz moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head was the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.

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October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

Filed under: Being a Woman,Family — madeleinerobins @ 11:11 AM
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The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

Bride and home

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

June 25, 2016

In Praise of Fanny Price

Filed under: Being a Woman,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 9:05 AM
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Fanny PriceI have been doing one of my semi-regular Jane Austen re-reads. Every time I find new things: This time I was chagrinned to realize the extent to which certain film versions had overwritten Miss Austen’s original text in my mind–not necessarily to their detriment, but I was looking for a scene in Sense and Sensibility that turned out to be a clever Emma Thompson way of compacting a good deal of information. But the original Austen is still there on the page, and still smart and incisive and funny.

So far I have gone through Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityEmma, and Persuasion, and I’m almost through Mansfield Park (I skip Northanger Abbey, because Catherine Morland annoys the hell out of me). I started out, as one does, loving Pride and Prejudice; then for a long time Sense and Sensibility was my favorite; then, for almost as long, Persuasion. Now it’s quite possible that I am going over to Team Mansfield Park.

This is, apparently, unusual.

The Paris Review stated that Mansfield Park was Austen’s least popular book:

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C.?S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!”

Wow, that’s a little over the top, don’t you think, Clive?

Okay, I get it. Fanny is physically delicate, shy, easily overwhelmed. She doesn’t have her cousins’ robust physical health, and she certainly doesn’t have their robust egos. She’s meek and self-effacing (though I don’t think she simpers once, thank you very much). But do you blame her? Here’s a child who, at the age of ten, is sent to live with her very privileged cousins. Her aunt Norris (and to a lesser extent her uncle Sir Thomas) are determined to make the distinction between Maria and Julia and Tom and Edmund (the cousins) and Fanny’s charity-case self. She’s constantly reminded of it, and of the fact that she can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be treated the same way. She’s physically slight and easily overwhelmed (I suspect nutritional issues and an anxiety disorder, but can’t find any textual evidence to prove it), and initially she’s academically and socially way behind her cousins. It might be satisfying to see the worm turn, the mouse face down the cat, and so forth. That’s bread and butter in a 21st century YA novel. but in Austen-land, where class suffuses everything so deeply that it’s hardly necessary to mention it, it would be hard to make it believable.

Like the Bertram girls, Fanny studies with a governess. But her real teacher, the one who informs her tastes and her heart, is her cousin Edmund. And Edmund, destined for the Church, is a prig. He’s kind to Fanny; he’s really the only one who sees, and values, Fanny for who she is. Everyone else sees only her utility, the perfect poor-relation who can be counted upon to fetch a shawl or stay tactfully home so there won’t be an odd number at the dinner party. Her frankly loathsome Aunt Norris sees her as someone further down the class scale whom she can bully without fear of repercussion. It’s no wonder Fanny loves Edmund, who encourages her to explore literature and history, who talks about religion and principles and right thought–who treats her as if she were intelligent which, as it happens, she is.

Look, I had a serious crush in 6th grade on a kid who held the door for me (because I wasn’t used to people being, um, nice to me at school). I totally get Fanny seeing Edmund as a combination of Parfit Gentil Knight and Moral Arbiter. About the only thing that saves Edmund from being an irredeemable prig is that he falls in love with Mary Crawford, whose moral compass is–shall we say–variable. For once Edmund’s rectitude abandons him and he is blinded by, and led around by parts of himself he would ordinarily not admit to owning. He sees Mary’s witty, shiny, beautiful, feckless self and tries to believe that deep down she’s got the same sort of moral center as Fanny–in a sense, the woman Edmund created. It’s hardly surprising that when Mary displays her lack of moral base, Edmund recoils. At that point it’s inevitable that he’ll back to Fanny.

A lot of people think of Jane Austen as a “romance writer,” a notion that would very likely have made her head explode just a little bit. But, as Austen herself said, she wrote of “love and money.” And class. Austen writes about class all the time. Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman and I am a gentleman’s daughter” is quite correct. They may be at different ends of the “gentleman spectrum”*–he’s got relatives in the peerage, and centuries of economic and class privilege behind him, and she’s got “inferior connections:” relatives in trade–but they in terms of class they are equals. Sir Walter Elliot may regard himself as the very model of a modern country baronet… but he can’t suck up fast enough to his cousin the viscountess. Fanny Price, whose mother married beneath her, is introduced to a world very different from her own when she moves to Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price has good reason for being the person she is. And she continues as that person despite pressure from within and without her family. For a woman constitutionally skittish and anxious as she is, that in itself is heroic. It’s nice that she gets the guy in the end. It’s nicer that she does so without having to become a Mary Crawford or a Maria Bertram.

March 19, 2016

Gallantry

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

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