We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Iconographies: Victimhood and Age, Diana and Camilla · 9 April 05

My dear Fanny,

On my WWTTA (WomenWritersThroughtheAges) list, the subject of the cultural icons or images and stories told about Diana Spencer Windsor and Camilla Shand Parker-Bowles have come up. After some discussion and thinking about it, it seems to me that Diana projects an iconography of victimhood analogous to that visualized and attached to the historical figure, Mary Queen of Scots, while Camilla arouses disdain and sarcasm because she has the nerve to be old. Aging women are unacceptable, especially as brides.

In reply to something someone said on the list I wondered aloud (as I have done to myself) why Parker-Bowles would give up a comfortable easy niche as maitresse-en-titre (especially as she has an income of her own), to enter the world of publicity as presently practised by the press and TV. Someone responded to that, and I replied—at length I’m afraid:

Yes I can understand a motive for Camilla’s agreeing to marry Charles is "the emotional satisfaction and legitimization after all those years of conveniently standing in the shadows and still being heartily abused for it anyway."

Common sense—the proverbial 3 minutes thought (which we all know is difficult, 3 minutes being a long time anyway)—might suggest that all she’ll be doing is exchanging one form of vexing abuse for another. The abuse will now be more aggressive; more attention paid, and she will be less free. And this analysis is born out by the last few weeks, and the response we had to a somewhat sympathetic account of Camilla’s apparent indifference to an implied requirement she dress to imitate fashion magazines for public photos.

There are several standpoints we can look at this from: it seems as if the stories appear in the stupidest women’s magazines, but then what is published there is partly the result of what the advertisers and publishers use to make money from women.

It may seem giving the matter too much credit or seriousness, but it’s arguable (Stephan Collini in English Pasts) that the English monarchy is bound up with English people’s imagined identity: this and English literature itself (especially from the 19th century on, but also including Shakespeare’s plays as icons, bogus history from the Civil War and Restoration and "Georgian" 18th century) are "sites" of imagined pride for the public construction of an identity which matters, influences people in other lands.

The British pay for this show which reinforces or validates class hierarchy, still an important element in cultural identity. Class is an important element in this show. Somehow (Hoggart talks about this) a delusion of intimacy is projected to individuals reading and watching and listening, and they fancy the significances they’ve gathered accrue to the totemic icon and its numinousness (iconic women is right) will rub off on them, includes them.

So there seems less hostilty to Camilla in the US and German media but just as much in Australian as it seems there is in the papers in England a hostility manifested by semi-resolute ignoring or downgrading the wedding ceremony.

I don’t know if we have a comparable figure for her in the US the way it’s not hard to establish that Marilyn Monroe and Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis were for Diana Spencer.

There is a figure in history whom the public seemed to resolutely hate from about the later 17th century on: Elizabeth I. I reviewed a book which included an essay the contradictory public response to the duo cultural phantom icons of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. I put the paragraph I devoted to this essay online and so will just copy and paste it here:

"Pam Perkins explains why by the mid-eighteenth-century
in European art the Catholic and sexually transgressive Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a political failure, and probably an accomplice to murder, was depicted as a model of exemplary femininity while (as her rival), the Protestant and apparently chaste Elizabeth I, successful on her own behalf, and an effective powerful leader on England’s behalf, was depicted as a seething sexually-frustrated Machiavellian.

Like Arbella Stuart and Lady Jane Grey (whose depiction Perkins also examines), Mary Stuart’s life could fit a stereotype which presented images of beautiful women coerced into renouncing power while they continued to wield it. Mary’s regalia of power endowed erotic interactions in which a beautiful woman submitted, resigned herself or despaired with glamorized importance. Elizabeth Tudor was too clearly powerful to be assimilated into such compensatory iconographies of victimhood. Her learning and unmarried state, which the majority of her audience would not identify with, were ostracized, and she became a grim projection of the miseries of unsubmissive women who do not aim to be loving wives.

Perkins suggests that the flexibility and incongruities of these myths reveals the "normative" demand for female desexualization, domesticity, and submission might not have been as "suffocatingly oppressive" as later critics have assumed (133).

The problem with Perkins’s argument is she neglects the role of Catholic propaganda, a century of Stuart power, and 18th century conservative Tory and anti-Jacobin reactionary politics. The sentimentalized Mary Stuart also stands in for Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette."

Hilary Rodham Clinton is our modern Elizabeth I: she arouses intense resentment because she is seen as really powerful, really wanting to and sometimes affecting change through her activities in the public world (she was a lawyer, she was an effective president’s wife. Instead of "feeling sorry" for her (we know what Austen would have said of such pretenses of sympathy), Bill Clinton’s promiscuity when brought out into public just created apparent glee and triumph—much the way Elizabeth’s supposed sexual rivalry which is presented as a failure against Mary Queen of Scots’s "beauty" creates seething glee in novels by writers from Sophia Lee to Scott to Schiller. There really is to pity here: no iconography of victimhood.

Diana Spencer ended in a spectacular display of victimhood.
She self-destructed extravagantly. She roused no resentment by intelligence, had no power. She made attractive gestures in public—or they are said to have been appealing. Whether she sought the publicity is irrelevant here.

She also combined modern feelings as like Elizabeth I she was a "projection of the miseries of unsubmissive women," but she again roused no envy, as she was so clearly a "victim" of
the Windsors, and the anorexia, bulimia (from which Mrs Theresa Schindler Schiavo went into a vegetative state from age 26 to 41), and fierce determination to be beautiful (if the stories of the weekly cleaning out of her colon are at all true—which they may not be). Nothing was beyond her to please in the Lacanian-
mode—as presented by the press.

Arthur Miller in his Timebends has a section on his second wife, Marilyn Monroe. He says she said she wanted to escape functioning as a public totem. At first he believed her, but after a while he saw she didn’t or couldn’t. Her rationale was this was the way she made money and got to make films. But the price was very high and the films awful. Further, like Parker-Bowles, she didn’t need the money.

At the time of writing Miller thought Monroe unable to resist the thrill and excitement of being paid attention to and also that it would have been superdifficult to stop the parade/show. She really would have had to retire like Garbo. And she had nothing to replace this way of functioning with: he says (in a phrase that really reminded me of Fanny Price on her sister, Susan, one I came across in Trollope’s South Africa recently), Monroe had not the habit of reading, of quiet doings in a routine way. All this prevented her from becoming the self she said she wanted to be or had it in her to be. As we know she ended a semi-suicide.

Since Parker-Bowles has no power nor any intellectual pretensions (though she’s been a submissive mistress, like
Clinton’s submissive wife who "stands by her man"—to quote Lyle Lovett’s famous song), it’s hard to know why she rouses resentment and dislike. It’s no good saying she is so obviously upper class. So was Diana Spencer. Elizabeth II is horse-y, surrounds hers elf with dogs; her mother (the "Queen Mum",) was treated as a benevolent figure by the press. Who could be more egregiously privileged than she? I know the stories about her suffering in WW2. She didn’t leave London. But it was a choice: oppressed groups are those who haven’t got good choices.

To say she’s not Diana is a no brainer but does lead us to why the nastiness. She’s not young and beautiful and she’s not apologizing for this. Camilla’s apparent refusal to try to please the public by trying to make herself attractive. It rouses resentment that she wears shapeless clothes, is not apparently anorexic or has never apparently been so. She’s really not a victim; there’s no compensatory iconography to identify with as beautiful victim to dream over. The Australian people quoted referred to her appearance sarcastically as they sneered at her using the word "fairy tale." Only young and beautiful women are allowed to be at the center of fairy tales. Camilla is at best the old aunt.

I would like to say that publicity can do terrible things to people only as I know nothing of what any of these four women felt or feel (only one now living) about such things (they may have thick-skins as Trollope would put it) I suppose I’m only expressing how I see the results and how I think (imagine) I might feel chased by hoards of people trying to make a buck. In truth these spectacles are sickening. The woman who appears to turn away gets a sneaking sympathy or admiration from me because I doubt she manages it and yet keeps at it.

I offer the idea that Monroe and Diana died young because they allowed themselves to be sucked into becoming a "sacred" totem —and that’s dangerous as witchdoctors know. Onassis had the strength to push it off.

I’m trying to think of a woman who has a public image and from what I can discern of her individual life seems to me admirable. It’s a tenuous thing which is only momentary but all I can come up with is Barbara Boxer, the California senator who voted against every chickenshit Democrat in the US senate to try to bring into public what actually happens in the 50 US elections that occur every four years. She too dressed dowdily—but then this kind of image (and it’s an image too) is socially unassailable and therefore what we find women appearing as in professional life (there’s a mocking term for the way women at conferences dress: "academic dowdy"). It’s an attempt to try to avoid being turned into a sex object, seen that way, mostly because when you’re older the public image will be one that is very hurtful to you.

How cruel the world is. How debased and debasing publicity. The recent sneering review in the Guardian of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Bronte which hit out at Bronte as "filthy, sex-obsessed" and Gaskell as "jealous, puritan, repressed" anjd Ali Smith’s on how dull and domestic are women novelists (of which she is of course not one) show is another aspect of how women are sold and can betray themselves therein.


Posted by: Ellen

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