Monday, May 23, 2011

Why so repressed, darling?

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I think it's interesting the way that certain eras go in and out of vogue in films and literature. Steampunk has been on my radar since this January--yes, I know I'm slow, but don't dismiss me as terminally un-hip just yet. While I realize that steampunk is intentionally twisted historical fiction set in the Victorian era, it's still an aesthetic focused on all things Victorian: fashion, writing style, beliefs, conventions, technology (such as it was), etc.

Corsets CP à la SirèneOne prominent theme in anything associated with the Victorian era is the need to suppress all animal instincts associated with being human. Remember, we are talking about a time when some married couples were so uptight, they remained celibate throughout the marriage. In Four Souls by Louise Erdrich, one male character ends up suffering from a medical condition after years of having sex with his wife without ejaculating into her. I guess he was somehow reversing the normal flow of things. Blegh. Whatever they were doing, it wasn't working out well.

Then, there's the whole business of the oppressive fashion. Corsets. There is so much wrong with corsets. In the first place, the original ones were made from whale bone---ick. (That's another thing about the Victorian era: we were so determined to eliminate our own animal instincts, we set out to eliminate all the animals as well.) Don't get me wrong here. I love Victorian clothing, from a distance. I even made a Victorian costume back when I was a drama nerd and could sort of justify hiding away and doing that kind of thing all weekend. The dresses are very elaborate, detailed, and kind of fascinating, but they're not comfortable. I'm not as familiar with what men wore, but I don't think they had it much better than the ladies. However, men didn't need to wear corsets. I hear women complaining about the inhumanity of Spanx. At least Spanx can't pop out and poke through your ribs into your internal organs like a whale bone. Oh yes, that was a risk of the heavy underwear. Also, for the ladies who just couldn't achieve that tiny waste even with a corset, they opted to have a couple of ribs removed. Zowie!

Also, there was the whole obsession with polite society: things you don't do, think about or talk about. It sounds a lot like being in homeroom for life. Coincidentally, Sigmund Freud was whipping out a case of psychoanalytic badass right around that time and all the oppression yielded some interesting case studies when decades of oppression met talk therapy; lots of talk therapy.

Anyone familiar with the Case of Anna O? Talk about someone who was wound tighter than a clock.

freud_cigarIt's no wonder that some of the most famous literature from the period is all about otherwise good people struggling to gain control over their dark natures and tame their instincts and question whether or not we are even worthy of a Utopian society.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness indicates that he was dubious that we could swing that. Corruption, greed and insanity have a way of sneaking in. Even in The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Dr. Jeckyll was ultimately trying to make improvements on who he was, but the experiment backfired. In Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, freshly minted med student Dr. Frankenstein thinks he can conquer death if he has the right science. He also probably hopes he can conquer his own genetic makeup since he has the hots for a close relative, but that's probably just there for spice. Interestingly, in Frankenstein, the good doctor has to explore a lot of places and learn about a lot of things that proper young gentlemen of his class are not supposed to know about--street abortions for one thing. They had to make a fake womb for Frank. Guess what they put in it. Yep. Gross.