Merry Widows and Gay Divorcees: Gender & Power in Marriage Narratives

After reading my friend & colleague Dr Jem Bloomfield’s post on Twelfth Night and “Mapp and Lucia”, which focused on the discomforts caused by sexual tension (or imagined sexual tension) between sets of people in social power relationships of inequality, I had some follow-up thoughts.  For Jem, the focus of these two narratives on “the potentially dangerous revealing of sexual desires, and the misreading of socially coded behaviour” was reminiscent of themes about widows in Early Modern literature.  Jem has written sagaciously on the way (rich) widows provided Early Modern writers a canvas on which to paint social anxieties about women escaping the patriarchal system and no longer having male household members to control their behaviour.
More than any sweeping truths concerning social anxieties about challenging the patriarchy, it probably speaks to our variances in taste that what his post most reminded me of was the Hollywood remarriage comedies of the 1930s and 40s.  There is a whole genre of these, but I’ll stick to one of my favourites, The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn and Carey Grant.
Jem raised the point that, while there are multiple levels upon which sexual power dynamics can be fraught, one which emerges in narratives which focus on relationships where the two principals are in a relationship of social inequality is the sense of inappropriateness or even absurdity that a woman in a position of power might be attracted to a man of lesser social status.  A large part of the humour in Olivia’s utter indifference to Malvolio’s attentions is due to the idea–why, the very idea!–that he might actually think a woman like her could fancy a man like him.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another good example, where the fairy queen Titiana actually is persuaded through trickery to abandon herself to a base infatuation with Bottom the Weaver, who has been transformed into an ass at the time: could the disjuncture between their two stations be more absurdly exaggerated?  To love that which is not your equal is not to be respectable. Equally, to love one who does not return your affections, especially if you are blind to it, puts you in a position of humiliation, just like poor old Malvolio. Just as the social stations of people in these narratives are fixed and unchanging, once the cat is out of the bag there is no going back: there is a power differential which can’t be returned to a more even balance (though in the examples I’m discussing they weren’t even to begin with.)
But there can be loss of face in remaining aloof as well: in The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn’s character Tracy is rebuked for being an ice goddess, a prig, a permanent spinster.  There is no glory in having others want her if she wants nobody.  Like the Early Modern widows, she is independently wealthy and has no economic need to marry nor to be under the control of male members of her household: indeed, she manifestly isn’t, having renounced her father and convinced her mother to do the same because of his suspected affair with a dancer.  But Tracy is criticised by her family for having inhumanly high social standards and for lacking in warmth, for all her sociable vivacity.  It is only when she abandons (some of) her conventional ideas on appropriate behaviour– her own appropriate behaviour–that the power relationships even out somewhat and her family comes together.Bizarrely (for the social mores of the time) it is by defying the sexual control of her fiancee that she is placed back in the bosom of her family and reunited with her father, who was initially cast out for his perceived indiscretions.  Though her reasons for bucking the norm are not necessarily what we might consider feminist: her desire for conventional acceptance as a wife, for a firm place in the culturally established power matrix, is revealed when she asks sheepishly if her fiancee minds that she has an ex-husband, that “he ever was [her] lord and master,” becoming upset when her fiancee says no, that he thinks she could never truly have a lord and master because she is so removed from earthly cares.  It is this that offends her: that she should be so far outside the system that nobody perceives her as a fallible woman with real desires, despite the fact that this might be an appealing ideal for many.

It seems to me that these stories hold a common thread by appearing to present women in powerful socioeconomic positions as being people who could throw off the shackles of patriarchy if they so wished, then undermining this premise and revealing them as still very much subject to the censure of home and hearth if they deign to pin their affections on an inappropriate object, or on none. Their economic independence cannot protect them from the social hegemonies that still govern their lives–which are often presented to these women as being their own desires, or as being where their natural desires should be leading them: Tracy should want to cheat on George the paragon of virtue, Lucia should want to consummate her close friendship with George physically. There is no escape from these desires being foisted upon them by others (thrust upon ’em?)

But for all that, who IS free of the constraints of social convention and familial power structures? We all must have something that links our behaviour, desires, and relationships to those of others. Would you have it otherwise? I am not saying that these relationships are unproblematic or that we should accept the status quo, but the picture of what an ideal negotiation of social power structures and personal desires might look like still eludes me. But I hardly think I am unique in that problem.