Mr. and Mrs. Bull: the Performance of Gender in British Eighteenth Century cartoons
We know the prints are there – they are oh so useful for illustration purposes, and to show undergraduates that our time period is interesting and perhaps even risqué … (the windy maids)
Art historians have written some about them, together with paintings, showing how they fit into the shift from history painting to lower subjects, representing broader segments of the population, but with no real focus on the historical information available. Historians use the pictures to, but mostly just to illustrate a particular point, reading them as transparent historical artifacts. I am not sure that is a good idea. Just the other week someone was making a statement about needlewomen being prostitutes and that was a well-known fact in the 19th century (coz there was this novelist who made some aside about it). Someone else pointed out that it was a common belief, or gossip, that needlewomen were prostitutes – the facts we have available do not necessarily support the claim. So, what I propose to tell you about today is not what people actually did, but rather what kind of conceptual – visual – language they were using to gossip with, what recognizable stereotypes might have been at the time. I believe understanding these frameworks will help me use images better in the bigger project I am working on.
I started looking at this to find out how one particular woman in the public arena was seen, and found that in addition to the written diary notes, discussion in letters and reviews or gossip in various journals there were also satirical prints of this woman – and the prints were used as if transparent, as if the portrayal of this one woman in the prints could tell us how she was seen without any further references. I decided that I needed to know more, that I needed to understand the language used in these prints, what the subtexts were, and this paper is the result of my explorations so far.
A little background;
From the Italian caricaturas – Leonardo’s grotesqueries – Dutch prints –
Some of the people:
William Hogarth (1697 - 1746) (Yale Lewis Walpole)
James Gillray (1756-1815) (Bucknell U, Brown U – also books)
Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) (Boston Public L, Huntington)
Henry William Bunbury (1750-1811)
Hubert-François, Gravelot (1699-1773) mostly book work – France-England-France
the outside as a reflection of moral standing (crooked nose meant something about your soul) - not accepted as art but as amusement, acceptable because it was a corrective of folly, and as time wore on, as elegant wit and a particular British genre
Rarely censored, partly people bought up the edition if they disliked it, partly it was considered silly to respond – you should grin and bear it as an innocent joke.
Initially separate images sold in stores in different parts of town (on the gender issue – several female print publishers (Mrs. Humphrey (Gillray’s publisher), Mary Daly, etc). People bought prints – individually or by subscription, rented print collections over the weekend, went to the publisher’s gallery or looked for free in the window.
Audience? Often seriously allegorical so only literate folks could follow all the details, but there were broader strokes for lower class folks.
What I have looked for is:
How and where are men and women portrayed in the prints? What sort of women and men are they, are there images with both genders, or mostly separate?
What kinds of environments are people shown in – private, public, political?
Images that are ABOUT gender, gender roles and gender relations?
What do they say (what describes good gender, bad gender, confusion)?
Images that USE gender to describe something else – what McKeon describes as concentration narratives.
How is gender used here (look at the peace image – where napoleon is an effeminate man and George a woman coz they are doing the suitor thing)
Named individuals versus types?
Although cartoons are commonly used as illustrations of the political debate in British eighteenth-century studies, and the satirical depictions of women in those cartoons are regularly used as examples of assumed negative attitudes toward women, surprisingly little work has been done on how gender is actually presented and performed in the images.
There are rich sources to draw from, thousands of cartoons that depict men and women representing actual people as well as muses, virtues, and nations. In some the gender is not a matter of choice, only the way that gender is portrayed is negotiable, in other cartoons the gender is part of the message and gendered characteristics are used to define the people or situations portrayed.
In this paper I explore what kinds of meanings were assigned to gender characteristics. By looking at the words and visual gestures used to portray gender, I delineate the specifics of how gender expectations are revealed and negotiated in the images and accompanying texts. I also use the cartoons to investigate how transgressions of expected gendered behavior are portrayed, what meanings are assigned to such transgressions, and what the implied consequences, if any, are.
Finally, I look at how gender characteristics and expectations are used symbolically to represent other ideological contests, where gendered attributes are descriptive tools, not messages in themselves.
My paper is part of a larger study of how female non-fiction writers in the eighteenth century represented themselves as authoritative voices in the public sphere. I am particularly concerned with how female authors negotiated the matter of their gender in their construction and presentation of self and how their audience, their readers, responded to these constructions. Women who ventured into the public sphere at this time had to structure their public persona within the available discourse on gender, and women like the historian Catharine Macaulay were frequently seen referred to or directly satirized in cartoons. Mapping out the visual rhetorical landscape will demonstrate some of the possible strategies available in the construction and negotiation of a female public voice as well as tell us something of the disconnect between gendered characteristics as conceptual tools and gender as reified categories of understanding.