Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Consequences of No: #ByeFelipe and Victorian Refusal

Around this time last year, the hashtag #byefelipe emerged. This tag, and the instagram with the same name created by Alexandra Tweten, documented the way in which men instantly become angry, hostile, and threatening as soon as a woman rejects them - often, no matter how nicely. This behavior goes beyond virtual space - there are dozens of tragic stories of women who are attacked and murdered after refusing to give out a phone number or go on a date. In Detroit last year, Mary Spears was killed for refusing to give out her phone number to a strange man. If there was ever a sign that men feel absolutely, intensely entitled to women’s time, attention, and bodies, these murders are it. As there so often is, there is a racial component here as well: women of color face far higher rates of violence for saying no.

This is the scary stuff - the kind that many otherwise feminist men don’t fully grasp. There is real, tangible, looming threat of violence for saying no. One second you’re “so beautiful, baby, date me” but the second you say “no, thank you,” men can, and do, turn in an instant to wrathful, nasty, and violent. White women often receive “you’re fat and ugly and a bitch anyway” as a followup, whereas women of color have to deal with that and racist abuse.

Refusal in the America of 2015 has this miasma of male entitlement around it. We have to tread carefully, smile politely, say “I have a boyfriend” even if we don’t.

So I had to think about how women’s refusal was treated in that most misogynistic of time periods: The Victorian era. In particular, I’m going to look at Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, set in the 1870s, in this context.

Victorian women were living in a world where spousal rape was absolutely legal. Husbands could also essentially incarcerate their wives in their homes if they chose. In the Palliser books, Laura Kennedy, a wealthy and socially prominent woman, is threatened with this loss of freedom by her husband. He only chooses to leave her alone because people would gossip about their situation, but both the characters and the narrative acknowledge that he has every legal right to do so.

The pressure to get married was an intense theme in Victorian women’s lives. Choice and independence in marriage usually depended on being independently wealthy. Women lower on the socioeconomic ladder had far fewer choices available - especially if an interested man happened to be rich.

Despite all this, there is an ideal present in Victorian literature that men should continue to be friendly with women whom they once loved, and they should accept rejection “manfully” and kindly.

Violet Effingham, a young beauty in the novels, refuses her erstwhile lover Lord Chiltern, and he respects it - even though he’s a guy with a lot of anger and rude, abrupt manners. He states directly, “It’s unmanly to persecute a girl.” Lord Chiltern asks Violet to marry him numerous times, but does not abuse or insult her for her multiple refusals. Even the women in the novel state that it’s okay to propose more than once - as long as you remain friends - but once you’ve been like, “Miss Effingham, will you make the happiest of men and be my wife?” and she’s all “Seriously, dude, I cannot give you my heart,” you tend to leave her the heck alone. There is a social contract in place where suitors, even rejected ones, are not supposed to impugn the name of a lady or insult her.

The ideal for rejected suitors was that men should behave “manfully” and accept refusal. This is an ideal, though: it’s not always enforced. It also doesn’t fully respect a “no” - asking multiple times is hardly respectful.

It’s also important to note that this is operating in a context of white womanhood, which was treated as pure and worthy of protection. You can bet your best petticoat that British men in the colonies, for example, weren’t treating native women of color with any kind of respect for refusal or their personhood.

Keeping these caveats in mind, we still shouldn’t have to look all the way back to Victorian lit to find examples of men accepting refusal and continuing to be genuine friends with the women they pursued. It shouldn’t be a high-minded ideal to NOT heap abuse and hateful words because a woman turned you down for a date.  

In Trollope’s novels, we see rich male-female friendships. Women are political actors - when “our hero,” Phineas Finn, succeeds in winning office thanks to women’s influence, his lady friend tells him, “they’ll call you the women’s pet, but you mustn’t mind that.” His political office was still won fair and square. Most of Phineas’ friendships are with women, making him a highly sympathetic character. Women were the majority of the novel-reading audience, and creating a male character who was sympathetic to them, kind, and handsome, but with believable flaws and vulnerabilities, appealed to both women and men. In 1917, a critic said that "Anthony Trollope reveals an amazing insight into the love and the motive of woman. In this detail he has no equal in the whole catalogue of British male novelists, until we go as far back as Richardson. Trollope has an amazing comprehension of the young lady.”

Trollope’s women are genuine, fully rounded people - not the sentimental cardboard cutouts of many other writers of his time. They are forced to revolve around men, who are the only ones officially able to participate in public life, but they find ways to influence the greatest public issues and politics of their day.

Trollope shows women who are spirited, independent, and want a marriage with real love in it. They also want the right to change their mind, like Violet Effingham - who does eventually decide to marry Lord Chiltern - and remain friends with men whom she had rejected. Violet had “a peculiar gift for that friendly intimacy” with jilted lovers. Sounds like a lot of emotional work,  but she was able to operate under the expectation that a refusal didn’t equal automatic abuse.

This nuanced portrayal of women was accepted with cheering approval by the reading public, suggesting it rang true for most readers. Trollope enjoyed popularity on par with Dickens in his time, despite a slight falling-off in the later years of his life.

Trollope wrote some of the most popular novels of the 19th century, depicting ideals of behavior that demanded politeness and had no space for abusing women who refused. There’s plenty to leave behind in the Victorian era, but men could learn from this basic concept, and extend real courtesy to ALL women - whether they say yes or no.

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