(Re)Imagining the Past: Shifting Frameworks of Then
What ontological truth is relied on in this popular narrative? What implicit ideas about gender, gendered bodies, and sexual desirability and practice are (re)produced? I am struck first by how blame is located in the person/psyche of John rather than Effie. In contrast to a long tradition in which women’s sexuality has been located as blameworthy (e.g. in sexual assault and rape), here it is John’s failure to respond that is in need of explanation—he is a failed husband. In contrast, Effie’s body occupies an ontologically unquestioned status—its desirability is not in doubt. Effie is not faulted for her hirsute state: neither her account to her father nor the popular theory suggests that she ought to change her body to conform to John’s aesthetic preferences. Effie is not positioned as a failing/bad wife or woman. But this is not some feminist utopia: the narrative does rely on very traditionally gendered constructions of male and female bodies and sexuality, where women are positioned as the recipients of male sexual action, rather than active contributors to a sexual encounter—just ‘lie back and think of England’. John’s fault relies on us understanding him as the agent of sexuality and that particular sexual encounter. With Effie’s embodied presence assumed naturally to excite male passion, she is situated as a passive object, the waiting recipient of John’s active sexuality. These paired constructions render Effie both passive and faultless, and John blameworthy for his lack of action. We find familiar echoes of this story in contemporary western renderings of heterosex, including a trenchant sexual double standard meaning heterosex remains profoundly gendered (Farvid, Braun and Rowney in press). But it has major unfamiliarities, too, and we can use these to undo certain representations and positionings that have come to occupy places of truth. So what might the John and Effie story look like, in 2016?